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Story Publication logo August 9, 2012

Suriname: Chinese Migrants Cash In on Gold Rush

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Suriname, with its pristine environment, has become a pawn in a new Great Game as the balance of...

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Image by James Whitlow Delano. Suriname, 2012.

A Mandarin language translator in the capital named Patty Shen knew of police operations deep in the interior of the country through a legal translation job with law enforcement that involved undocumented Chinese workers in Suriname. Bensdorp in particular, she had been told, was the stronghold of many merchants from Fujian Province; maybe there were even some people from Fujian actually engaging in mining for gold themselves.

I was skeptical about the latter claim and decided to enlist a second opinion from Robertson Gums of the Gold Sector Planning Programme, whose stated goal is "to legalize all illegal activities." Suffice it to say, Gums and his colleagues have not yet met that goal, as most of the gold miners deep in the interior of Suriname are Brazilian "garimpeiros" of dubious visa status. Chinese merchants from Fujian, said Gums, operated trading posts supplying the Brazilian miners of Bensdorp and others along the tributaries that feed into the upper reaches of the Marowijne River. This great tropical waterway also constitutes the border between French Guiana and Suriname. Gums was not aware of any Chinese doing mining there but, he added, the Chinese all had their visas in order.

Bensdorp is a backdoor jungle border town, separated from the rest of Surinamese society by hundreds of kilometers of trackless rainforest, considerably greater in size than any still found in Malaysia. The crowns of millions of rainforest trees silently passed beneath the twin-propeller Cessna heavy with all manner of items unattainable in an interior outpost, brought aboard by passengers from the capital on the daily flight. It was precisely the same kind of tiny airplane that had safely delivered me to Long Lellang, a similar jungle outpost in Borneo one year earlier.

Bensdorp is also a boomtown. The preferred currency is gold, mined locally and carried in pouches hidden in one's clothes. Euros are the favored hard currency because of the proximity of Euro zone across the river, followed by the U.S. dollar and finally, begrudgingly, the humble national currency, the Suriname dollar.

Despite the heavy load, the Cessna seemed to struggle to descend to the humid, red-earth runway set on an island in the middle of the Marowijne River. Fierce-looking Ndyuka Maroon people, descendents of escaped African slaves and the de facto indigenous people of the area, converged on the plane as it taxied to a stop. They emerged from the relatively cool bush or out of long canoes moored at landings cut into the riverbank. The Ndyuka are the unsmiling lords of the river, but it was immediately apparent that they had ceded gold mining and, for that matter their town, to a superior number of affable, well-organized Brazilians, their families and some Brazilian bar girls who occupy makeshift, open-air cantinas that line the steep dirt track that is Main Street. But before encountering a single boomtown honky-tonk, boats make landfall right in front of the first of several Chinese-owned trading posts. Location, location, location.

We had been instructed by the airline to contact an Ndyuka man so that Harvey, my fixer/friend, and I could get a solid start. We complied, initially. For the one-minute, 150-meter boat ride from the airport island to the town, he set the price at 20 euros ($26.40). I got him down to 15. He insisted that Harvey and I stay in a friend's "hotel" set on the edge of town, which turned out to be little more than a 15 euro-a-night shanty with three dark, mosquito-filled rooms built on damp ground. The mosquito net had been burnt by a cigarette in a half-dozen places leaving gaping holes for mosquitoes. The forest came right up to the back of the structure where chickens milled around and frogs hopped about. We had been warned about the cost of things in gold country

"We're going to need to hire an ATV to take us to the gold mines and the next town over," I told the Ndyuka man we'd met at the airstrip. "How much is that going to cost?"

"You can hire one for 2 1/2 grams of gold a day," he said.

"So how much is one gram of gold worth?" I asked.

"Forty euros ," he told me.

"One hundred euros a day? "

"Yah mon," he said.

The next settlement was 10 km away.

"So how much for a one way trip?" I asked.

"One gram," he said and then there was silence.

The end came when the Ndyuka man demanded a 100 euro commission for services rendered. I will not repeat my response here. Harvey and I would be walking to the gold mines.

This is another example where a challenge yielded a benefit. Walking slows progress but gives time to observe surroundings more carefully and offers the opportunity to listen.

The hotel marked the edge of Bensdorp and the beginning of the village's dump. Empty aluminum cans, washing machines in a town powered by gasoline-powered generators, food stuffs all bordered the track out of town which rapidly gave way to a desert where a gold mine had been carved out of a hill. Below us on the flight in, there had been nothing but rainforest and now we could not get away from the boomtown squalor.

Finally, at a bend in the river, stood a new Chinese trading post, with a view of the Marowijne that froze us in our tracks. The structure was set on posts, high and dry, beneath a jungle tree which spread its epiphyte-covered limbs to create shade but still allowed the river's breeze in. Harvey and I climbed to the front terrace, intelligently fitted with benches, bought two bottles of water and commenced observing the riverfront activities.

