Will a Mine Spoil One of the World’s Greenest Countries?

Where it once recommended establishing a park, multinational Alcoa wants to dig for tin.

Suriname’s Brownsberg National Park, with a view of Brokopondo Lake. (Photo: Frans Lemmens/Getty Images)

Jun 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

A particularly gruesome email came in the other morning from Suriname, a beautiful country on the northeastern shoulder of South America. Early last month, a family from the Netherlands was vacationing at a resort on the Suriname River. The eight-year-old daughter was playing with her brother in the shallows, in an area supposedly protected by a “piranha-proof” net. Suddenly the children started screaming.

Another tourist carried the girl out of the water, with blood streaming down from her foot. At the hospital, doctors identified the deep divot cut out of the girl’s right foot as the toothy bite of a piranha. The family caught the next plane back to the Netherlands for further treatment.

The story made my eyes go wide, as my informant no doubt knew it would. Jan H. Mol is a fish biologist at the University of Suriname, and he and I have traded notes on piranhas since traveling together on an expedition in Suriname a few years ago. We’ve both spent a fair amount of time in the water with piranhas and lived to tell the tale (one of my books is titled Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time). We’ve also both made considerable effort to discount piranhas as a threat: They rarely attack humans, and they only do that crazed swarming thing where there is concentrated food—for instance, fish guts heaved overboard at a fishing dock. Piranha attacks like the one on the Dutch girl make good headlines, but they are extraordinarily rare.

The truth is that Mol was using the attack to bait the hook and reel in a journalist: The real threat in Suriname, he went on to argue, isn’t piranhas. It’s the American aluminum company Alcoa and its local subsidiary, Suralco, which is the largest private employer and taxpayer in Suriname.

The beauty of Suriname is that it has managed to remain almost entirely undeveloped. It’s still 85 percent forested and thus one of the greenest countries in the world. That has made it a special interest of the environmental group Conservation International, which has conducted a series of expeditions around the country. Almost 10 years ago, one such expedition, sponsored by both CI and the mining company Suralco, surveyed wildlife in a series of plateaus in the Nassau Mountains, in the northeastern part of the country. Mol participated in that expedition and found, among other things, that the streams running down the steep mountainsides were home to a surprising diversity of fish, including six species new to science and a rare catfish (Harttiella crassicauda) found only in the headwaters of Paramacca Creek. Other specialists discovered a rich diversity of other wildlife, including a spectacularly colorful purple frog subspecies endemic to the area.

The final report of that expedition recommended the creation of a nature park on the Nassau Plateau to protect the unique Paramacca Creek watershed. In the report, Suralco said that it “endorses the concept of conservation of biodiversity by operating in a manner that minimizes impacts on natural habitats and biological resources.” Mol vividly recalls that, at the press conference announcing the expedition results, Suralco’s general manager, Warren Pedersen, appeared to announce “that the bauxite of Nassau Mountains could stay where it is.”

But ever since, according to Mol, Suralco has indicated its continued interest in mining the Nassau Plateau—most recently last month in a local newspaper. Alcoa’s director of corporate affairs confirmed to TakePart, “A feasibility study relating to the development of a mine at the Nassau Plateau is in progress.” Working with environmental consultants, the company has developed what another source describes as elaborate plans to work around sensitive areas and minimize damage. But Mol argues that the area is too small for even the best-planned project and that the loss of forest cover, and the removal of the bauxite “sponge,” will destroy the hydrology of the area, intermittently drying out Paramacca Creek. The extinction of the two endemic fish species, and perhaps also the frog subspecies, would be forever.

Mol makes the point that piranhas are sensational and attract headlines. But the more important stories pass quietly beneath the surface, and they have to do with the steady, grinding power of development—rooted in our casual but seemingly endless demand for a can of soda, a take-out container from the lunch place, or yet another roll of aluminum foil—to overwhelm efforts at conservation. The only way to stop mining in the Nassau Mountains for good, says Mol, is to reach American consumers and put pressure directly on Suralco’s American parent, Alcoa.

Meanwhile, recommendations for a nature park in the Nassau Mountains have gone nowhere.

Correction [June 2, 2014]: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the relative dates of the Pirhana attack, and a newspaper article. The events both occurred in May.