Regions of Suriname being prepared for Mennonite settlement. (Image Credits: Mongabay)

Environmentalists raise concerns regarding Mennonite settlement in Suriname

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The Government of Suriname plans to permit Mennonites, a religious sect of the Anabaptist faith, to settle in the CARICOM nation. Mennonites will also be given the ability to engage in large scale agricultural activities which is drawing the ire of environmental conservation organisations in the nation.

Their concerns are centered on the fact that the sect will practice agriculture in ways which will lead to the wide spread deforestation of Surinamese territory. The sect which is known for not conforming to catholic or protestant traditions, while following a mix of both is known for engaging in such practices.

Environmental organisations raised multiple concerns during a press conference in Paramaribo, criticizing the government for pursuing the project with Terra Invest Suriname and Guyana, which is handling the migration. The government is under fire for the lack of transparency in this endeavor.

According to Terra Investment Suriname and Guyana, preparations for the arrival of the Mennonites is underway and they intend to purchase land suitable for agricultural purposes.

“People don’t want anything from the Surinamese government. No land either. They want to buy it themselves. All they want is an invitation from the government that they are welcome in Suriname,” said Ruud Souverein, a representative of Terra Invest.

There have been multiple rumors surrounding the Mennonites, who happen to be an Anabaptist Christian church group. Their community traces its roots back to a 16th century Radical Reformation.

The issue arose when the Mennonites began purchasing hectares of land that was originally claimed by the indigenous people of Suriname as their traditional residential area which is a part of their land rights.

“Where is the plan? Why can’t there be transparency? We ask for a study so that it can be scientifically determined what the effect of large-scale Mennonite agriculture could have on the environment” said Gwendolyn Smith of the organization Green Growth Suriname.

The Amazon Conservation Team, Conservation International Suriname, Green Heritage Fund, Tropenbos Suriname, Wildlife & People in Suriname and the World Wildlife Fund, have made their voices heard through their representatives, who came to the press conference and objected to the proposal vehemently.

An interesting factoid about Suriname is that it happens to be one of only 3 carbon neutral nations in the world. Having said that, Suriname is already experiencing deforestation at a rate of 0.07% per year due to illegal mining activity. The worry is that large scale agricultural projects will significantly impact the levels of deforestation.

The organisations standing against this move have stated that they have no intentions of stigmatizing Mennonites. In fact, they have said that they are open to a well-structured proposal from the group, provided it aims to maintain the natural landscape of Suriname.

The Director of Conservation International Suriname, Gina Griffith issued a statement regarding the same, “We know that the deforestation we fear due to the arrival of the Mennonites is already taking place in the gold sector, we know that. But we want to avoid having to deal with the effects of deforestation due to large-scale agriculture. Suriname and Guyana are the only countries in South America that do not have this.”

Environmental organisations are also concerned about the Environmental Impact Study which is legally meant to precede such an elaborate project. Another issue that has raised eyebrows is the Mennonite’s history in South America where their large-scale farming activity has led to a plethora of environmental issues.

These regions that the Mennonites occupy have dealt with deforestation, water pollution, the introduction of genetically modified food, conflicts with indigenous populations and environmental damage due to the use of pesticides and insecticides.

An indigenous tribal leader, Lloyd Read had this to say on the matter, “We told them, they can take the land. Let them come, it will happen over our dead bodies. In Suriname it is about interests, but who stands up for the interests of the indigenous people? The insulting of us has to stop at some point. We cannot always yield to the interests of others.”

Environmental organisations have suggested that the government should look at alternatives that can generate capital for the nation without causing environmental damage.

Suriname’s President Chandrikapersad Santokhi and Albert Ramdin the Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Business and International Cooperation have confirmed that 50 Mennonite families have already been given the go ahead to move to Suriname as settlers.

This is being seen as the initial step to a larger migration which will depend on an evaluation of these 50 families over a span of 3 years.

“We have clearly told them that the government will not be able to accommodate them with land, so they will have to rent or lease land to get started. They could also buy land, but that also needs to be carefully considered.” said Ramdin.

“We are an immigrant country, why shouldn’t we be open to this group?” he added. The Mennonites who are going to be moving to Suriname are planning on growing grain of all varieties, soy production, milk production, livestock rearing and chicken farming.