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Economic Crisis in Suriname Threatens Ecological Eden

Alternatives to logging require international support

AN economic and ecological powder keg is about to blow in the tiny country of Suriname on South America's northeastern coast.

Formerly known as Dutch Guiana, Suriname gained independence in 1975, and it has faced international political isolation for years. Its international trade is negligible, its manufacturing and industrial infrastructures are atrophied, and foreign aid is virtually nonexistent. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy.

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The ironic setting for this crisis is a country with extraordinary natural riches. About the size of New England, the Republic of Suriname claims the highest remaining percentage of tropical rain forest of any country on earth, at 90 percent. Most of the country's 400,000 people live in the capital city, Paramaribo, and small coastal towns. The forest of the interior remains virtually undisturbed, offering an unusually clean slate for conservation and tremendous opportunities for sustainable development.

The country's unique cultures also depend on the forest for their survival. Suriname is the only place in the New World where tribal communities of African origin, known as Maroons, have kept their traditional West African lifestyles intact. Six distinct Maroon tribes live in the interior forests. Seven native Indian tribes also maintain traditional lifestyles there. The Indians and Maroons possess extensive knowledge of the value of forest plants as foods, fibers, medicines, and other products.

For centuries, these people have lived in the forest without harming it. Now, under the duress of a mounting economic crisis, the Surinamese government has opened the door to wealthy foreign loggers.

The proposed logging concessions, if executed, would wipe out nearly a quarter of the country's forest cover over the next 25 years. The logging companies originally wanted twice that amount.

In November, Suriname asked the United States government for technical assistance in handling the concessions. Experts from Harvard Law School, the US Forest Service, and nongovernmental groups participated in a series of US State Department missions to analyze the draft logging contracts. They concluded that the contracts have so many loopholes that Suriname would make only a small fraction of the anticipated revenue. In the most likely scenario, Suriname would get only $2 million annually for 25 years, compared with upward of $28 million for the loggers.

Shouldn't Suriname have a choice? Where is the international community -- a community supposedly outraged by rain forest destruction and the consequences for local people, global biodiversity, and climate change?

International financial assistance is imperative to allow Suriname to begin development for lasting economic security and to maintain healthy natural resources. The InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) is one potential source for immediate assistance. IDB President Enrique Iglesias has already become involved. Now, international backing is needed for a proposed IDB fund for Suriname.

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With adequate financing, an obvious alternative to tearing down the forests could be to promote them through tourism. Costa Rica earns some $500 million a year from tourism. In fact, tourism was a significant source of income for Suriname just 20 years ago. With some assistance, environmental tourism can compete with logging and be a stable source of revenue.

Another economic opportunity with great promise is bioprospecting -- the search for sources of medicines and other products derived from the forest. The government, local people, and a Suriname pharmaceutical company have been linked by Conservation International to the US pharmaceutical firm Bristol Myers Squibb. Under the agreement, local people benefit from an established Forest People's Fund. In turn, their knowledge of the rain forest helps the search for potential medicines. Royalties from even one new plant-derived drug would dwarf logging money, without taking down trees.

Suriname may be a small country, but what is happening there sends an enormous message. The world cannot sit by and let the forests in Suriname come down in the business-as-usual manner that so many tropical developing nations have already experienced.

It's time to draw the line, to reject neocolonial co-opting of the assets of poor countries by wealthy countries, and to make sustainable development a valid opportunity for Suriname.

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