INTRODUCTION OF SURINAME
Suriname (country), country in northeastern South America that borders the Atlantic Ocean. Before 1975 Suriname was a dependency of the Netherlands and was called Dutch Guiana or Netherlands Guiana. Suriname has an area of 163,265 sq km (63,037 sq mi), making it the smallest independent country in South America. The capital and only major urban area is Paramaribo.
Suriname has an ethnically mixed population as a consequence of the colonial plantation system of past centuries. Plantations that grew sugarcane and other crops first relied on slave labor from Africa. After the abolition of slavery, laborers were brought in from India, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia. Today, more than half of Suriname’s people are of Asian ancestry. Creoles, of mixed African and European ancestry, also make up a large part of the population.
The economy of Suriname is based on the mining of bauxite, the ore from which aluminum is made. Much of the ore is processed in Suriname before shipment elsewhere, especially to the United States.
English, French, and Dutch traders first arrived in Suriname in the late 16th century. It became a Dutch colony later in the century. Shortly after independence in 1975, a military coup overthrew Suriname’s democratically elected government. Although democracy was restored in 1987, the military continued to wield power in the 1990s. An upturn in the economy in the early 2000s raised expectations that the democratic government would remain in power.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF SURINAME
Suriname is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by French Guiana, on the south by Brazil, and on the west by Guyana. The southern sections of the boundaries with French Guiana and Guyana are disputed. Suriname has an Atlantic coastline 386 km (240 mi) long, and it extends inland for about 400 km (about 250 mi). The country has three land regions: a coastal plain, a plateau savanna, and a forested highland.
The coastal plain varies in width from 80 km (50 mi) in the west to 16 km (10 mi) in the east. It consists of swampy land crossed by sandy ridges. The ridges and drained swampland are used for farming. South of the coastal plain, a narrow savanna zone covers the central plateau. Scattered subsistence farming is carried on here, but the soil is not fertile enough for large-scale agriculture. The rest of the interior consists mostly of a highland zone covered by dense tropical rain forest. The highlands culminate in mountains in the west central part of the country. South of the mountains is another savanna.
Four major rivers flow northward across Suriname. From west to east, they are the Corantijn, which forms much of the boundary with Guyana (and which the Guyanese call the Courantyne); the Coppername; the Suriname; and the Marowijne, which forms much of the boundary with French Guiana (and which the French Guianans call the Maroni). Several other rivers are important for transportation and agriculture.
Climate in Suriname
Suriname has a rainy tropical climate. Annual temperatures normally range between 23° and 32°C (73° and 90°F). More than 2,000 mm (80 in) of rain falls each year in coastal areas. Rainfall diminishes to 1,500 mm (60 in) in inland areas. Each year has two rainy seasons, a short one from mid-November through January and a longer one from March through mid-July. There is a short dry season from February through mid-March and a longer one from August through mid-November.
Resources in Suriname
Suriname’s chief resources are bauxite, iron ore, copper, nickel, and extensive forests. Except for bauxite, most of its resources remain largely untapped.
Environmental Issues in Suriname
The government of Suriname has set aside some land for nature reserves. However, lack of funding limits effective management of the system. The Central Suriname Nature Reserve, created in 1998, covers 1.6 million hectares (nearly 4 million acres) of tropical forest.
Deforestation by the timber industry is a growing environmental problem. The most pressing issue in Suriname is the proposed sale of vast tracts of virgin forest—up to 40 percent of the nation’s land—to logging companies from Southeast Asia. The government wants to use profits from forest resources to offset rapidly increasing inflation and unemployment. Environmentalists, on the other hand, are encouraging ecotourism as an alternative industry and pushing for sustainable forest use.
PEOPLE OF SURINAME
With a population of 481,267 (2009 estimate), Suriname has fewer people than any other South American country. Its population density of 3 persons per sq km (8 per sq mi) is one of the lowest in the world. More than half the country’s people live in Paramaribo (population, 2003 estimate, 253,000), the country’s capital, largest city, and chief seaport. The interior of the country is extremely sparsely settled.
Suriname’s population is ethnically diverse. The main ethnic groups are Asian Indians (Hindus), who make up about 37 percent of the population, and Creoles, who are of African or mixed African and European ancestry and make up about 31 percent of the population. There are also sizable communities of Indonesians (15 percent); Maroons, descendants of blacks who escaped slavery long ago by moving to the interior (10 percent); Native Americans, descendants of indigenous tribes (3 percent); Chinese (2 percent); and Europeans (1 percent). Many Surinamese people emigrated to the Netherlands after independence and after a military dictatorship came to power in Suriname from 1980. Others went to the Netherlands in pursuit of educational and employment opportunities.
