“We eat what the river gives us.” (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019)
The UN OHCHR committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights emphasize the following: “The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman, and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all time to adequate food or means for its procurement” (OHCHR and the Right to Food, n.d.). The key aspects to the right to adequate food include (i) availability, that is, the availability of food from natural resources; (ii) accessibility, being that food must be affordable and accessible without compromising on other basic needs; (ii) adequacy, that the food must satisfy dietary needs and, importantly, must be safe for consumption; and finally (ii) sustainability, guaranteeing the access to food for present and future generations (OHCHR and the Right to Food, n.d.).
The situation of the pollution of rivers in Suriname puts the Wayana community, an Indigenous community in the south-east of Suriname that relies extensively on its waters for sustenance, at significant risk of not meeting the standards for adequate food. Namely, and as this article will demonstrate, the Wayana community are being threatened with the loss of (i) the right to availability of food, (ii) adequacy of food, and (ii) sustainability of food – all through the loss of biodiversity and safety concerns from water pollution caused by excessive gold mining. This article will briefly provide an overview of the Wayana community, and henceforth discuss the issue of river pollution caused by illegal gold mining. Following this, the Aquaculture Project will be elucidated along with a short conclusion.
The Wayana community
The Wayana reside in the tropical rainforest of the Guyana highlands that are situated in French Guyana, Suriname, and northern Brazil. Interestingly, the Wayana were never colonized, due to the limited infrastructure of the northern Amazon territory, and thus managed to preserve and maintain much of their indigenous heritage and culture, and their connection with the surrounding nature. Unfortunately, the total number of the Wayana community decreased gradually from 4.000 Wayana in the last century to the current estimation of approximately 2.500. As such,contact with colonizers, and the influx of new diseases were the main factors for the decimation of the Wayana community.
The Wayana are divided over 3 river settlements – Kawem Hakan , Apetina, and Palumeu. In French Guyana, the 1.500 Wayana people are divided into eight villages, and all of the Wayana are given a monthly government fee in exchange for their halt fishing and hunting in the protected areas (Van Beijnen , 2021, p. 6). This, in turn, has led to various social issues among the community, as they often feel that they have lost their identity. Additionally, the government pressure on the Wayana has resulted in their permanent settlements, which consequently brought about: (i) agriculture areas to be used for longer periods of time; (ii) overuse of the soil and decrease in productivity; (iii) decreased wildlife by high hunting. Hence, this made fish, the main source of animal protein intake for the indigenous, even more, vital for their survival. Lastly, the founder of the Mulokot Foundation and the Paramount Chief of all Wayana, Ipomadi Pelenapin, plays a key role in trying to prevent illegal gold miners from entering the area, and also the primary proponent of the idea towards food sovereignty for the Wayana in Suriname through sustainable fish farming (the Aquaculture project) (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019, p. 7).
Pollution of the rivers “Gold mining in Suriname grew by 893 percent between 2000 and 2014, poisoning thousands of indigenous people in the process.” (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019)
The homeland of the Wayana is intruded on by outsiders who are taking advantage of the gold deposits and gold prospectors active in the area for over a century. Most of these gold miners originate from Paramaribo and Brazil. The process of this gold mining, despite being labeled as small-scale, is very harmful and life-threatening to the Wayana. As such, succinctly described, gold miners use floating rafts, skalians, which suck the sand and mud from the river bottom, with the idea that it contains gold particles.
Essentially, this is where the inherent problem lies: most of these gold particles are difficult to separate from the rest of the sediment, and to extract this gold, miners use mercury to make the gold particles easier for collecting. This is what leads to the pollution of the rivers – the gold purifying process releases mercury as vapor into the air, and when condensed, it ends up in the sediment of waterways like rivers and creeks. Mercury is a heavy metal and one of the most lethal natural substances. According to estimates, approximately 20.000 to 54.000 kilogram of mercury is released into Suriname’s rivers and creeks each year. This, in turn, brings about an expected result: mercury is converted by bacteria, which in turn affects the food chain negatively by transforming it into poison.
Carnivorous fish are the most caught and consumed by the Wayana communities, and once the mercury that these fish contain enters the human body, it is nearly impossible to remove, and even continues to accumulate over time. The end result is horrendous for the Wayana: most of them suffer from Minamata disease, affecting the central nervous system, which results in loss of cognitive functions (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019, p. 9-10).
The Aquaculture Project Given the number of issues faced by the Wayana community due to illegal mining and the subsequent water pollution and the reliance of the community on the water as a resource, solutions are sorely needed. In collaboration with the Mulokot Foundation, the legal and executive branch of the village leaders headed by a member of the Wayana Community, the community is now developing an alternative form of fishing through the ‘Aquaculture Project’ (Rowell, 2021; How Aquaculture Can Help Protect Suriname’s Indigenous Peoples, n.d.). According to Hoevenaars (2019), the project will focus on training youth with few prospects to fish, farm, and market fish. Additionally, it will aim to improve the understanding of the gravity of mercury contamination through the consumption of fish, train the community to recognize symptoms of mercury poisoning, capacitate local youth, and develop a sustainable and safe means to fish for food (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019, p. 14).
Due to the high demand for gold, the demand for mining labor increased, thus resulting in numerous younger indigenous peoples being roped into the illegal mining projects. “Problems of social disruption and lack of future perspective for our youth are on the rise”, as stated by Hoevenaars & Beijnen (2019, p.7). The Aquaculture project also aims to provide future job prospects for the younger generation of the Wayana community, while sustaining their traditional fishing and farming practices. With such end goals in sight, the Foundation, in collaboration with the communities it is assisting, will be able to produce a model for sustainable development and livelihood protection across different Indigenous communities in the Amazon region, especially in light of consistent and unending threats to their livelihood from bad actors (Hoevenaars & van Beijnen, 2019, p.4).
To conclude, this article has illuminated the dire situation of river pollution which has led to the Aquaculture Project initiative. Government actors, along with illegal miners, have gravely violated the right for the Wayana community to have access to clean food and water by issuing mining projects which were harmful to their environment. As a result, the Wayana peoples face numerous challenges in attaining food and clean water and eventually began the Aquaculture project as a means to sustain their livelihood. The framework of the project is not only helpful for the Wayana community and their region but will also aid in providing a model for other sustainable fish farming projects.
Hoevenaar, K. & Van Beijnen , J. (2019). Summary of Proposal – Towards Food Sovereignty for the Wayana in Suriname – Through Sustainable Fish Farming. Retrieved November 5, 2021, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335361555_Summary_of_Proposal_-_Towards_Food_Sovereignty_for_the_Wayana_in_Suriname_-_Through_Sustainable_Fish_Farming
How aquaculture can help protect Suriname’s indigenous peoples. (n.d.). Retrieved November
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