- - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Suriname, nestled on the northeastern coast of South America, is a small country with huge conservation ambitions. It sits atop the ancient Guiana Shield formation which stores approximately 10-15 percent of the global freshwater supply and which is covered with rich Amazonian rainforest.

Recognizing the global importance of these resources, Conservation International (CI), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) are working towards a broader understanding of how indigenous people view conservation.

“If we take note that the indigenous people have been able to live in and with the forests for centuries, then we would be foolish not to listen and learn from our first inhabitants of Suriname,” says CI Suriname Country Director, John Goedschalk. He goes on to explain, “They have shown us they know how to preserve the forest, while using it for shelter, food, water and cultural activities.”

A multidisciplinary team, spearheaded by social scientists, travelled to indigenous villages across the South, which are only accessible by canoe or small plane. There they were able to engage in discussions with communities about what the global term ‘conservation’ means to them, how they describe their relationship with the environment and how they envision a sustainable future.

With the help of interactive tools provided by the team, community leaders were able to lead local discussions about sustainable development in their own languages.

As a part of this process, communities were able to map different habitats and indicate the whereabouts of self-defined important areas including villages, hunting and fishing areas, agricultural lands, locations for extraction of traditional medicines, logging, cemeteries and cultural activities. Moreover, the villagers could share their fears and name the most important threats to their traditional ways of living.

Laurens Gomes, Country Manager for WWF Guianas, explains, “Indigenous people believe they borrow the land from their grandchildren. In fact, we, as a country, ought to be doing the same. This government has a serious focus on trying to preserve important parts of our forests and protect our river’s headwaters, and so I am confident we will find a Surinamese way to deal with conservation in the interest of all our peoples.”

The engagement with communities is a critical element of a broader South Suriname Project to do just that and with the eventual aim of safeguarding the headwaters of Suriname’s most important rivers. The project is already well underway with local community meetings in six different villages in the South taking place. At the same time, people in the more-populated coastal area, including civil society, the business community and government, are being engaged in discussions, trying to create common ground for each other’s views to forge agreement on future steps.

“We are a small nation of only 542,000 people, we know our indigenous peoples were here first and there is a general respect towards their traditional ways of living. But at the same time our country is rapidly evolving,” says John Goedschalk.

Suriname’s largest industries are gold mining and oil refining, constituting around 36 percent of the government’s annual budget. “But this must be considered as short term revenue, we need to be learning how to take care of our next generations. I think indigenous knowledge and experience combined with research, will hand us the key towards an inclusive and effective conservation policy that balances the need for economic growth with the desire to retain our natural heritage.”

The South Suriname Project is undertaking research to identify the critical headwaters, to better understand freshwater production, distribution and demand as well as the threats of land use and climate change on Suriname’s fresh water system.

The ultimate goal is to make a compelling case to have approximately 2 million hectares of pristine tropical forest (an area roughly the size of New Jersey), and the headwaters of Suriname’s rivers, formally protected. This area will act as a conservation corridor linking up with protected areas in neighboring Brazil and French Guyana. Moreover, the team is developing a financial mechanism to allow this long-term conservation effort to be self-supporting.

Said Laurens Gomes, “Water is life and our goal is to protect the nation’s water, land and forests for the benefit of all the peoples of Suriname and for the good of their children, and the world.”

This article was produced in conjunction with The Washington Times International Advocacy Department.

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