Ethnic groups in Suriname compete for economic and political power, and certain jobs have tended to be the province of particular ethnic groups. Within the small upper class, ethnic groups mingle freely. Within other classes, ethnic groups tend to remain separate and follow their own traditions. The Creoles are broadly divided into a small upper class composed of Dutch-educated professionals and senior government workers, and a large lower class composed primarily of semiskilled and unskilled workers. The East Indians long dominated agriculture but increasingly entered urban occupations in the last half of the 20th century. They now compete with other ethnic groups in all spheres of the economy. The Javanese work mainly as farm laborers. The Chinese are engaged mainly in urban retail trades and belong largely to the middle and upper classes. The Maroons and Native Americans live largely in the undeveloped interior of the country.
Language and Religion in Suriname
Suriname’s ethnic diversity is apparent in the varied languages its people speak. The official language of Suriname is Dutch, but most of the people speak Sranang Tongo, a Creole language. Also known as Taki-Taki, Sranang Tongo includes elements of several languages and is the vehicle for most interethnic communication. Other languages spoken in Suriname include Hindi, Javanese, Chinese, English, and French. Small numbers of Native Americans still speak indigenous languages.
The main religions in Suriname are Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. The majority of Christians are Roman Catholics, and members of the Moravian Church predominate among Protestants. East Indians are predominantly Hindu, although they include some Muslims. Most of the Muslims in Suriname are of Indonesian descent.
Education in Suriname
School attendance is required for Surinamese children aged 6 to 12, and 65,020 attended primary school in 2007. The literacy rate is 90.4 percent. Suriname has one university, the Anton de Kom University of Suriname, which was founded in Paramaribo in 1968.
ECONOMY OF SURINAME
Economic development in Suriname has been hindered by the small population, the difficulty of reaching the interior, and the military and political unrest of the 1980s. Bauxite is the mainstay of the economy, and the mining and processing of it into alumina and aluminum is the major source of income. Bauxite, alumina, and aluminum also are the chief exports, with the result that Suriname’s economy is vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices for these products. The United States aluminum company ALCOA operates in Suriname and in the early 2000s announced plans to expand its operations there.
Suriname also has deposits of gold, iron ore, manganese, copper, and other minerals, but these remain largely unexploited. The country uses most of the petroleum it produces. Other products manufactured in Suriname include food and beverages, tobacco products, construction materials, and clothing. Most of the manufacturing industries use local materials.
Agriculture is confined mainly to the coastal plains, but the river valleys and savanna of the interior offer great potential for expansion. Rice is Suriname’s chief crop, and about half of the country’s farmland is used for growing rice. Sugarcane was for centuries the mainstay of the economy but is now relatively unimportant. Other crops include bananas and plantains, oil palms, and citrus fruits. Shrimp fishing is expanding along the coast, and shrimps contribute to the country’s export income.
Tourism of Suriname
Tourism is not highly developed in Suriname. The capital has interesting buildings in a Dutch colonial style. In the interior there are a number of nature reserves in which to view tropical plants and wildlife. Transportation to the interior is primarily by airplane or up the rivers by boat.
Trade and Currency in Suriname
In 2006 exports totaled $1,234 million. Imports totaled $965 million; imports usually consist mostly of food, fuels, and industrial goods. Principal purchasers of Suriname’s exports are the United States, Norway, France, and Canada. The chief sources of imports are the United States, Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, and Japan. In 1995 Suriname joined in forming the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), a free-trade organization. The organization’s other members include 12 nations bordering on or in the Caribbean and the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM).
The monetary unit is the Suriname dollar of 100 cents (2.735 dollars equaled US$1; 2004). It replaced the Suriname guilder in 2004 in a government attempt to restore confidence in the economy. The bank of issue is the Centrale Bank van Suriname.
Transportation and Communication in Suriname
Transportation facilities in Suriname are concentrated in the northern part of the country. The nation has 4,304 km (2,674 mi) of roads. The principal road runs east-west and links Albina with Nieuw Nickerie. There are no passenger railroads. Boats carry people along Suriname’s inland rivers and canals and between towns on its coast. Paramaribo and Nieuw Nickerie are the chief seaports, and Moengo, Paranam, and Smalkalden are important ports for shipping bauxite. Suriname’s principal airport is at Zanderij; Suriname Airways is the national airline.
