If you pick up a magazine on tourism or the environment these days, you will likely see the term “eco-tourism” splashed about the pages. It has become a catchphrase that is applied to anything that has to do with outdoor travel and recreation. However, its true meaning bears a lofty weight and responsibility for both tourists and service providers. Eco-tourism is meant to accommodate and entertain visitors in a way that is minimally disturbing or destructive to the environment, while at the same time sustaining and supporting the native cultures in the location it is operating in. Which is why it is so important for the indigenous peoples around the world. This is especially true in developing countries.

Take Suriname, the smallest country in South America and only one-eighth the size of Quebec. It has a population of less than 450,000, over half of whom live in the capital city of Paramaribo. Suriname is a former Dutch colony that only gained independence in 1975. The official language is Dutch, and most people also speak Sranang Tongo (or Taki Taki), a mixture of all the languages spoken in Suriname but heavily Creole at its base.

Suriname is a former slave colony, importing slaves during the 17th century to expand the plantations. However, many of the slaves managed to escape to the inland forests, where they created West African communities, maintaining many of their traditions. They are called the “bush Negroes” or the “maroons.” After the abolition of slavery, indentured workers from Indonesia, India, China, Portugal and Lebanon were brought in to keep up the labour force. As a result, it is a very multi-ethnic and multicultural country. The majority of the population is East Indian (37%), followed by Creole, a mixed African/European descent (31%), and Indonesian (15%). The Natives, or Indiaanas as they are called locally, make up only 3% of the population.

The government owns all the land, so land can only be leased to people or companies. There is no acknowledgment on the part of government that the Native people were the original inhabitants; as a result they have no more right or title to their land than anyone else.

Politically, the major parties in Suriname are divided by ethnicity. There are six major political parties. It is a democracy, where the president is freely elected every five years. Independence came about more from a push by the Dutch government than from any real desire by the country itself. Unprepared for independence, Suriname was immediately left struggling to survive economically. Early on there was much internal political strife as the elected government was overthrown in 1980 and run by a military-dominated regime that ruled by decree. In 1982, after many were calling for a return to civilian rule, the military rounded up and killed 15 opposition leaders, including university professors, journalists, lawyers and trade union leaders. Thousands fled the country, the US and the Netherlands suspended economic and military cooperation and under a rapid economic decline, the regime restricted the press and limited civil liberties.

By all accounts of those who were in the country, it was a frightening time. People were afraid to talk lest “big brother” was watching. It was not until the early 1990s that free elections were held again, peace accords were signed and Dutch financial assistance once more began to flow. There are still many political problems and the 15 murders have not yet been resolved. Most of the population is very poor, the inflation rate is extremely high and foreign debt is still on the rise. Many are hoping that gold mining will help the economy.

Tourism stopped altogether during the internal strife, only picking up again in 1996. Today there is little money for tourism, arts and culture. Upon arrival at the international airport, there are no maps or booths of any kind to help one find their way around the country. It is very expensive to fly into Suriname, plus one needs a visa. These facts keep many tourists away. In Paramaribo there are guesthouses and a four-star hotel to accommodate guests, plus there is a Visitor’s Information Centre where tours inland can be arranged. There are houses and buildings are from colonial times which are dilapidated, sitting next to brand new modern houses and buildings.

As a country that receives less than 7,000 tourists a year, almost all of which are from Holland or Aruba (the other Dutch colony in the area) it doesn’t appear to be a very tourist friendly place. That is, until one begins to talk with the people. The Surinamese are extremely down to earth, beautiful people. Perhaps due to the fact that there has been so much cultural mixing for such a long time, they are very friendly and helpful. They will tell you what is what and help you out as best they can. As for the aesthetic beauty of the country, think of it in terms of what’s on the inside rather than the outside. Much can be found within the city itself, like the mahogany tree lined streets that take one past the Javanese neighbourhood out to the zoo, the sound of the incessant “gree-chi-bee” birds or the “six o’clock cricket” that is so loud it’s almost like a jack hammer. Suriname is like a treasure chest of natural beauties just waiting to be discovered.

Two such places are Galibi and Babunsanti, located on the eastern coast of Suriname that borders French Guyana. Galibi is the name given to two Carib villages upstream from Albima, a coastal village. Albima is located two hours east of Paramaribo by way of a pothole-infested road that winds

through four different districts or provinces. Along the road are maroon homes where the people still live off the land, with no running water and no electricity. The houses are little more than shacks, some consisting of only one room. Across the river from Albima is French Guiana; there is much travel to and from the other side. From Albima, it is a 60-minute boat ride upstream to Galibi.

