Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side


A joint plan by Alcoa and Billiton to develop bauxite reserves in western

Suriname has raised fears among the indigenous community.

Alcoa and Billiton have mined bauxite in eastern Suriname for more than 50

years. Time and again, indigenous villages have vanished to make way for

bauxite mining. “The Government must help us if it is to respect our human

rights as defined by international human rights treaties,” pleaded

villagers in one community surrounded by a new Alcoa operation.

Alcoa also operates an aluminum smelter in Suriname. The construction of a

dam to power the smelter flooded tropical rainforest and forced 6,000

people to move.

Now the companies want to mine one of the world’s largest bauxite reserves,

the Bakhuis deposit, in western Suriname. In 1998, the Forest Peoples

Programme reported on the track record and possible future impacts of Alcoa

and Billiton.

The FPP raised and relayed fears of the impact of the new mining operation

in western Surinam. “Although the Indigenous population (Carib and Arawak)

of this area is sparse, mining operations will undoubtedly affect them and

will require clearing of vast areas of pristine tropical rainforest…

“Bauxite mining operations,” added the FPP, “have historically taken place

with little or no regard for the rights and well-being of Indigenous

peoples and Maroons and the environment. In 1963-63, Alcoa constructed the

Afobaka dam to provide power for a smelter at Paranam. This dam inundated

some 600 square miles of tropical forest and forced the relocation of

approximately 6000 Saramacca and Aucaner Maroons from their ancestral

territories. These territories had been ceded to the Maroons in treaties

concluded with the Dutch colonial administration in the 18th and 19th

centuries. The communities were moved to so-called ‘transmigration

villages,’ where most remain today. These communities lack basic

facilities, including electricity, even though the power lines to Alcoa’s

smelter run nearby. The communities were paid the equivalent of US$3 in

compensation and were not provided with secure land rights in their new


“Maroon communities near Moengo in east Suriname, like Adjoemakondre, have

also experienced serious problems caused by bauxite mining operations.

These communities have never been compensated for the loss of their lands

and livelihoods and for severe environmental degradation caused by

Suralco’s activities.

“These once forested communities now live in a moonscape, surrounded by

blasted rock, covered in dust and debris from blasting and are subjected to

high intensity lights that allow mining to take place 24 hours a day, seven

days a week.

“Adjoemakondre is an extreme example of the impact of Suralco’s activities.

It is presently surrounded by three active concessions and mining is taking

place less than 200 meters from the village itself. Much of the community’s

agricultural and hunting lands, and in some cases houses, have been

destroyed and the river that runs through the village has turned

brown-orange due to run off from the mining areas. Community members also

allege that their health has suffered as a consequence of environmental

contamination caused by Suralco’s activities.

“Suralco commenced operations near Adjoemakondre in 1991 and shortly

thereafter informed the community that they would be relocated as Suralco

wanted to mine under the village. The community objected and sought help

from the government. Negotiations between Suralco and the government

ensued, resulting in an agreement to relocate the village. The community

was not accorded a meaningful role in the negotiations. They did, however,

accept relocation at this point as they saw it as inevitable. Suralco

identified a site, which had already been mined out near the village, and

bulldozed it flat to build a new village. At this point, Suralco changed

its mind and, pointing to its contract with the government, stated that the

government alone was solely responsible for ensuring the welfare of local

communities. The government took no action and relocation did not take

place. Seven years and numerous requests to the government and Suralco

later, the community’s position has worsened.” (“Maroon Community Petitions

Suriname Government about the Operations of a US-owned Bauxite Mining

Company,” Forest Peoples Programme, September 17, 1998)

Villagers from Adjoemakondre petitioned the Surinam government in 1998 to

give them “respect for our rights, especially our land rights that are not

presently recognized by the state of Suriname and are affected by the

mining activities of NV Suralco, a foreign-owned company. This company has

destroyed our environment and our ability to feed our families. We also

seek compensation for the expropriation of our property and interference

with our rights to hunt, fish and farm on our ancestral lands. The

preceding, which was authorized by the Government of Suriname, was caused

by the operations of Suralco. These operations are on-going and remain a

threat to our existence and well-being. To ensure that violations of our

rights cease immediately, we request in the strongest possible terms, that

the government of Suriname take prompt and decisive action to investigate

and remedy these violations of our rights.

“The village was established by our ancestors over 200 years ago… Suralco

arrived in our territory in 1991 and began mining operations in the

immediate surroundings of our village. At that time, we protested against

this and requested that the Government intervened to find a solution. The

Government and Suralco then entered into negotiations, which resulted in

Suralco promising to relocate the village and provide adequate housing and

other facilities for us. Suralco did not honor this promise, stating that

their activities were authorized by the Government when it gave them

concessions and that it was the Government’s responsibility to relocate and

provide for the village. Since that time, negotiations have ceased and we

are left with a worse situation than we had in 1991.” (Wilma Prika,

Captain, Adjoemakondre, Petition to the Suriname Government Concerning the

Situation in Adjoemakondre, 1998)

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