The country has several radio stations and two television stations. Broadcasts are in Dutch and several other languages. There were 728 radio receivers, 253 television sets, and 180 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 inhabitants in 1997.
GOVERNMENT OF SURINAME
Until 1980 Suriname was governed under a constitution adopted in 1975. The government was headed by a popularly elected president, a council of ministers, and a unicameral parliament. Following a coup d’état in 1980, the constitution was suspended, parliament was dissolved, and the Policy Center, a council dominated by the military, began ruling by decree.
A new constitution, adopted by referendum in 1987, established a 51-member National Assembly with the power to select the president. The president is elected to a five-year term. Members of the National Assembly are elected to five-year terms by popular vote.
HISTORY OF SURINAME
Before the advent of Europeans, the territory that is now Suriname was inhabited by tribes of Arawak, Carib, and Warrau Native Americans. Most Native Americans lived in small, independent villages in which kinship ties formed the basis of community. They lived by hunting and farming, mainly of root crops such as cassava (manioc). The coastal peoples spoke Arawakan languages; those in the interior spoke Cariban languages.
Dutch, French, and English traders established stations along the coast of Suriname in the late 16th century. English traders began to colonize the region during the first half of the 17th century. The first permanent European settlement was a plantation colony established in 1650 on the Suriname River by a British group. A fleet of the Dutch West India Company later captured this colony. With the Treaty of Breda in 1667, the English ceded their part of the colony to the Netherlands in exchange for New Amsterdam (which became New York City), and Suriname was officially brought under Dutch rule. Thereafter, the Netherlands ruled Suriname as a colony, except during two brief wartime periods, from 1795 to 1802 and from 1804 to 1816, when the British retook it.
The Colonial Plantation System
Plantation agriculture was the initial basis of the Dutch colony’s economy. The Dutch established many plantations and imported large numbers of Africans to work as slaves. The chief crop was sugarcane, but there were also plantations that grew coffee, cacao, indigo, cotton, food crops, and timber trees. The plantation economy continued to expand until about 1785. By then, there were 591 plantations, of which 452 grew sugar and other commercial crops and 139 grew food crops and timber. From then on, however, agricultural production declined. Plantation owners made more money elsewhere, and their labor costs rose as slaves were emancipated. By 1860 only 87 sugar estates were left, and by 1940 there were only 4.
As in other slaveholding colonies that grew sugar, Suriname’s society was divided into three levels. At the top was a small European elite. It consisted mainly of government officials, merchants, a very small number of plantation owners who resided on their holdings, and administrators who managed plantations for absentee owners. A majority of these Europeans were Dutch, although some were German, French, or English. Beneath this elite was a middle level of free citizens. This racially diverse group included people of European descent born in Suriname, the offspring of European men and enslaved women, and former slaves who had been given their freedom or had been able to buy it. At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves, who made up a large majority of the population.
Slavery in Suriname was noted for its brutality. Slaves were a form of property, and as such they had no legal rights. Under colonial laws, the masters had the greatest possible authority. Runaway slaves went up the rivers to remote areas, where they established independent villages in isolated regions of the rain forests. These escaped slaves maintained their independence despite numerous attempts by the colonial militia to recapture them. Their descendants still inhabit the region.
During the early 19th century, European sentiment increasingly favored abolishing slavery. After the English and French enacted laws freeing the slaves in their colonies in the mid-1800s, the Dutch began preparing to free the slaves in their colonies. The planters in Suriname feared that the slaves, once emancipated, would refuse plantation work. It was therefore decided to require the slaves to work on the plantations at minimum wages for a ten-year “period of state supervision” following emancipation. After their final emancipation in 1863, however, the newly freed slaves faced the necessity of earning wages to support themselves. They began migrating toward the city of Paramaribo, where better-paying jobs and superior educational opportunities were available.
To replenish the plantation labor supply, laborers were imported from Asia. Between 1853 and 1873, 2,502 Chinese were brought into the colony; between 1873 and 1922, 34,024 workers from the Indian subcontinent were brought in; and between 1891 and 1939, 32,965 Indonesians were brought in. These immigrants came as indentured workers who signed contracts binding them to jobs in the colony for a specified number of years. The vast majority worked as agricultural laborers. Today, the descendants of the Asian laborers make up more than half of Suriname’s population.
