SURINAM: A Caribbean 'island' in Latin America
Thomas Cromwell

You may be surprised to discover that Surinam is an island nation. It is, that is, if you consider a land mass surrounded by water an island, for Surinam sits on the northeastern corner of South America, a piece of territory bounded by the Amazaon, Rio Negro, Casiguiare and Orinoco rivers.

But dubious geography aside, Surinam can be considered a Caribbean country, with its rich mix of ethnic groups and a history tying it to the days when Europeans explored and then settled the Central American and Caribbean regions. More important, according to Ambassador Henry L. Illes, the former Dutch Guyana identifies itself with its Caribbean neighbors, rather than Brazil and other Latin American countries.

The ambassador says that although tourism in his country is not yet very developed, there is a great potential in that its population is so rich in diversity, as are the cultural features that they contribute, from a rich cuisine to a diverse architecture.

The original people of Surinam are called Amaranians, and today there are four main tribes of these peoples. But Europeans, from Britain, Portugal and especially Holland settled here, and other groups followed, including Middle Eastern traders, Jewish entrepreneurs from Brazil and manual workers from Africa, China, India and Indonesia. Together they speak some 25 different languages, although Dutch is the official tongue.

"You have the whole world in one place," the ambassador says. He says this is something that people from his country only really get to appreciate when they go abroad, because in Surinam itself cultural diversity as well as inter-ethnic and -religious harmony are the norm. "It is the only place in the world where you will see a mosque and synagogue in one yard, without a fence dividing them," he says. "In my country, coexistence is a normal thing."

But Surinam is a very poor country, with 70 percent of its 450,000 people living below the poverty line (some 300,000 people from Suriname now make Holland their home). The main industry has been bauxite, which accounts for 70 percent of export earnings, and Surinam was a major supplier for the U.S. aluminum industry producing the metal products needed to build airplanes during World War II. Alcoa has been the largest investor in Surinam, and the country now has plants to produce alumina and aluminum, which it exports along with bauxite.

Ambassador Illes wants to help his country broaden its economic base, and in particular to exploit the considerable hydrocarbon deposits that have been discovered offshore by the U.S. Geological Survey. Surinam is estimated to have 17 times the oil deposits and an equal amount of gas as Trinidad and Tobago, currently the largest extractor of hydrocarbons in the region.

So far, though, progress towards developing an oil and gas extraction industry in Surinam has been slow, with a small on-shore drilling operation slowly building up a head of steam. In the 1980s an initial 1,200 barrels a day were extracted by the sate oil company, and today the figure is 13,000 bpd. Ambassador Illes would like to see his government speed up its work in this area, and plans to exert any influence he can to that effect.