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Environmental groups speak out against arrival of Mennonite farmers to Suriname

Mennonites during a recent trip to Suriname. (Photo: Adrián Barbero)
Mongabay | 30 October 2023

Environmental groups speak out against arrival of Mennonite farmers to Suriname

by Maxwell Radwin
 
A plan to bring Mennonite farmers to Suriname is drawing backlash from environmental groups and Indigenous communities, who are concerned about the widespread deforestation that could result from large-scale agriculture.
 
Mennonite farmers from Bolivia, Mexico and Belize are looking to buy thousands of hectares of land in Suriname, which could be disastrous for the environment and jeopardize Indigenous communities’ campaign to obtain land rights, critics said at a press conference last week.
 
“Our society is built on gold mining. Do we want to add to that the issue of large-scale agriculture?” said David Singh, director of WWF Guianas, at the press conference of environmental groups. “We must now look at how we can find a way to work towards sustainable agriculture that will keep our country the greenest country on earth.”
 
The press conference was organized to call attention to the risks of farming and demand answers from the government, which has sent mixed signals on its plans. It was hosted by WWF, Conservation International, SAFE, Tropenbos International and Green Growth Suriname, among others.
 
The company behind the Mennonite project, Terra Invest Suriname & Guyana, is looking to obtain 30,000 hectares (about 74,000 acres) for approximately 1,000 Mennonite families, but could go as high as 90,000 hectares (more than 222,000 acres). They would produce corn and soybeans for the domestic chicken feed market, the company said, with the aim of combatting food insecurity.
 
It’s part of a government push to develop large-scale agriculture and boost a struggling economy, but without sacrificing the country’s extensive, untouched rainforests. Suriname is 93% Amazon Rainforest and one of only three countries in the world that absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits.
 
Mennonites are in the spotlight more than other agriculture projects because of their history of deforestation. In other countries they’ve settled in, such as Belize and Bolivia, they’ve bought up land at an aggressive pace, in some cases skirting environmental regulations. In Peru, Mennonites have deforested over 7,000 hectares (over 17,000 acres) of the Amazon Rainforest since arriving in 2017, according to Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Amazon Project.
 
“Large-scale agriculture, in the form practiced by the Mennonites, is undesirable for Suriname,” said an internal memo among the conservation groups, which was reviewed by Mongabay.
 
Left in the dark, put on edge
 
The Surinamese government has been quiet about the full extent of its plans with the Mennonites, frustrating officials and activists alike. This month, Iona Edwards, a member of the National Assembly, asked for confirmation about recently issued permits, saying no one had provided a real explanation.
 
Numerous conservation groups have reached out to the Chairman of the National Assembly and other government agencies but haven’t gotten a clear, coherent response. Mongabay has also contacted relevant officials for comment without success.
 
“Communities are left in the dark,” the conservation groups said in a press statement. “…Attempts have been made in vain to get more openness out of the government.”
 
They said they want to make sure the proper regulations are applied to Mennonite farmers, including environmental and social impact studies, risk assessments on GMO crops and the creation of buffer zones to protect surrounding habitats.
 
Areas opened up by the Mennonites could provide new access for mining and logging, the environmental groups said, as has been the case in numerous Latin American countries where farming has expanded. The creation of roads makes it easier for development to snowball.
 
The stakes are especially high for local and Indigenous communities. Suriname is the only Amazonian country that hasn’t recognized Indigenous land rights, and the arrival of Mennonites could put ancestral territory at risk.
 
The country is home to around 20,000 Indigenous and 75,000 maroon (or afro-descendant) people. Legislation to recognize land rights has stalled in the National Assembly, which has frustrated local leaders at the same time that rumors and misinformation about Mennonites spread through their communities. The environmental groups expressed concern about violent clashes between groups once the farmers arrive for good.
 
Indigenous communities have petitioned the government for information and, left to their own devices, have begun doing their own research to prepare. Leaders have even consulted Indigenous groups in southern Mexico about the impact of Mennonite farming to better understand the risks they might face in the future, according to the Association of Indigenous Village Heads in Suriname (VIDS).
 
“We understand that once the Mennonites are in Suriname, they won’t leave,” Maria Josee Artist, who works on community development for VIDS, told Mongabay. “It will be a case of expecting more Mennonites to come, and that’s what we’re very much afraid of.”
 
Where are the Mennonites right now?
 
The Mennonite land deals are still in the early stages. Terra Invest said it’s negotiating with the government and carrying out soil tests to confirm the viability of large-scale crop production.
 
An associated company, Agriculture Reinland, which is registered under one of the Terra Invest founders, has received preliminary approval for a permit from the Ministry of Land Policy and Forest Management to develop agriculture and livestock projects on a 400-hectare (988-acre) plot. The document, which was reviewed by Mongabay, is not a land title or work permit but rather a declaration of willingness.
 
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also approved a three-year pilot project for 50 Mennonite families, who will rent or lease the land, according to local reports. The families would occupy around 50,000 hectares (123,552 acres), according to Terra Invest.
 
Terra Invest has focused its search on the districts of Para and Sipaliwinni. Mennonites from Bolivia are currently visiting potential plots until early November. Women have accompanied their husbands on the trip, creating alarm among conservation groups that the Mennonites have already made a permanent move with their families. However, the women are only there to help with cooking and cleaning, Terra Invest said. The Mennonites continue to use tourist visas while they work through the immigration process, and likely won’t settle for good until next year.
 
The company said Suriname can still be a leader in forest conservation even after sacrificing just 2% of land to agriculture. It said it’s only looking at land that has already been cleared for farming, and plans to follow all local laws and comply with environmental regulations.
 
It also said it will provide Mennonites with environmental technicians and engineers, while working with the Ministry of Agriculture and other government agencies, to ensure that production is sustainable and reduces its impact on surrounding ecosystems.
 
“We believe that all actors in Suriname will welcome the Mennonites with love and respect,” Terra Invest said in a statement to Mongabay. “The Mennonites will contribute to agriculture, investment and work hard to contribute to exports and production.”

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