Pushing Back Against an Amazon Gold Rush: Maps Lead the Way

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During a recent visit to the vast and ancient rainforests of the nation of Suriname, as part of our customary reacquaintance period, I cheerfully chewed the (capybara) fat with my Trio Indian pals of long standing on widely varying aspects of their everyday lives and concerns, from opportunities for income from handicrafts to the quality of the palm leaves on their roofs. A warm and sour fermented cassava brew helps lubricate tongues, and of course my old tribal friends and colleagues are eager to share the news to someone who has not already heard the latest scuttlebutt dozens of times.

Each year, of course, brings new issues and priorities, but I have noticed that a particular problem is increasingly weighing on the minds of the Trio Indians of Kwamalasamutu village: some men are being seduced by the opportunity for pay in distant gold mining ventures, leaving the village for long periods of time and occasionally not returning at all. Obviously, their absence is not healthy for the fabric of the community–and less obviously, the departed men have become small cogs in a relentless machine, the extent of whose deep injuries to the forest and its peoples is only now crystallizing for all to see.

Record high gold prices over the past decade have triggered a massive gold rush across the country and the Amazon at large, resulting in the destruction of thousands of hectares of rainforests and the contamination of major rivers with highly toxic materials. Caught in the middle of this environmental devastation are indigenous and Maroon (contemporary descendants of formerly enslaved Africans) communities, whose livelihoods are increasingly tied to partaking in mining activities within their territories, with detrimental consequences for their well-being.

My work counterpart in Suriname, Minu Parahoe, describes the direness of the increasing pressure: "The waterways are becoming polluted by mercury and other waste. The Amazon forest is being destroyed. The animals, on which the inhabitants of the interior are dependent as a food source, are being hunted in ever increasing numbers."

To bring added awareness to the rapid expansion of gold mining in Suriname–and especially to permit everyone to strongly visualize this grave problem–my organization, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), just published a groundbreaking interactive online map journal, "Amazon Gold Rush: Gold Mining in Suriname". Visit Amazon Gold Rush: Gold Mining in Suriname.

To create it, we applied some of the latest technologies in digital storytelling and cartography to present a comprehensive and visually engaging overview of this complex conservation issue facing Suriname and the entire Amazon region. To ensure we were hitting the mark, we also vetted it with the relevant government agencies and indigenous and Maroon associations.

We will update the journal regularly, and continually seek ways to increase its impact, because we know that it fills a vacuum in the information available to regional stakeholders and decision-makers. We will support local organizations whose work strongly encourages the improvement of gold mining policy, and especially seek to increase the voices of our partner tribes.

It is my hope that, at each successive return to the interior, I will hear that the lure of gold has diminished. But because this will not happen on its own, we must use the remarkably powerful communication tools we have to bring the issue to bear.

Dr. Mark Plotkin is a renowned ethnobotanist who has spent more than three decades studying traditional plant use with traditional healers of tropical America. His organization, the Amazon Conservation Team is dedicated to preserving South American rainforests, working hand in hand with local indigenous communities to devise and implement its conservation strategies.

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