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The man with a plan to save the planet: Part 2

By Alanna Mitchell

The former Dutch colony on South America's northeast coast has become a poster child for good environmental practices. Very thinly populated, with 440,000 inhabitants clustered mainly in the tidy coastal capital, Paramaribo, it contains one of the world's few remaining pristine rain forests. It is paradise compared with the hell of such hot spots as the moonscape that is Haiti.

Not that Suriname is immune to the currents of human folly. Natives in the area once practised cannibalism, and 300 years ago, slavery powered the sugar-plantation economy that made the place so valuable that the Dutch gave up the island of Manhattan to get their hands on it.

But modern Suriname has opted for the ecological high road and much of the credit goes to Russ Mittermeier.

He first came here in 1975, a precocious 25-year-old monkey researcher anxious to find the perfect tropical rain forest to do field studies for his doctorate. He wound up spending the better part of three years in Suriname's untouched interior, becoming the first to map the comparative ecology of all eight indigenous species of monkey.

In the process, he fell in love with country and its people -- a fantastical mixture of cultures from Creole to black to Javanese to Hindustani to Amerindians, all overlaid with the obsessive Dutch need for order.

So in 1995, when Malaysian and Indonesian loggers announced that they wanted to cut three million hectares, about 20 per cent of the country, Mittermeier says he "got turfy."

  • Russell Mittermeier
  • Conservation International
  • Foundation for Nature Conservation in Suriname
  • Places
  • Virtual tour of Suriname's Rainforest
  • Map of Suriname
  • English version of Die Ware Tijd, Surinamese newspaper
  • Science
  • Rainforest Information Centre
  • Early Amazon cultures
  • Suriname before Columbus
  • Earlier, Suriname's government had granted a logging concession that brought in few stumpage fees, but destroyed the forest. Afraid the same would happen, but on a much larger scale, Mittermeier lobbied President Jules Albert Wijdenbosch, who turned away the loggers and set aside 10 per cent of the country -- 1.6 million pristine hectares -- as the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, which was quickly declared a World Heritage Site.

    To support the reserve, Mittermeier helped to launch a special fund that, at $8-million (U.S.), is now more than halfway to its $15-million goal. The money it will generate far exceeds any revenues from logging. And the forest stands.

    As well as visiting the elusive harpy, Mittermeier wants to go and see a long-lost cultural treasure that has recently come to light: the ancient, sacred rock carvings in the caves of Werehpai. Discovered a year ago by a native hunter, the caves are believed to have been inhabited by cannibals, and Mittermeier wants to assess them as a tourist draw -- to show the local chiefs that they can make big money when the rain forest is left standing.

    So along with about a dozen tribesmen we are tramping toward the caves through a magnificent stretch of dense jungle near the native village of Kwamalasemutu near Suriname's southern edge. Hundreds of species of tree arch high above, liane vines looping down through their branches, fantastical buttresses holding them up in the thin tropical soil. The forest is so wet, so hot, that to a northern nose, it smells like stewed rhubarb.

    Mittermeier's eyes remain fixed on the ground, watching for poisonous snakes, ferocious army ants, softball-sized tarantulas and other lethal things he mentions only if he needs to.

    Before being allowed into the caves, we are frisked by Trio hunters armed with machetes and rifles. We are terribly alert. Our shirts and pants are drenched in sweat, more now from fear than from exertion, and the taste of salt is strong on our lips. It is not clear what is ahead.

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