South America’s Anomaly

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Artistic support for "Boss" Dési Bouterse. Photo: Nicholas Laughlin/Flickr

Suriname is not a country which often features in international news. Located on South America’s northern coast between Guyana and French Guiana, many people often forget this former Dutch colony even exists. Being out of the media spotlight has allowed what some might consider unusual developments to occur.

Whilst most states which have experienced military coups and dictatorships celebrate the removal of authoritarian rulers, Suriname went in the opposite direction. After having conceded defeat to Ronald Venetiaan in the 1991 elections after ten years in power, former military ruler Dési Bouterse left the armed forces and instead founded the National Democratic Party (NDP). In July 2010, just under twenty years after being ousted from government, Bouterse was duly elected President of Suriname.

Having gained a taste for power during his decade-long rule in the 1980s, he apparently embraced political life and, rather than instigate another coup, he put himself to the vote. His political campaign targeted the youth demographic, using Bob Marley tracks at his rallies. This age group is especially important for Bouterse as they were not alive when the “December 1982” killings took place, for which he has been on trial since 2007. That a former dictator wanted for murder is now President may lead some to question whether there was underhand political chicanery involved. What is perhaps a surprise, then, is to discover that Suriname is actually ranked as “free” with regard to political rights and civil liberties, gaining a 2.0 rating from Freedom House, ahead of India, Peru and Colombia. Bouterse has simply learnt to play the democratic game very well. Whether he will continue to abide by the rules remains to be seen in the next round of elections, due in 2015.

In terms of its environment, Suriname is also unique in that over ninety percent of its land area is covered by forest. It is the greenest country on Earth, and 16,000 square kilometers of its rainforest is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But as former President Venetiaan remarked in 2008, this isn’t particularly economically beneficial for the country. Praise for environmental conservation is nice, but doesn’t really go far in helping to create a sustainable economy. With Suriname being economically very dependent on primary products such as bauxite (70% of export earnings), gold, oil and shrimp, the incentive to further exploit hardwood resources is very high.

Sadly for Suriname, island nations such as the Maldives, Tuvalu and the Seychelles have done much better in making their voices heard in the climate change and environmental arenas. As Suriname presents a case of ‘high forest cover/low deforestation rates’, it is not a priority for the UNFCCC. Under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, industrialized nations can gain carbon credits through investing in projects to reduce emissions in developing countries such as planting trees and restoring degraded forests. But, crucially, conservation of existing forests is excluded from the scheme. Damaging their rainforests (and reaping the economic benefits of this) may counterintuitively seem like Suriname’s best option to gain attention and support in its attempt to protect its future.

Further adding to Suriname’s distinctiveness is its membership of the Organization of The Islamic Conference (OIC). Its Muslim population is estimated at between 13-20 percent of the population, the highest (by far) on the American continent. Recently, the Dutch right-wing Freedom Party (Partij Voor de Vrijheid), headed by Geert Wilders, forwarded a motion that all Dutch aid to Suriname be suspended until links with the OIC were severed. The motion was defeated in Parliament, and the not-so-veiled threat it presents is hardly likely to discourage Suriname’s attempts to attract investment from Gulf states.

The next decade will be critical in guiding Suriname’s development path. Will President Bouterse leave office if the 2015 elections do not go his way? Once the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, will a mechanism for rainforest conservation be included in the next round of climate negotiations? And will the gradually rising tide of European right-wing populism seriously affect this corner of South America? As with many things, only time will tell.

For more information on elections in South America, click here to visit our Digital Library.

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