For most of the colonial period, a Dutch-appointed governor administered Suriname, assisted by two courts. These courts were staffed by Suriname residents who were appointed by the Dutch from among nominees elected by the colony’s voters. In 1866 a parliament replaced the courts, but the governor could veto its acts. Strict property and educational qualifications for voting meant that parliament was dominated at first by plantation owners. But as the Dutch government gradually eased the requirements, upper- and middle-class Creoles came to dominate it after 1900. However, the number of eligible voters never exceeded 2 percent of the population until 1949, when the vote was extended to all adults.
In 1922 Suriname became an integral part of the Netherlands, and in 1954 a new constitution elevated its status to that of a coequal member of the kingdom. This system created three equal members of the kingdom of the Netherlands: Netherlands; the Netherlands Antilles, consisting of the Dutch-controlled islands of the Caribbean; and Suriname. Under the new constitution, the Dutch government controlled defense and foreign affairs and appointed a governor for Suriname, but the Surinamese elected a parliament that controlled domestic matters.
A coalition of political parties advocating total independence from the Netherlands won election in 1973 and formed a government under Prime Minister Henck Arron. The government began independence talks with the Dutch government. On November 25, 1975, the Dutch Parliament granted Suriname its independence. However, about 40,000 people chose to retain Dutch citizenship and emigrated from Suriname to the Netherlands. In the new republic’s first elections in 1977, Arron retained his majority.
A military coup overthrew Arron in February 1980. A group of army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Désiré (“Dési”) Bouterse formed the National Military Council (NMR). By February 1982 it had dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution. It also ousted the last civilian official, President Henck Chin A Sen, who fled to the Netherlands, as did thousands of other Surinamese. Bouterse emerged as the nation’s leader and ruled by decree as commander in chief of the army. The government foiled coup attempts in 1980 and 1981, and it brutally suppressed a 1982 effort to organize a democratic opposition movement. In 1982 the army tortured and killed 15 leading citizens, prompting the Dutch to cut off aid to the country. Bending to domestic and external pressure, the NMR allowed a new parliament, the National Assembly, to form in 1985. A ban on political parties was lifted, and Arron joined the NMR, now renamed the Supreme Council.
A guerrilla war broke out in 1986, disrupting the nation’s economy. The insurgents, known as the Surinamese Liberation Army, aimed to restore the constitutional state. Within months they caused the shutdown of the principal bauxite mines and refineries. Meanwhile, a new constitution was drafted and approved by 93 percent of the electorate in 1987.
Civilian Government Restored
The 1987 constitution restored civilian government. Elections in November gave only 2 of 51 assembly seats to Bouterse’s party, while the multiethnic Front for Democracy and Development won 40. In January 1988 the National Assembly elected Ramsewak Shankar, a former agriculture minister, as president, and Arron became vice president. The Dutch resumed aid in 1988, promising $721 million over the course of seven to eight years. Bauxite mining resumed.
Despite the return to constitutional rule, Bouterse retained power through his control of the military. He ousted the Shankar government in December 1990. New legislative elections were held in May 1991, and the New Front for Democracy and Development, a coalition of several political parties, won a majority of seats. In September Ronald Venetiaan, a former education minister and leader of the New Front coalition, was chosen as president. Venetiaan’s coalition was narrowly defeated in elections in 1996. He was succeeded by Jules Wijdenbosch, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Party.
A succession of economic problems in 1998 and 1999, including high inflation, unpaid government salaries, and rising foreign debt, undermined support for Wijdenbosch’s government. A national strike in May 1999 coupled with mass street protests brought the country to a virtual standstill. Facing mounting resentment, Wijdenbosch scheduled legislative elections a year early, in May 2000. Venetiaan’s New Front coalition emerged with the largest share of seats, and in August 2000 Venetiaan was appointed president. The main opposition in the National Assembly was the Millennium Combination, a coalition headed by Bouterse.
In 1997 the Dutch government issued an international arrest warrant for Bouterse, claiming that he organized a drug ring that smuggled large amounts of cocaine into the Netherlands. Suriname, which has no extradition treaty with the Netherlands, refused to surrender Bouterse to the Dutch and claimed the charges were politically motivated. Bouterse was sentenced in absentia for drug smuggling by a court in The Hague, Netherlands, in June 2000. In 2004 the Dutch and Surinamese governments agreed to cooperate on intelligence-gathering and security efforts to curb drug trafficking.
In legislative elections held in May 2005, Venetiaan’s New Front coalition lost ten seats and its simple majority in the National Assembly. In July the 51-member assembly held two rounds of balloting to elect a president, but neither Venetiaan nor opposition candidate Rabin Parmessar won the required two-thirds majority. In August Venetiaan won reelection to a third term in a special vote held by an 891-member assembly of regional councils.