I had finally found a place where I could enjoy making my thesis. Chimbo Foundation, a Dutch NGO that works mainly with chimpanzees conservation in Guinea-Bissau, wanted me to make a small field research for them. The first problem, however, was how to get there (plane tickets from Europe to Guinea-Bissau are extremely overpriced). The solution, was then to fly to Gambia and arrive in Guinea-Bissau by crossing Senegal, but for that, visas from all three countries would be necessary.
The only embassy that gave me some trustworthy information was the one from The Gambia in Amsterdam. From the Senegalese consulate in The Hague I could only get a “je parle seulement français” by the telephone and some crossed information by e-mail that could only give me a glimpse of their working hours and the necessary documents. The Guinea-Bissauan embassy was by far the worst, from which I could only get their possible address in Brussels. With so many things to worry about, it remained no more than two weeks to arrange all those visas before the flight. The solution was to travel through those three cities with nothing but the hope I would get them all.
The first itinerary was to go to The Hague and see what I could get from the Senegalese consulate. After little more than three hours between buses, trains and walks I could get to the embassy, but just to receive completely different information from what I have received by e-mail. One of the workers, in his precarious English, explained me they would only provide me the transit visa to Senegal once I had the one from Guinea-Bissau, and even so, this service would take some days. I didn’t have that much time, the alternative would be reaching the Senegalese embassy in Brussels in the next days while going there for the Guinea-Bissauan.
The only thing that rested me during that day was to look for a place where to print some extra documents, a mission that unexpectedly proved itself very difficult, since, as I later realized, it was easier to find a coffee shop* than a copy shop** in The Netherlands. After six hours of walking around I finally managed to find a place that could simply print those documents for me. Since it was already late, there was nothing else to do than finding a place to sleep and prepare for my travel to Amsterdam and Brussels in the next day.
* Where one can buy Cannabis sp. for their own consumption;
** Where one can buy office material, print and make copies.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, the famous French anthropologist, once wrote a book called Tristes Tropiques (“Sad Tropics” in English), after spending two years visiting some indigenous populations in Brazil. In his writings he summarizes all his memories and the sadness of remembering the time spent in the tropics. I mention his work because now I finely understand what he meant. In Portuguese we have a word that represents this emotion Strauss took a whole book to describe; it is called Saudade, the felling of missing something, mixed with sadness and nostalgia.
Even in Suriname, especially during the last days I spent there, thinking that the time of coming back was arriving used to make a little spark of sadness light inside me. In December, after I came back to The Netherlands, it became a blaze of saudade, only serving to cool me even more in the frozen winter. The fact of being Brazilian and have grown on the tropics could be one reason for felling so much at home in Moengo, but there is also something more, something I cannot define precisely. Maybe the Surinamese people, maybe the brutal wildness, maybe it was a place for running away of my temperate problems. Maybe a little bit of all that.
What I can surely attest is that besides missing that country, the rastafaris, the poumpo mousse (a sort of grapefruit) and the starry sky, I will also carry with me the humbleness and the respect I learned from that people and, of course, the willingness of coming back someday.
Grantangi fu alamala, Sranan! (Thank you very much for everything, Suriname!)
On a Wednesday, November 29th, 2012 our team visited some reforestation areas of SURALCO, the Surinamese franchising of ALCOA, a mining company that entered Suriname in 1916 and now extracts mainly bauxite. Even though they have been exploiting the area around Moengo for 96 years they started to rehabilitate it only about 30 years ago, intending to recover the whole area in the close future. Reforestation is a politics of the company and not a government requirement. “Do you leave your dog under the sun or underwater the whole day? You must have the same care with the soil – it is a living soil,” the rehabilitation chief of the company explained us.
Before starting the exploitation they do a social research in the communities that depend on the forest and only start their work after an agreement. The first step is selling the trees with commercial value and giving the profit to the logging company or whoever has the concession ownership. The top-soil is kept aside when opening the area to be put back when the mining ends, as the first step for rehabilitation. After mining is over, reforestation takes place. They also work in concessions in Brazil and Australia and the rehabilitation process from Moengo is based on the model used in Trombetas (30 min. flying from Santarém, north of Brazil). The planting system consists of 1600 seedlings/ha, with 100% of native species (around 60 different species between pioneer and timber wood varieties). The only fertilizer used is chicken manure and seedling growth is done by the Petro Ondo community. The total price for recovering those areas rounds between 5 and 40 thousand Surinamese dollars per ha.
