Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part II: Root causes and predation


Paul Mutsaers


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Paul Mutsaers, Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, The Netherlands. This post is the second post of a three-part themed series, entitled 'Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield'. You can find the first post here


In a country where people decreasingly trust each other and the ethnic card is played in the blink of an eye, the root causes of the downward spiral tend to drift out of sight. Most people that  my students and I have spoken with are vividly aware of—but don’t have the time, energy or risk-mentality to seriously protest against—the main cause: a predatory political economy based on energy resources and mineral extractions (mainly gold), which is dominated by the toxic combination of multinationals and corrupt politicians. The natural riches of the Guiana shield are immense, regardless of whether one takes an extractive or protective stance towards nature; prioritizing gold mining, logging and oil drilling in the first case or a green economy based on different values in the second. With rich soils and over 95% of land covered by ancient rainforest, the people of Suriname could be far more affluent than they currently are in brown, gold and green economy scenarios.  

Unfortunately, an economy that would run on the preservation instead of the exploitation of the Amazon through, for example, carbon credits, is likely to remain utopian for a long time to come In the meantime, the Amazon is suffering within Suriname’s borders due to the obsession with the Sranan gowtu, the Surinamese gold. A quick look at the website of the Amazon Conservation Team suffices to make it patently clear that the ‘greenest country on earth’ advertisement at Suriname’s only international airport (Zanderij) is bound to become problematic with the current pace of deforestation. The ancient rainforest is quickly making way for gold mines and their muddy pools of toxic wastes like mercury and cyanide. In most cases, these areas have become battlegrounds where the security forces of multinationals like Newmont and IAMGOLD clash with artisanal Maroon miners, the descendants of runaway enslaved people who escaped from the Dutch plantations centuries ago and established independent communities in Suriname’s interior. 

This, in fact, brings us to another level of border crime, which arguably does much more damage than any individual road bandit could ever do. It is the sort of crime that  Ugo Mattei and Laura Nader would have in mind when writing about the illegality or ‘dark side’ of the rule of law, as discussed in their book Plunder (2008). To understand this, it is important to realize that the mining areas, now morphed into centres of multinational profit making, historically belong to the Maroon people. These peoplesigned peace treaties with the Dutch colonial authorities in the 1760s, after more than a century of guerilla warfare and numerous plantation raids. The Maroons—who fought for their freedom and sovereignty—were so successful that they forced the Dutch to grant them autonomous space in the country’s vast interior. For centuries, they left the landscape intact and refused to view it as a resource for profit-making—a white man’s business they fiercely resisted. Theirs was a life guided by what the anthropologist Stuart E. Strange calls ‘interspecies responsibility.’  

From the 1960s onward, however, that space has been increasingly invaded by the forces of predatory capital, a history that has best been described by Richard and Sally Price in books like Rainforest Warriors and Maroons in Guyana, and that has culminated in the present gold fever. After the civil war (1986-92) between the government army and Maroon forces, Maroons were forced to sign a treaty that settled rights to land, minerals, and other natural resources, which fully belong to the Suriname state ever since (Maroons in Guyana). Under the banner of development, multinationals headquartered in the United States, Canada, and China have been granted concessions, allowing them to open large-scale mines within the embattled borders of Maroon territory after sham consultations with Maroon people and false promises of community development allegedly resulting in a ‘social license to operate.’ How seriously such a license should be taken becomes clear from an exemplary statement by a Pamaka community member, who told a member of our research team (Susan Oberndorff, anthropology student at Radboud University) that the U.S. multinational Newmont came to his area with ‘guns, soldiers, police, even ambulances and hearses.’ Private-public ‘strong-arm tactics of multinational corporations’, to borrow from the Prices’ Maroons in Guyana, force Maroons into becoming an urban underclass with very little prospects. 

Such a land grab and the concomitant expulsion of Maroons from their ancient lands, after all, turn interior Maroon villages into ghost towns and Paramaribo’s peripheries into poor conglomerations of displaced Maroons. Sunny Point is a conglomeration like that. During fieldwork there in the spring of 2023, I regularly spoke with a group of young men (pictured below) selling street-corner food to get through the day. Most of these guys had been chased away from their ancestors’ lands and had been frustrated in their efforts to earn a buck in small-scale mining. ‘These guys only go for the quick money and don’t really want to work for it,’ a creole police officer told me at a station nearby. Such statements show the further construction of ethnic boundaries that distract people from the real problem: the plundering done by companies like Newmont that actually make the money, with all the environmental risk-taking involved. While Newmont reported 723 million US dollar total revenue generated for its Merian gold mine in eastern Suriname in 2022, filling a gas tank in April 2023 nearly costed an average monthly salary due to the country’s hyperinflationary economy.   

Photo of six men standing under a tent, posing for the camera
Maroons in Sunny Point, surviving in the city margins. Photo by Eline Vermeulen (anthropology student) 

Maroons who occasionally go back to the interior for small-scale mining when they have saved enough money for the expensive equipment, are facing risks of a very different kind. Raitjes, for example, who is pictured above (second from the right) told me about the hazards in small-scale goldmining: ‘It’s dangerous work man. Sometimes dynamite is being used,’ he says while sitting in the passenger seat while I drive to a studio where we’re planning to record some music to get away from the daily misery. When I ask about the possibility of conflict in the mining areas, he continues: ‘Yes, it’s very hard. If a new place is discovered, the big players always come first. They have the equipment. And when a place is taken, it’s very hard to participate’. Consequently, ever more dangerous constructions are being built in a desperate attempt to find something. Just recently, a ramshackle open gold pit collapsed, killing 14 people in the Brokopondo area.  


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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

P. Mutsaers. (2024) Themed Series: Land Grab and Border Criminality in the Guiana Shield. Part II: Root causes and predation . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2024/01/themed-series-land-grab-and-border-criminality-guiana-0. Accessed on: 17/04/2024


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