LATIN AMERICAExpelled from paradise
The Oblates in Suriname, the smallest country in South America, belong to a district of the Province of Belgium-Netherlands. They are deeply concerned about a situation there that affects the lives of some of their poorest parishioners.
The gigantic Brokopondo dam has, for half a century, been supplying Suriname with electric energy. But for the Maroon people, descendants of African slaves, the dam has caused untold misery and loss. Fr. Doris WEEWEE, himself a member of the largest Maroon tribe, the Saramaccans, speaks passionately about what has happened, and not happened, to and for his people.
Since people did not want to leave their home voluntarily during the dam construction in the early 1960’s, the state had to entice them with supposed guarantees. “They promised us the moon, but nothing happened for a long time and far too little has happened till now,” says Fr. Doris.
Officially 6,000, but presumably over 10,000 members of this largest Maroon tribe have lost their traditional ancestral territory because of the dam and with it also their hunting areas, their fields and their religious sites and tombs. When the rain forest in Suriname, on an area three times larger than Lake Constance was being flooded, the authorities promised to the descendants of escaped slaves new houses. “In Brownsweg you can see what has been done to these people," the outraged Father Doris stated. “They built them huts which were conceived as temporary camps. Today the Saramaccan are still living in these chicken coops.”
Many transmigrants, as the official language euphemistically called those forcibly displaced, are still waiting in vain for compensation payments. The road has been paved for only four years; this reduces the travel time to the capital by three hours. And only twelve years ago Brownsweg was connected to the power supply system created by the dam that displaced them. Only thanks to the Church is there a primary school and a health center in the village.
The priest is one of the few Maroons who ever talk about the impact of the dam. It seems that a mixture of shame and anger, displacement and vulnerability has made these expelled people close in on themselves. They feel like the losers to progress. (Source: Kontinente, March/April)
Whereas the people in the transmigration villages mentioned in the earlier article manifest themselves as reserved, unapproachable, almost lethargic, above the dam can be found a completely different kind of people. For the villages along the upper reaches of the Suriname, the one responsible is Fr. Toon TE DORSTHORST, another Oblate. The 71-year-old is the youngest of the six missionaries from the Netherlands still in Suriname. His journey by jeep from the capital to Adjoni, a small dock at the south end of the dam, lasts almost four hours. Here he lowers his small motorboat to start his week-long pastoral trips on the Suriname.
In the past 20 years, Father Toon, together with a nun, has formed more than 100 catechists. Actually, he would rather call them “pastoral heads of the communities” rather than catechists, because they are much more than just prayer leaders. “They are the salvation of the Church in the inland: they bring not only the Word of God, but also development.”
It takes five years to form a catechist in Suriname. And only when the village agrees, the candidate receives from the bishop a cross and Bible as outer signs of his office. From that day on, he is the guarantor of a living community. According to Father Toon, every second baptism in the inland is still an adult baptism. “The rising number of Catholics in Suriname is mainly due to the pastoral leaders,” he assures. “Yes, the Church in the country is under construction…unlike the Church in Europe, which diminishes more and more!”
In Jaw Jaw, a few kilometers further up the river, Father Toon can prove this with facts and figures. Where there was only a handful of Catholics among the more than 1,000 Saramaccans 15 years ago, today three-quarters of the residents are baptized. Jaw Jaw is a sprawling place with spacious houses and gardens and with open-hearted and sociable residents who show initiative and business acumen.
These people were lucky. They were not directly affected by the construction of the dam and could maintain their familiar environment, hunting grounds and fields. Together with several hundred forcibly displaced persons who were not drawn into the transmigration villages, the Saramaccans could preserve their traditions. “They didn't succumb to the lure of the state and thus things have gone ultimately better for them,” Father Toon states, before getting into his small motor boat to compete the way back to Paramaribo.
Along the way he tells a little story. It is about the treasure which has been resting half a century in the lake beyond the dam: a sunken forest of precious wood. When the rain forest was being flooded, the trees were just left standing there. At that time, no one recognized the immense value of the exotic woods – there are presumably ten million cubic meters, about 500,000 truckloads. A Dutch company has discovered the treasure and started its recovery.
The Maroons were to be hired as divers. But they dared not go into the lake, allegedly because of the many piranhas. In fact, the reason may be the fear of the dead who still lie buried in the flooded villages. Now Brazilian specialists cut down the trees under the surface of the water. The woodworking industry has settled around the lake and at least there, a few local people have found a job.
It will take around 15 years to harvest the underwater trees. The main customers for the wood are the Netherlands and Germany. For each tree from the dam, a tree on land can be spared. What some praise as a little respite for the wild, remaining Amazon rainforest, the Maroons consider it the desecration of the dead for the trees watch over the dead in the cemeteries of the submerged settlements. (Source: Kontinente, March/April)