The company works with a Reforestation Index, a practical method to measure rehabilitation success, but even so, their methodology isn’t perfect yet. Ground is too compact and rocky and the physiognomy of the rehabilitated forest isn’t the same as that of a forest that recovered itself naturally (trees don’t grow straight, most of them bifurcate and the understory is almost absent) thanks, for example, to the wrong ecological succession applied in the process (pioneer and climax species are planted simultaneously).
As previously mentioned, there isn’t any government requirement or benefit for forest rehabilitation in Suriname. Besides, SURALCO works without any certificate. In spite of that, the company lemma is that the mining process stops only when the rehabilitation is finished. This politics is important to keep the popularity with their customers, “Keep the sustainable image of the company” – said the chief – “If you don’t work right, the picture will be in the papers: ‘That is what the company does’”.
After English, French and a much longer Dutch colonization, Suriname has become independent only around 30 years ago, after a severe civil war. Slavery has been abolished for a longer time than that, but even today the country keeps the remains of that period in its population dynamics. Indigenous groups occupy mainly the west of the country while the Bakras (European people) and other recent migrated ethnic groups live around the capital Paramaribo (except for the Chinese, who own markets in every corner of the country). By the other hand, in the east of Suriname, population is almost completely composed by African slaves descendants. The escaped slaves, and after them the released ones, moved to the relatively less populated areas of the country to find villages and work in places far away from their former masters. Those communal villages, quite isolated from the rest of the country and immersed in their own socio-economic context ended up giving origin to a new traditional group that only exists in Suriname, the Maroon ethnicity. During this field stage of the Forest Management Plan, I’d got in touch with three of those villages, Ricanau Mofo, Abadukondre and Bernati Mofo and this three weeks were enough for getting a broad impression of their culture.
Although Dutch is the official language of Suriname, the communication between Maroons would happen either in Aukaans or Sranan Tongo, two of what they call Surinamese languages. These languages, as I noticed, and after confirmed by one of the villagers, could be described as a mixture of Dutch and English with a heavy nigga accent. Catholicism, despite being recently introduced in these communities, compose the main religious beliefs of that people, even though a significant part of them (specially the self-called Rastafaris) still refuse to go to church. The descendancy system is matrilineal (surnames and social status are herited from the mother) and respect for elder women is evident, for example, one isn’t allowed to stand still in front of a grandmother while she is seated.
Their economy is mainly based in agriculture, commercial and self-consumption crops are planted in the kostgrondjes, small familial plots opened in the forest after slashing and burning the previous vegetation. Life in these communal villages might be little ambitious but most of its members show a big material appreciation, an imported new car isn’t difficult to purchase and expansive watches, rings and golden teeth are not rarely seen when walking around.
Thus, the Maroons could be briefly described as a population firmly rooted in its African past but having the scars of the European domination still present in their cultural identity. A society that can open itself to national market dynamics and even so, maintain a communal and relatively environmentally harmless productive system.
Slash-and-burn agriculture is a method of land use widely adopted in the tropical areas of Americas, especially among traditional communities. It has shown to be suitable for those regions since it’s a good alternative for low fertility soils and small communal agricultural systems. It consists, roughly, of burning and then cutting the forest cover of a small area (often less than 0.5 hectares), cultivating it for around 2 years and leaving it for recovering itself for more 15-30 years. It is mostly applied at secondary forest regions that have been historically used for this activity, so being the most important factor in tropical forest dynamics at landscape level in the regions where it is practiced.
Kostgrondjes is how surinamese people name the small agricultural areas established by the slash-and-burn method. Ricanau Mofo, one of the Maroon communities I visited in the end of 2012, rely most of its goods production on the creation of this kind of agricultural plots, having a significant percentage of its traditional land occupied by it or by its recovering areas. They plant crops for their own consumption and also for selling at Paramaribo market and Saint Laurant in Franch Guyana, thus, each year, local and national demands lead the choice of crops at their kostgrondjes. Species like papaya, maize, pumpkin, cucumber, sapropo, kouseband are mainly cultivated for the community needs while national price fluctuations regulate the choice for market cultures. For example, rice were widely planted in the past, but due to its devaluation, the community is now considering to rise their cassava production, since it showed to provide a more stable profit at the moment.
Every family on the community, generally composed by a couple with six to eight children, has the right of cultivating a piece of land, consisting of an average area of 0,35ha. The choice of areas to be slashed and burned is made after the community’s approval and by taking into account its accessibility, soil characteristics and size and number of the families that will depend on its production. Besides all these factors, like aforesaid, a new kostgrondje can be created only in secondary forest areas, as to say, forested lands that had been used for this activity years before and then abandoned to recover its natural vegetation and consequently its soil’s nutrients and productivity. Thus, managing kostgrondje‘s productivity and rotation time is a good option not only for the improvement of communities welfare but also for increasing ecosystem stability, since it implies, for example, on reduction of clean-cut areas and their longer recovering periods.
