Up to 20 million acres at stake
(AR) PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Big bucks and an out-of-control economy
are forcing this Amazonian nation to sell out to international
loggers who want to chop down at least 10,000,000 acres of dense
rainforest and are looking to take twice as much more.
President Ronald Venetiaan says it will inject dollars into the economy in his pre-election year and the contracts are just about signed with the lumber conglomerate Berjaya Group Bernard of Malaysia.
Indonesian and other Malay interests are waiting on the sidelines to see what deal Berjaya gets from the government, but the company has already said it will become impoverished Suriname's biggest employer and plans to invest $100 million to open a sawmill and a furniture factory and to create 15,000 jobs among the tiny country's 400,000 population.
Government officials want to sign contracts ASAP
and conservationalists were already alarmed when
Suriname asked the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) to help
draw up a contract. Berjaya had already been severely criticized by South
East Asian groups for ruining their own country's environment.
And deep suspicions of corruption are seen in the fact that Berjaya director, Surindra Mungra is the brother of Surinam's foreign minister, who readily agreed a concession deal at $3 an acre when Pacific Northwest loggers pay ten times as much.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is offering to help finance the Suriname budget while it finds ways to use the rainforest itself -- but government officials, most notably the foreign minister, say they want to get signatures on contracts at the earliest possible date.
Parliament in Paramaribo is to ratify contract proposals within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, Iwan Krolis, a Suriname forest executive in the contract negotiations says "none of the world's arguments have convinced us otherwise."
Indeed, foreign minister Mungra's brother, Surindra Mungra, has accused the U.S. of using "bullying tactics in an economic competition between emerging companies that are the underdog to U.S. interests" who want to get their hands on tropical hardwoods.
He says Berjaya's 25-year exclusivity contract would allow them to log 2.8 million acres but it would not "destroy the rainforest as ecologists have suggested" since they would only take 10 to 15 trees out of every 200.
"The contract has so many loopholes that Suriname would probably make only $2 million a year while the loggers made 14 times as much," Russell A. Mittermeier told reporters. He is an environmentalist with the Washington-based Conservation International watchdog group.
In past, this company has clearcut gigantic swathes through the Amazon
officials have told worried native Indian groups that
logging would be restricted to areas more than 40 miles from any remote
tribal village and everything will be done to protect their rainforest
But critics -- and there are many -- say the Suriname government has been unable to enforce or even to police any of its previous contracts. The country's own parliamentary forestry commission has accused another Malaysian company of indiscriminately cutting down many more trees than originally agreed in separate contracts.
In fact, aerial photos have shown the company, Musa, is clear- cutting huge tracts of rainforest, clearing gigantic swathes through the Amazon forest to the river to transport lumber to the mills downstream.
"People say we have indigenous natives and that they have rights," says Suriname forest executive Iwan Krolis. "But we have to look at it in comparison with the rest of the population, whereas the Saramaka and other bush tribes account for only 15 percent of the population."
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