Environmental Solutions Come Slowly
- South America, Suriname
The greatest environmental problem that threatens my site, the Suriname Rain Forest Nature Park, is illegal gold mining. Not only do Brazilians and Guyanese mine gold throughout the interior rain forests of Suriname, but also many local villagers have come to depend on gold mining activities for their livelihood. Its fiscal returns come quickly, but at great environmental costs.
Gold mining has existed in the Suriname rain forest for several decades. Traditionally, the Nature Park management has disregarded the mining because it was conducted by small-time miners who used simple panning methods. But in the past five years, Brazilian gold miners have entered the region, bringing with them intensive mining methods that rely upon heavy machinery and hazardous chemicals.
It may take decades for the rain forest to recover from the damage caused by mining, especially given the incredible amount of erosion caused by the machinery.
This machinery diverts the flow of water from creeks and rivers. Stagnant pools of water form, upsetting the watershed drainage. In addition, mercury—a metal used by the miners—pollutes this water. While it is not widely reported, the incidence of miscarriages and child deformities is increasing in villages downstream from these mines.
While some policy analysts might suggest a hard and quick method for evacuating all miners from the Nature Park, this is not a solution. Such a drastic measure would cause a village backlash against the park and its workers, and it is absolutely critical that good relations be maintained for the ultimate protection of the nature reserve. Also, throwing out the miners doesn't address the larger social issue: the lack of job opportunities within the villages.
For these reasons, the park management has sought an alternative approach. The park rangers meet with key officials in the village weekly in order to discuss the goals of the park and the concerns of the villagers. Rangers also distribute educational materials to the villagers. The purpose of these materials is to clarify the importance of the park's presence as a breeding sanctuary for game animals that the villagers depend on for meat, and as a watershed catchment that they depend on for drinking water. There is a plan to expand this educational outreach in order to emphasize the ecological and social consequences of gold mining, such as the hazardous use of mercury.
These efforts have proven to be highly successful. Local villagers now report nonlocal miners to the Nature Park management. They have also agreed to cease mining activities within the Nature Park at a given date and to assist in the park's maintenance.
My experience here has been eye-opening. The park management has shown me how to effect positive, sustainable change through cooperation and compromise. I have learned the value of working at the grass-roots level; the importance of patience and persistence in achieving goals; and the benefits of addressing the core of a problem rather than focusing on peripheral matters.