It was Saturday night, the work had been finished early that day and we wouldn’t have anything to do on Sunday. I’d heard about a kind of “funeral party” that people from Abadukondre would throw that night. “Why not go?!”, I thought to myself.
Eight days before a woman from Bernati Mofo (another Maroon village) had died. Her death would be “celebrated” with that party, called Aitidei (literally meaning “Eight days” in Sranan Tongo, the most common trading language from Suriname). Forty days after her death another similar party would happen, finishing the ritual. Those parties consisted of two parts, the first one was a religious celebration, with children choir and prayers, attended solely by the community members. The second part was open for everybody, as I discovered, on the next day, that even people from Paramaribo (100km away) had come and that my presence there was really appreciated by the villagers.
In this second part of the celebration some bands played, atabaques, shakers and other elements of Afro-descendant culture of Latin America were present and the women were all dressed with skirts and hair ribbons with a blue and green chess pattern. At first I tried to stand still only as an observer, but it didn’t last for too long. People would do everything to make you dance, even teaching you how to, as in my case. I started at the flanks of the saloon learning the basic moves from an old guy while he insisted on me to dance with a woman he presented me. It didn’t take much time for some girls to push me to the center of the party and start some more complex steps, which by that time just came out spontaneously. The dance would become even more close and sexualized as deeper I entered into the crowd. The drums, the heat and especially the people would make you never stop. Once a man or a woman desired to dance with someone, they would simply try to push that person to him/her or intervene by approaching the couple and try to “conquer” his/her desired person from the partner with a better dance.
The contagious, passionate and sexualized movements made me realize that between the Maroons and most part of other societies, a clear opposition is present with respect to death. Facing the death of a close person isn’t about lamenting the end of life, but about celebrating its natural cycle and, of course, being alive yourself.
On 18 of November of 2012, me, the other Brazilian exchange students and the rest of the class from the fourth year of Tropical Forestry were supposed to depart from Amsterdam’s airport, heading to Suriname. The objective was to spend the next three weeks collecting data to write a forest management plan for two traditional communities from the northeast of the country, as part of our studies in The Netherlands. We had to meet at the airport’s hall at twelve o’clock at a Sunday. Easy! The Brazilians and me left home around 9:30h and indeed we managed to make it, despite our fame of being late. But as soon as I set foot at Schipol I realized I’d forgotten something very important. I’d separated my passport from my luggage the night before to put it in my pocket on the way to the airport, but my fish memory made me forget it when I left home that morning. It was too late for coming back and I couldn’t contact anyone to pick it up for me.
The result: I couldn’t embark in the flight to Paramaribo that day. After some talk at the Suriname Airways office I managed to book another flight for Tuesday by paying a “change of flight” fee (the value of which I won’t reveal here, since I assume it was proportional to the stupidity of forgetting my document…).
The flight departed at 10:20h on Tuesday, everything went fine and it arrived at Paramaribo without delay, 15:50h at Surinamese time. The only problem was that around that time three other flights had arrived, which made me take one hour and a half to pass through the immigration office. It was already late and I wouldn’t be able to arrive at Paramaribo center on time for buying some things I still needed for the field work, such as a hammock and a mosquitoes net. Talking to some people at the airport they also advised me not trying to go to Moengo that late, it would be better to sleep at Paramaribo and go shopping and take the bus to Marowijne District on the next morning. I looked for some public bus for taking me to the center of Paramaribo, but I couldn’t find it. I had to take a cab, that luckily brought me to a very cheap guesthouse there.
After being appropriately settled I went walking for some sightseeing at night. It was good to have that tropical and coastal feeling once again, something I really missed from Brazil after spending three months in The Netherlands. Surprisingly, what also made me feel like home was the number of Rastafaris on the streets, all of them screaming things like “He, Rastaman!” once they saw me walking around.
The next day I woke up very early to buy the things I had to. After I got hands on my hammock (which I bought with the help of one of the Rastafaris I’d met) I went straight away to the bus that would take me to Moengo. It arrived at the town around 11 o’clock in the morning and it didn’t take me long to find the house of the coordinator of the project, where I met his wife and son. They kindly did the favor to bringing me to Abadukondre, the Maroon village where the other members of the group were staying. I was then at last at my final destination, far from the capital’s chaos, but still with that tropical atmosphere and a lot of friendly rastamans!