Science - January 8, 2004

Loggers stuck in the mud of Surinam rainforest

Located in the Amazon basin, 90% of the surface area of Surinam is still covered with the most pristine rainforest on earth. Forestry student Linda van der Valk went in search of signs of illegal logging. “As far as nature conservation goes, it is good that the roads are so bad, as this prevents heavy illegal exploitation of the forest.”

Van der Valk visited the former Dutch colony for the first time last year. Following news in the media in recent years about illegal logging activities in the Surinam rainforest, she decided to investigate this for her MSc thesis, together with fellow student Anne Kruft. They checked the quality of the forestry surveillance system and interviewed as many people as possible who are involved in forestry: government officials, local and foreign companies as well as people working for environmental NGOs like WWF. The system for illegal logging inspection seems to be adequate, the students concluded. It was been developed in accordance with the rules drawn up by the FAO, based on worldwide experience of institutional developments in forestry. “Every tree is numbered, the felling location is registered and independent advisors and surveyors check for illegal activities. There are incidental reports of illegal activities, but large-scale illegal logging is unlikely.”

In addition to the inspection that takes place, Van der Valk points to a large practical obstacle for illegal loggers: the notoriously bad infrastructure of Surinam. She saw it at close hand, on her trips inland by jeep. Van der Valk: “The small network of muddy roads inland does not make it easy for illegal loggers. Even in official logging zones, I saw loggers get stuck with their machines and trucks in the mud. Also, the rivers are largely unnavigable for ships, and too shallow and rocky for transporting logs.”

At the moment, the Surinamese government has reserved a limited area for logging. “Large concessions are now in the hands of speculators hoping to sell these at a profit, but there are problems. Logging and export of timber remain a relatively small part of the national economy,” says Van der Valk. The biggest exporters are the foreign companies, mainly of Chinese origin. The reason that foreign companies have such a big share of the forestry export sector is the lack of a healthy financial market in Surinam. It is almost impossible for local companies to invest in new technologies or to market new timber species. The adverse investment climate also hinders the introduction of sustainable forest management system such as FSC or its local equivalent the Celos Management System that was developed through a joint Wageningen-Surinam programme in the 1970s.

The timber companies are active in official logging zones, where Indian tribes and Creole communities live, for example along the upper Surinam River. The various forest communities are not well organised, worries Van der Valk. “There are more than five Indian tribes, each speaking their own language. Communication in the area is done by radio and therefore almost impossible with the language differences. When there are protests against logging or other activities in the forest, it is often just one tribe and other tribes may even disagree. They cannot make one fist.” NGOs helping these Indians to organise themselves could make a difference, Van der Valk thinks.

Apart from logging, she actually worries more about pharmaceutical companies trying to 'steal' medicinal herbs and plants from the rainforest. And she finds it sad that the largest exporting company in Surinam is an American company, operating large bauxite mines. “Surinamese people earn little from these activities and Americans are getting rich.” Living for several months in Surinam, she developed a warm feeling for the Surinamese, who are living in quite miserable economic conditions.

There is a positive development though in Surinam, and that is ecotourism, believes Van der Valk. Responsible tour operators are organising trips into the rainforest, showing tourists the tremendous wealth in biodiversity that still exists in this part of the Amazonian basin. Van der Valk does not expect this to turn into mass tourism in the near future, which would put the natural diversity of Surinam at risk. “As long as no white beaches are made, this is not likely to happen. Something like that would attract large numbers of tourists, resulting in the construction of mega hotels. A walk along the Surinam coast reveals only grey muddy beaches, not very attractive to the typical tourist.” |
Hugo Bouter

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