In China, "guanxi," a network of personal and family connections, is of paramount importance to secure work or supply a business. All the Chinese merchants of Bensdorp hail from the southern province of Fujian. Fujian has a long history of migration. In fact, many Chinese in Malaysia and Southeast Asia emigrated from Fujian at a time when a person who left China was forbidden from ever returning. Fujian Chinese, or "Fuchow" Chinese (for the old transliteration for the provincial capital, Fuzhou), dominate Malaysian Borneo's timber industry.

As early as the 17th century, the English organized emigration of the poor, starting with orphans who were dispatched to Jamestown in Virginia by the London Common Council. In 1833, the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners would manage a program to fund the emigration of the poor to British colonies. China has no such official policy, but this wikileaked U.S. Embassy cable from Paramaribo suggests Beijing's desire for its financially disadvantaged citizens to emigrate, though for what exact purpose is unclear.

According to the cable, the personal secretary to Suriname's president "dismissed rumors that Suriname will permit the immigration of a significant number of Chinese nationals. He emphasized that only the Chinese companies in charge of the proposed housing project will be able to bring in the necessary workers. These workers will return to China once the project is completed. (Note: A credible source confided to the Embassy that, according to National Assembly members working on the [Chinese delegation] visit, the delegation explored the possible immigration of thousands of Chinese to Suriname. Embassy has been unable to date to confirm whether this in fact occured. End Note)"

In another wikileaked U.S. Embassy document, it is suggested that Chinese immigration could inflame ethnic tensions in this multicultural country. "The President and his…political party have been big supports (sic) of increased Chinese immigration. Many members of its Hindustani based VHP coalition partner view his support for the Chinese as an attempt to undermine the Hindustani's traditional commercial dominance."

On the surface, activities at the trading post seemed the model of cooperation. Ndyuka boatmen delivered goods on long, thin canoes powered by massive outboard motors. One of their river cargo boats was actually two dump truck beds mounted on two long canoes. Chinese workers, plus one young Vietnamese man, unloaded goods while their boss, a heavy-set middle-aged man, paid the Ndyuka boatmen. Meanwhile, smiling Brazilians, who control land transportation and operate mines, came and went on their ATVs.

No one at the post would offer their name, but it was there that we encountered the first Chinese national, a woman of about 30, who said that she wanted to return to Fujian one day. All the workers we had met in Paramaribo or other locations expressed the desire to live in this laid-back country.

The forest crowded the road beyond the trading post and then the road became a soupy quagmire of red mud churned up by the voracious tires of the ATVs. So far, these pioneers seem only interested in the gold, leaving the forest alone. The Brazilians mine for gold, and the Chinese merchants supply them. The Nduku, once taught to mine by the Brazilians, have been swept aside. Their shops have long been edged out by the stealthy business acumen of the Chinese. Occasionally tempers do flare.

In 2009, a Brazilian stabbed and killed a Maroon man downstream in Albina. The Maroons rose up, killing at least one and the violence spread to migrant Chinese-owned businesses.

The gold fields of Bensdorp are carved right out of the virgin rainforest in valley floors. The miners inch their way up the valleys destroying entire watersheds by scraping every organic substance away to get at the gold in the layers below. Gold mining devastates primary sources of water, often compounding the problem with the use of highly toxic mercury to purify the gold, which then leaches into the environment. The Brazilians live like ants beside their mines, digging down with high-powered pumps directing the water to slice into the soft, alluvial deposits. Meanwhile, towering rainforest giants stand silently at the mercy of the whims of miners seeking riches that are rarely realized.

The Chinese profit from these gamblers, slowly accumulating wealth and power through the Chinese version of a Puritan work ethic. All work and no play builds for these patient migrants business empires far more often than any gold strike rewards Brazilian prospectors. Still, the Surinamese have either been pushed out or are no-shows to this great unfolding drama to control--and possibly destroy-- the interior of their country.

After dark on that Saturday night, Harvey and I stumbled in from the mines to find the respectable Ndyuka and Brazilians of Bensdorp attending Catholic mass in French. The less respectable Brazilians went to the clapboard cantinas to drink beer, shoot pool and flirt with the bar girls under the laser and strobe lights, shouting over the din of Brazilian pop. Dreadlocked Ndyuka boatmen gathered in conspiratorial groups down by the waterfront, never greeting an outsider. They just stared, searching for hidden motives in the new intruders. After all, everyone else who had come to this outpost had taken something away from them. The Chinese migrant merchants had already gone to sleep in hammocks strung up in the back rooms of their trading posts. For them, nothing of interest exists in Bensdorp besides work and Chinese period dramas recorded on DVD's.

Editors Note: The spelling of "Ndyuka" has been changed throughout this article to reflect a more widely accepted transliteration of the native word.

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