The two Carib villages are called Christiaankondre and Langamankondre (Christian Village and Tall Man Village). The Carib population is over 10,000 in total. This includes those Carib who live on the French Guiana side as well, whose villages are directly across the river from each other. The two villages of Galibi are home to 800 people, roughly 125 families. These Carib have lived in “splendid isolation” for hundreds of years. They live off the land with a diet consisting mainly of fish, cashew fruits, coconuts, mangos, watermelon and cassava. Monkeys and jaguar are also part of the diet.

In Galibi, there is one primary school with 144 students. There are eight teachers, six of which are Carib. The head mistress’ office houses the library, which consists of six shelves and perhaps 100 books. Parents pay the equivalent of $ 17 CDN in annual school fees. School supplies are in high demand, as there are never enough notebooks, pencils, erasers and rulers to go around. The textbooks are out of date. Students that continue on to secondary school must leave the villages to attend school in Paramaribo, where they pay $33 CDN for school fees. They must also pay for the school supplies, room and board, uniforms and transportation. The government pays no part: there are no subsidies for the Carib apart from a monthly supply of diesel fuel.

Within the villages there is also a health clinic, a radio station, a Welcome Centre, a tourist shop, some tourist lodges, two food stores and a bar. There is no electricity during the day, but from 6:30 pm until 12 am a diesel-run generator provides electrical power for the lights, televisions, VCRs and radios. It is very expensive to purchase and import the diesel, which is why the hours are limited. The monthly diesel from the government is not enough for a month’s supply of power and each household pays a minimal amount to run the generator.

The heads of the villages are called captains. Their main function is to keep law and order. They deal with conflict,

work on matters of development, try to implement a basic infrastructure, inform about what the Indigenous people are doing in the country and internationally, inform about gender issues, biodiversity, and children’s rights. The captain has four assistants called Bashas. These report to the captain of the goings-on within the village. As the Carib are very gender sensitive, both captains have two men and two women Bashas. Women can also be captains but there have been none to date. The captainship used to be passed on from father to son but four years ago the villages decided they would appoint whomever they saw fit. Every five years, an evaluation of the captain is held and replaced if necessary.

Five years ago they realized that if things continued as they were, the language and traditions would be lost. Since the time of contact with the Western world, in the early 1920s, their culture has suffered. Carving, weaving, singing, dancing, and many ceremonies have been lost and continue to be threatened. Both villages now have a cultural association. Women train children in singing, dancing and music making. When the tourists come, the villages take turns staging a cultural show. The radio station is used as a tool to teach the youth the traditional music as well as pass on news. The language is Calinga, which everyone speaks. A written language is now in print as well and taught in the school.

There are very few elders that pass on the history; they are not a story-telling people. The Shaman is the one who learns

the history. There are eight Shamans among the Carib and all of them live in Galibi. The Shamans are the medicine men of traditional health. The grown-ups go directly to the Shaman when something ails them, then to the health clinic if they need to. Most people go to both. Shamans are consulted when new buildings are to be constructed, as they know where the spirits need to pass unobstructed. For the Carib, everything has a spirit. The Shaman makes contact with the spirits using his maraca and smoke as tools. The maraca contains the medicine.

Interesting Facts about Suriname

There are four native tribes in Suriname: the Arowaks, the Trios, the Wayanas and the Carib. There are coastal natives or Upland Natives, and the lowland or savannah natives. The Carib in Galibi are upland natives while the other Carib villages are located in the savannah.

In 1667 Suriname was traded by the British to the Dutch, in exchange for New Amsterdam, present day New York City.

The plantation masters were known to be extraordinarily cruel to their slaves. It was well known even in the USA, where the masters used to threaten their slaves with being sent to Suriname if they refused to cooperate.

There is a white building in Paramaribo called the Waagebouw, pronounced ‘whack abow’. The word means ‘weigh-station’. During colonial times it was the only landing port, so everything coming into or leaving the country went through the station, even the slaves. These days it called Bodeco; it is an art gallery/dance bar-lounge/tourist operator. Wooden sculptures of women’s torsos and beautiful chairs, benches and tables all hand made by the owner adorn the inside. In the middle of the ceiling, the anchors where the weigh scale hung are still visible. Friday and Saturday night it becomes “the” place to be as hundreds of people pack in to dance the hours away – it stays open until 6 am!

Alphonse, the 87-year-old head Shaman, grew up on the French Guyana side and so speaks French. At the beginning of our interview, I was encouraged to speak French. At the end, after I had struggled to express myself, Alphonse looked at me and laughed that my French was really terrible. He had been refusing to see anyone but family for months as he is losing strength, but was very happy to meet the young Indiaana from Canada.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the next Nation in two weeks time, where we’ll conclude our look at Suriname’s indigenous eco tourism ventures.