Serving in Suriname
In the realm of bettering the human condition, there are those who help and those who serve. While they may sound like the same thing, serving requires a much deeper commitment over time, and comes from a much humbler place. Wholly committed to serving the indigenous peoples of the tiny nation of Suriname are Heritage professors Dr. Dan Peplow and Sarah Augustine, the husband and wife team who in 2005 founded the nongovernmental organization Suriname Indigenous Health Fund (SIHF).
Located in northern South America, the Republic of Suriname is the smallest sovereign state on the continent, encompassing a little under 64,000 square miles. While most of its citizens— totaling around 560,000—reside along the country’s northern coast, a number of indigenous people inhabit the southern rainforest and savannah regions which have been overrun by a mining boom over the last 30 years. A mineral-rich country, particularly in bauxite and gold, Suriname has seen nearly a thousand-fold increase in gold mining during that time.
The bulk of these mines are run by small-scale operators that use mercury to separate gold from other minerals. Additional large-scale, multinational mining operations work in the country’s interior employing equally dangerous cyanide leeching to extract the gold. Their ore extraction methods have left the banks of countless rivers and streams heavily polluted with cyanide and mercury—the very rivers in which indigenous people must fish in order to survive. It has devastated local populations. Mercury is so highly toxic that, when ingested, it causes devastating, irreversible neurological impairments, particularly in children.
“How can we as a democratic people continue to support economic development programs that benefit the ‘greater good’ in our society while causing death and destruction among the most vulnerable communities in Suriname?” asks Dr. Peplow. “Majority rule may be a fundamental feature of representative and constitutional democracies yet, by definition, there also must be effective mechanisms for protecting minority rights.”
Dr. Peplow began working in the ways in which U.S. economic development programs impacted public and environmental health in Suriname’s interior jungle region. During his early efforts with locals, however, Peplow was struck by a troubling pattern: he was met with overwhelming cynicism by the indigenous people. His study wasn’t their first encounter with well-meaning scientists. They had developed a jaded attitude which stemmed from a perceived lack of action after previous studies had been conducted.
“I realized that the problem wasn’t just a scientific issue—it also was a human rights and land-tenure issue,” said Peplow. “These people were being marginalized and dispossessed Suriname in 2004, when he interned as an environmental advisor for the U.S. Embassy. His job was to study by their own government. They were not included in decision-making and had no say in their futures.”
Incensed, he contacted his then-fiancée, Sarah Augustine, and the two began working to make a difference. Augustine was educated as a social scientist, which made her uniquely qualified to address the ethical issues involved with human-subject research.
Together, the couple formed SIHF and put into play a two-pronged approach which melded environmental science and social science. Through SIHF they now work directly with Suriname’s indigenous people, providing them with access to all the scientific data that had previously been denied. The couple also supplies mercury and cyanide testing kits and teaches locals how to use the technology. Moreover, they are moving the issue to the international stage using social media and documentaries, and by publishing their work in academic journals, building partnerships with like-minded organizations and working with the news media. Their approach differs from that of many other non-governmental organizations in that priorities and projects are set by the indigenous partners with whom they are working.
Relates Augustine, “At a community meeting in the small village of Pikin Poika, an elder told me about how her home and garden were bulldozed by a development company. She had gone to the city to receive treatment for diabetes. When she returned a few days later, her home was gone and a locked fence encircled her village. She asked me, ‘Will you fight with me?’ I thought to myself, ‘Who, me? What can I do?’ It turns out there is quite a lot each of us can do.”
After nine years, the professors are beginning to see results. By forging a solid link between health impacts and human rights, their work has led the Surinamese government to begin negotiations with the country’s indigenous peoples. Additionally, the global mining conglomerate IMGold has agreed to drill wells in indigenous communities to ensure an unpolluted source of water for the people living there.
Peplow and Augustine’s work is far from over. They are still working to get the United Nations’ “Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous” to be incorporated into Suriname’s constitution, as well as to establish treaties and protections that ensure the indigenous peoples will not just survive, but flourish. “We have shown that, contrary to popular belief, the indigenous people in Suriname can make reasoned and balanced decisions about complex technical issues,” said Augustine. “Still, there is much to be done to address community health and to protect vulnerable, minority populations from disease and displacement at the hands of corporations.”
Dr. Peplow holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from the University of Washington. He teaches physical science and environmental toxicology at Heritage. Augustine is a social scientist with a M.A. in whole systems design from Antioch University. She is an assistant professor of sociology at Heritage, the assistant director of the Center for a New Washington, and project director for One Voice in Higher Education. More information on Dr. Peplow and Augustine’s work can be found at sihfund.org.