GreenPrints: Protecting Indigenous Rights in Suriname

We had the opportunity to interview Sarah Augustine, the co-founder of Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, who works to protect the human rights of Indigenous Peoples in Suriname. Health In Harmony is inspired by her organization’s work to uphold the rights of local communities in order to protect their home and environment. This in turn helps the global community in mitigating the climate crisis.

Read on to learn more about Sarah and how her organization is actively working to help protect the planet and all those who live on it.

Tell us your story and about your organization.

Daniel Pellow and I established Suriname Indigenous Health Fund (SIHF) in 2005. We work in Latin America and the Caribbean using our positions as global health practitioners and mediation specialists to address the “structural causes” of preventable community health issues for which the responsible factors lie outside the health sector and are socially, politically, and economically formed. In 2005, Dan worked under contract with the U.S. State Department in the trans-border region between Suriname, French Guiana, and Brazil. He included me, a social scientist, in his work assessing the impacts of gold mining on the environment and community health. Shortly after we started working together, we got married!

Sarah Augustine and her husband, Daniel Pellow

We created Suriname Indigenous Health Fund (SIHF) together to investigate the impacts of economic development projects spawned by the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) and the Suriname Land Management Plan (SLMP), which are the development plans designed to link South America’s natural resources to financial systems of North American and Europe through transportation, energy, and telecommunications. In fifteen years working in the Guiana region, we have formed public-private partnerships with many communities as well as diverse gatekeepers, including elected officials, appointees, staff, bureaucrats, lobbyists, consultants, and interest groups.

Since its inception, SIHF has worked to address the unresolved issues related to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities undergoing forced assimilation. Our mission is to seek the peaceful resolution of conflicts at the interface between economic development and Indigenous community health caused by conditions that are the result of economic development projects that come at the expense of society. While foreign investment and corporations dedicated to resource extraction operating in the region have a valuable role to play in society, what is missing are policies that ensure that their success in the region does not come at the expense of society in general, threaten the existence of minority populations, or render a region uninhabitable, as is the case with gold mining in the Guyana Shield.

Why is taking care of the planet important to you?

The Earth is my home – it is beautiful: the engine and animator of life. The Earth is so fantastic in its diversity! And it requires a delicate balance. It is amazingly resilient, but delicate. There is a small range of temperatures at which my body can thrive. The air must be an exact combination of elements if I am to breathe. Taking care of the planet is important to me because I want to live. It is important to me because I love my children, and I want them to live and thrive. Taking care of the lands that are the homes of my friends in the Guyana Shield is important to me because I love my friends; and because I believe in human rights and self determination.

The people and other animals that live in the Guyana Shield should be able to live with dignity, unthreatened by corporate interests willing to destroy the lands, communities, and bodies of so many for short-term gain.

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, has used Suriname’s mining industry as a model of good financial stewardship. Suriname’s mining industry uses the logic of extractive, short-term financial gain over all other interests. Mining is a liquidation industry! How could it be used as a model of “stewardship,” which implies careful management of a resource?

Suriname is ranked third in the world for the number of endemic species. All of that biodiversity is now polluted by mercury deposited by gold mining. The environment is permanently contaminated, and toxic. It is unhealthy for all life, aquatic and terrestrial, including human life. The Indigenous People who live there are at the mercy of foreign, corporate interests. This beautiful, crucial region is sacrificed to support a global financial practice in which Amazonian resources are securitized, mirroring the United States. Securitization, and the environmental contamination that is the result subjects all people living in the region to disease, disability, suicide, and death.

Where do you see and feel the interconnection of people and the planet?

I have learned from my elders that human beings are embedded in a life-web whose nature is interdependence.

Sarah working to provide supplies and healthcare to Indigenous communities in Suriname

In the dominant culture in the United States, there is an emphasis on individualism, on self-reliance. I have been taught that individualism is an illusion. All life is dependent on a wildly diverse and fragile web of life support systems.

As we humans damage the systems that sustain life, we risk our own survival and the survival of thousands of species.

As mining interests in North America permanently contaminate the waters, soils, and air in Suriname and the Guyana Shield, they threated the life-web we all depend on to live.

what cause is closest to your heart?

The struggle for transparency in global financial governance. Does this sound sexy or what?!

Put simply, this is a struggle for basic human rights.

Right now, this type of governance impacts the lives of everyone, yet it is non-transparent and non-democratic. It is possible, for example, to contaminate the lands and bodies of Indigenous Peoples in Suriname without their participation or consent.

No laws need be broken because national laws are changed to comply with financial interests. We call this “economic development.”

Anything else you would like to add?

Sarah and Daniel at their home (an organic beef ranch) in Central Washington.

Our work requires us to be flexible and adaptive; we have to use what we can to respond to a constantly changing context. We can’t compete with the provisions (money and power) of extractive industry, so we have to be creative. We are now using satellite technology to document mining impacts on ecosystems and public health on a large scale.

This is the same technology mining companies use to explore and develop extractive operations.

We are developing methods that use this technology to serve Indigenous communities and to hold extractive industry accountable.

Learn More:

Visit Suriname Indigenous Health Fund (SIHF) to learn more about their work!

Learn about Health In Harmony’s Radical Listening approach to uphold Indigenous wisdom and create community-designed solutions.

Read another GreenPrints feature to learn about others who are working to protect the environment!

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