Suriname is located within the Guiana Shield, a region that encompasses one of the areas with the highest biodiversity in the world and contains large extensions of uninterrupted and intact primary tropical forest. Due to its huge capacity to absorb CO2, the region plays an important role in global climate stability. More than 94% of the country’s surface is covered by rainforest, reason why Suriname has been sometimes referred to as the greenest country on Earth. In addition, Suriname barely emits greenhouse gases. And yet, ironically enough, the country is particularly vulnerable to the threats of climate change, among other reasons due to its low-lying coastal zone where most of the population is concentrated. However, rather than an obstacle, this unfortunate circumstance could be turned into a promising opportunity through Sustainability, which eventually could not only give an answer to the climate change threats, but also to many other critical development challenges.
Figure 1. Aerial view of the Surinamese rainforest. Author: Roger Sallent
Suriname is rich in natural resources, including bauxite, gold, oil, timber, fish or shrimps. But unfortunately, this wealth has promoted short-term based development patterns heavily dependent on extractive industries, which have been detrimental to the progress of other sectors and have increased the exposure of the country to the volatility of commodity markets. Furthermore, mining and logging activities are increasing the pressure on the environment and are also impacting the traditional and sustainable ways of living of the indigenous peoples. A good example of it is the small-scale gold mining, which is causing deforestation and an alarming mercury contamination of waterways, the cornerstone of local’s traditional lifestyle in the interior of Suriname.
Figure 2. Aerial view of small gold mining activities along a river in the interior (left) and small gold mining pit (right). Author: Roger Sallent
The COP21 of Paris is nothing else than the confirmation that humankind’s mindset change towards sustainability is the only possible strategy to embrace if we care about the future generations. Now is clearer than ever before: there is no alternative. In this context, Suriname has a tremendous responsibility in terms of conservation, since it is in the interest of the entire planet to preserve its natural heritage. But at the same time, this comes with a huge opportunity for the region to promote a change of development paradigm, taking into account the international momentum towards sustainability as well as the increased interest from multilateral organizations to support and finance such transformation.
Sustainability, understood in its broader definition, could potentially become the backbone of a new long-term development strategy for Suriname. Under the sustainability umbrella, the following economic sectors could be supported as part of an integral and coherent approach:
- Deforestation rates are still low in the country, which gives the opportunity to take the lead in the implementation of sustainable forestry management best practices before it is too late. By doing so, the region can profit from an increased added value to its timber exportations, while at the same time benefit from initiatives such as REDD+ and gain international visibility by promoting the relevant role of the region’s forests as carbon stock.
- Extractive industries play a critical role in Suriname that cannot be easily avoided or substituted. However, there is room for improvement in good governance, transparency, responsible management of the revenues and the minimization of social and environmental externalities. Suriname is highly dependent on the income derived from the extractive industries, and it has suffered the consequences of fluctuating commodity markets. This context, combined with the environmental and social impacts that the sector has originated, should encourage the country to promote best international practices and become an international reference in the exploitation of natural resources in a responsible manner.
- Suriname has an enormous potential to use sustainable energy sources based on solar, wind, biomass or biofuels which would diversify the energy matrix and could eventually lead to a higher level of energy self-sufficiency, thus decreasing the dependence on imported fossil fuels with volatile prices. On the other hand, Suriname has one of the highest energy consumptions per capita in the Latin America and Caribbean Region, and therefore offers a good opportunity to establish a new economic sector focused on energy efficiency. There is no greener energy than the one that is not consumed.
- Urban settlements in Suriname are still small compared to the Latin American region, which presents the opportunity to direct the urban growth introducing good urban planning practices from an early stage. The existing public transportation network can be improved and alternative transportation modalities such as walking and biking can be promoted given the small size of the cities and their flatness. In addition, the current construction sector offers areas of improvement in the fields of energy efficiency and green building practices, which can boost new economic sectors that in turn would result in energy and money savings for the population.
Figure 3. Aerial view of Paramaribo city. Author: Roger Sallent.
- Agriculture and Fishery. Agriculture and fishing sectors could benefit from product differentiation by adding value with sustainable practices. The increasing demand for healthy, environmentally friendly and socially responsible products is a market niche that Suriname could embrace. The use of internationally recognized certifications could benefit farmers and fisheries with an increased presence in international markets, by centering the attention on how to achieve added value. These practices would also improve the perception of the country’s population on local products compared to the imported ones, thus improving the trade balances.
- Cultural heritage. Suriname is probably one of the culturally and ethnically most diverse countries in the globe. Amerindians, Afro-Americans, Maroons and descendants from several Asian territories live side by side in a great example of peaceful coexistence. This richness is currently not protected or promoted, making it unnoticed to the outside world. A responsible management of the cultural heritage in the region could easily become a successful case to be exported to other regions, and in addition, it can promote other sectors such as the tourism. On the other hand, indigenous land rights enforcement could play a critical role in the development of the interior, in addition, to promoting environmental protection or climate change mitigation.
Figure 4. Traditional maroon houses in the village of Gouyave, at the Upper Suriname River. Author: Roger Sallent.
- In general terms, Suriname cannot compete with the attractive crystalline beaches of their neighboring Caribbean countries, so it is obvious that the tourism strategy cannot be the same. Instead, the country could focus on eco-tourism in which nature, cultural heritage, and sustainability values would be the core attractions.
- The small population in the country makes difficult for higher educational centers to offer all the opportunities of larger countries. However, the focus could be on encouraging those disciplines that can make a difference for the nation. The unique characteristics of Suriname are the best environment to shape great professionals in all the specific sectors described above. This could turn the current need of skilled personnel into an eventual future in which the Surinamese professionals would export their know-how and successful strategies to other countries in the world with similar needs.
In addition to the obvious environmental benefits and the certainty that the sectors above will remain available for future generations, some of the additional benefits of putting into practice such a cross-cutting sustainable strategy would be the creation of new economic sectors and jobs, the promotion of specialized research, the diversification of the economy, the decrease of external dependence, new investment and financial opportunities, and the establishment of a clear vision that can guide the development direction in the long term. This strategy could not only bring global attention and recognition but would also become a reason of pride for the local population by adopting its very own development strategy, far from the old extractive-based strategies inherited from colonial times.
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