New pact enlists locals to help protect a jewel of South America

Giant leaf frog

The giant leaf frog (phyllomedusa bicolor) secretes chemicals that may combat AIDS, cancer and other diseases. The species was discovered during a series of biological surveys in Suriname. (© Trond Larsen)

All is not well in the “greenest country on Earth.”

So-called because it retains more than 94 percent of its rainforest cover, tiny Suriname is facing development pressures that could chip away at its green heart. In response, a groundbreaking effort aims to conserve this region with the help of the people who know the land better than anyone else, before it’s too late.

The Central Suriname Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, makes up about 11 percent of the country’s territory and is home to diverse plants and wildlife including jaguars, sloths and scarlet macaws. Illegal logging and mining — the latter a crucial source of income for the South American country — are encroaching on the forest. In the past decade alone, Suriname has seen deforestation “skyrocket” due to soaring gold prices and weak governance, according to John Goedschalk, executive director of Conservation International’s Suriname office. Meanwhile, a newly constructed road is enabling people to reach previously inaccessible parts of the region.

To help ensure this area stays protected, Conservation International (CI) went straight to the source to work with communities that live on the park’s outskirts. An agreement signed recently between CI Suriname and the local Matawai indigenous people aims to conserve their community forest while creating a buffer zone adjacent to the reserve. The pact, experts say, will enable local communities to generate income in a way that keeps their forest and traditional livelihoods intact, such as selling forest products besides timber.

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“By partnering with the Matawai community, we can ensure that the Central Suriname Nature Reserve and its biodiversity does not succumb to pressure from development,” said Eunike Misiekaba, technical manager for CI Suriname’s programs. “With this new approach that makes them active participants instead of passively receiving funds, the community understands they are responsible for sustainably managing their territories to secure their nature and livelihoods for the future.”

Signed in March, the agreement conserves some 39,000 hectares (97,000 acres) of the allocated community forest and sets up a buffer zone of 32,000 hectares (80,000 acres) west of the Saramacca River along the northeastern portion of the park. Together, these conservation areas represent nearly 75 percent of the 97,000-hectare (240,000-acre) community forest. The pact, which lasts for two years, came together in a little over a year’s worth of planning — a remarkable accomplishment for this first-of-a-kind agreement with the local community.

“This [agreement] demonstrates strong leadership in community-centered conservation as the basis for sustainable development,” Misiekaba said. “It symbolizes our intentions and the official start of our relationship, and now the work begins to figure out how the community wants to implement these intentions.”

Deeded by the Suriname government, community forests permit some logging, which can open the door for mining and other extractive uses. The pact allows the Matawai community to instead earn money from sustainable uses of their forest: CI is exploring options for training community members in low-impact logging, selling non-timber forest products, and ecotourism as part of building the Matawai’s capacity to take care of their lands sustainably.

“With this holistic landscape approach, socio-economic activities forward conservation agendas while also meeting the needs of communities to make a living,” Misiekaba said.

CI’s long-term vision is to create a REDD+ (short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) program in the community forest. Through REDD+, communities receive financial benefits in exchange for keeping their forests standing. REDD+ is a way to provide long-term funding for conservation, and its success could encourage other communities to start similar programs, Misiekaba said.

“If we succeed in showing communities that they can benefit from conservation, we can scale this model to other community forests that currently have a lot of unsustainable logging and mining activities,” Misiekaba said. “We can change the paradigms and the future of community forests in Suriname by transforming community forests into conservation areas where people and nature benefit.”

Leah Duran is a staff writer for CI.

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