Adjuma Kondre, SURINAME —Alcoa has a lot of cleaning up to do around this village on the edge of one of the world’s great rainforests, according to Wilma Prika, the hamlet’s ceremonial captain.
On this hot March day, a neighbor fishes the Coermotibo River in his canoe, spear in hand and a machete handy. But fishing, hunting and gardening are hard with hundreds of acres of stony, bauxite-red plains just beyond a fringe of forest. Like the topsoil washed away by mine runoff, the natural foundations of life here have eroded, and Capt. Prika doesn’t think the village has gotten much in return.
Yes, her house — like numerous others in the village — has a red roof and a spigot, both supplied, she said, by the aluminum company which for years dug bauxite — aluminum’s ore — from the surrounding hills. But many turns of the spigot yield no water.
Alcoa “made a lot of money from this mountain,” the captain said, in the Sranan Tongo language, translated by Berryl Tempo. And how did Adjuma Kondre fare? “I am actually ashamed that this is my village.”
Alcoa subsidiary Suralco, which stopped mining here in 2015, said the flanks of the village will be green again. Throughout Suriname, strip-mined areas will be developed or reforested, and “red mud lakes” of refinery waste will become green energy sites.
The company has publicly estimated the cost of its pullout at $224 million, to be shared with business partner Alumina Limited.
However, Rudi Dilip Sardjoe, a Paramaribo businessman heading the government commission negotiating the terms of Alcoa's departure, said the government thinks the bill will be $325 million. “Alcoa has said, ‘Don't worry: Since we are under the American [environmental] standard, if it costs $500 million, or it costs $1 billion, we will do that,’" he said.
"We will clean up according to the best practices in the world. That is what we have told the government," said Ruben Halfhuid, managing director of Suralco, who is overseeing Alcoa’s pullout from a country it reshaped over a century of mining and refining.
Among other things, the company is paying women to replant mined areas with cassava, a staple food that can lay the groundwork for reforestation. An Alcoa spokesman wrote in response to questions that “appropriate funds have been reserved” to cover all cleanup costs.
A conservation organization, though, is pushing the company to commit to a number and make up for a century of mining, including the flooding of jungle land.
For her part, Capt. Prika would love to see a mixture of housing and restored forest above Adjuma Kondre. She’d settle for running water and electricity, so the village wouldn’t have to rely on rain, a sullied river, a gas generator and notebook-sized solar cells.
She realizes she has little say. “They take out the money and leave us with this.”
Trees cover more than 90 percent of Suriname, considered the most densely forested country in the world. The World Wildlife Fund has called this northern section of South America "a unique ecosystem which plays a critical role in mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity, regulating enormous volumes of freshwater" and sheltering jungle cultures.
The landscape is increasingly scarred by logging and gold mining, adding to the strip-mine lacerations and caustic-residue burns left by the aluminum production.
A 2015 report by the consulting firm Environmental Resource Management, hired by the government of Suriname, found that Alcoa’s operations resulted in cyanide, fluoride and mercury in the groundwater and swamps around the mothballed refinery in Paranam. The area includes two lakes — the largest covers about a square mile — of "red mud,” a corrosive, useless slurry of oxidized metals and silicone left over from bauxite refining.
Mr. Halfhuid said the company can ensure that the red mud doesn’t leak into waterways and wants to see a “solar project” atop the lakes. Alcoa declined to detail the project.
The company also has "about 1,000 hectares [2,500 acres] of non-rehabilitated, mined-out land" near Adjuma Kondre, according to Akash Nendlal, a manager for environmental, health, safety and security with Alcoa’s subsidiary. That will take years to repair. “We do about 100 hectares per year of revegetation,” he said, “but we can easily bring this up to 200, 300 hectares per year.”
BAUXITE MUD PITS
These "red mud" lakes consist of oxidized metals that were a result of bauxite mining. The largest ones can be easily seen in satellight imagary of Suriname.
Alcoa’s cleanup plans are negotiable, because Suriname has no comprehensive environmental law.
The country’s National Assembly has urged that Alcoa's cleanup "is to be done in conformity with the rules and regulations of the concerned Surinamese authorities, international standards, the rules of the U.S.A., the rules of the state of Pennsylvania [and] Delaware” where Alcoa is formally incorporated.
Alcoa itself, though, may have set the highest bar, writing in its 2015 Sustainability Report that it had "an aspirational goal to provide a net positive impact on biodiversity everywhere we operate.” It added one caveat: It knew no way to measure “net positive impact on biodiversity.”
Some environmentalists want to hold the company to its “aspirational goal.”
“We are asking them to do the research to find out what it would take to reach no net loss" of habitat, said John Goedschalk, executive director of Conservation International Suriname. That calculation, he said, should include the loss of 618 square miles of jungle. Since 1964, that land lies under the reservoir behind Alcoa’s Afobaka Dam, which powered the Paranam complex.
"You’d have to calculate what was lost in terms of pristine forest," and preserve a similar area, Mr. Goedschalk said. Alcoa could also find ways to help the clans displaced when the dam flooded their villages 53 years ago, he added.
Alcoa spokesman James Beck wrote in response to questions that the company maintains that "aspirational goal ... wherever it makes practical sense," but he added that the aluminum business of a century ago "did not take into consideration the remediation of mining activities." He also called the dam "a joint decision" of the government and company that "brought immeasurable benefits to industry and society in Suriname."
Mr. Goedschalk knows that his country has minimal international clout and little leverage. “This would have to be Alcoa being a responsible global corporate citizen saying, we have to go as far as we can go," he said. "They have had a big impact on the country.”