Loader

INTERVIEW

«I will not stop. I won’t stand by as they dismantle Suriname’s forest»

John Godschalk, atop La Mesa mountain.

Suriname activist John Goedschalk is seeking 10.000 signatures to save 560,000 hectares of Suriname’s virgin rainforest.

Surinamese activist, John Goedschalk, has become acutely aware of what is happening to the beloved forests of Suriname. This awareness has grown as an international campaign unfolds, urging Suriname’s president to halt plans for large-scale agriculture that would deforest hundreds of thousands of hectares, impacting at least «8 indigenous and tribal communities, destroying the last clean rivers, and killing millions of forest-based lives».

January 22th, 2024

Revista Nómadas

Suriname, recognized as the greenest and most forested country in the world, faces an imminent threat that could jeopardize its distinctive environmental identity. Recent documents reveal the government’s plans to allocate 560,000 hectares of its territory to large-scale agricultural projects, prompting John Goedschalk to launch an international petition to stop this threat.

The conversion of forested areas into deforested land for large-scale agriculture, warns John Goedschalk, director of Climate Change Advisory Services, would directly affect eight indigenous and tribal villages, jeopardizing their livelihoods and cultural values. Additionally, the resulting loss of biodiversity and the massive release of equivalent carbon dioxide would have consequences beyond Suriname’s borders.

In response to this threat, John Goedschalk—a seasoned professional with expertise in leading inclusive aspects of Climate Change and Sustainability, with a diverse background in impact advisory services, renewable energy, and agro-development—makes an urgent appeal to Suriname’s president to halt this process. He seeks formal, written assurances that progress will not be made without public debate and in accordance with the international right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.

As a dedicated citizen, he has initiated a petition campaign to mobilize society against this proposal. «Let’s keep Suriname as the greenest country in the world» is the central message aimed at uniting the citizens to protect the natural heritage of this South American country.

Let’s start with the fact that I love my country, I love the forests, and I deeply believe that the forests are an integral part of our identity as Surinamese .

John Goedschalk asserts confidently: » I will not stop, I won’t stand by as the forest burns.»

– What is the motivation behind your campaign to keep Suriname as the greenest country in the world, and what does it entail?

– Where to begin? Let’s start with the fact that I love my country, I love the forests and I believe deeply that the forests are an integral part of our identity as Surinamers. But it’s not just an emotional issue. It’s not about my likes or dislikes, and it’s not about halting economic growth.  Converting such a large part of the forest to agricultural lands needs to be prefaced by a national discussion and decision-making process.

There are a number of considerations that we need to take into account:

  • The fact is that this forest is home to the indigenous and tribal communities living there. These are their lands, and the government refusing to recognize those rights does not make it different.
  • These forests also provide the basis for the flying river system which is the lifeline of the Amazon rainforest. If we destroy these forests, we have no idea what will happen to the hundreds of millions of people who are dependent upon rain for their survival.
  • The fact is that this is simply unethical! There are not one, but two verdicts against the state which clearly state that it needs to recognize indigenous and tribal lands and rights and that any action that will impact them needs to go through an FPIC process.
  • The fact that there is a piece of legislation that is currently in process in the parliament that would provide the basis for recognizing the indigenous and tribal lands and rights. So designating land and providing concessions for this very land for which there is currently legislation in process is unethical and does not respect the role of parliament’s legislative authority.

Furthermore, I believe in fairness. And what I am seeing unfold in front of my eyes is deeply unfair. It is unfair that the lands, rivers and ecosystems are being stolen from the people that live there, and the people like me whose quality of life depends on it.

Turning 560.000 hectares of forest into permanent, industrial agricultural land is not a decision that can be taken without explicit permission of parliament and the people who live there. This is our patrimony, and IF we as a nation decide to cut down the forest, then this needs to be decided in a public forum, and not from behind the desk in closed rooms. It is simply unjust and unfair, and we are tired of seeing our country sold out from under us for mirrors and beads. Doing this will destroy some of our last clean rivers, it will kill millions upon millions of forest-based life…and for what? For unfertile soil and to allow a few industrialists and capitalists to make money? Its wrong! And I will not stand by and do nothing while the forests that protect us are destroyed.

What I want to achieve is twofold:

  • We need to have an open and public discussion in Parliament about converting indigenous and tribal lands and primary rainforest for agricultural purposes, where different social groups are heard, and where human rights and the rule of local and international law are respected.
  • We need to do the research. If we as a people decide that we need large scale agriculture, then let’s find the right way to do is.

Legally speaking there are a number of issues with the current process:

– Anything like this necessitates an ESIA and and the FPIC process, as the environmental framework law of 2020 clearly states, as do the international verdicts from the IACHR, as the UNDRIP dictates, as the country’s NDC’s under the Paris Accord dictate, as it’s commitments to the convention for Biodiversity dictate;

– and as the constitution states: Article 4, section b. it is stated that every Surinamese citizen will have security for their wellbeing.

– The constitution also states in article 6, section g. it is stated that the government will create the conditions to protect nature and maintain the ecological balance of the country.

– Additionally, we also have the law for sustainable forest management, in which article 7 clearly states that any forest that is to be permanently deforested may not be in conflict with any national or regional development plans. And as the current national development plan states clearly that it will further the Sustainable development goals, then any large-scale conversion of primary forest to agricultural land is in immediate contradiction.

Right now the campaign really entails me going around and raising as much awareness as I am able to, as well as having started the petition. And in parallel, we are considering legal action against the state together with other stakeholders, a process that woud ofcourse have to be led by the tribal and indigenous communities. I could merely support them, as it regards their lands and their wellbeing.

John Godschalk, enveloped by the marvelous jungle of Suriname.

– How did you discover the government’s proposal to designate 560,000 hectares for large-scale agricultural plots?

– I discovered it when I read the article on Mongabay that shows the map and provides the documents outlining the land conversion through correspondence between the minister of agriculture and the minister of land management and forest.

– To whom is the Surinamese government granting land, and who is behind all of this?

– There are three entities to whom the government is granting about 10,500 hectares of land. I am not aware of to whom the other areas have been, or will be granted. But from my perspective it doesn’t really matter to whom they grant it. The more important issue is really the decision to convert the forest to begin with.

– Are you familiar with the company Terra Invest and its partners?

– Only from what I have read in the publications.

These forests are also home to indigenous and tribal communities living there. These are their lands, and the fact that the government refuses to recognize those rights doesn’t make it right.

– Have you heard about the company Terra Invest and its partners, the company responsible for bringing the Mennonites from Bolivia to Suriname?

– I have known mister Soeverein for quite some time, and mister Barbero I know from the interviews.

– What is your opinion on Adrián Barbero’s responses in the interview conducted by Revista Nómadas?

– Shocking to be honest. He is either painfully unaware of the appropriate processes regarding environmental legislation, or he is being untruthful. He repeats many times that the environmental studies have been done, because otherwise the government would not have provided the land. But this is categorically untrue. We have clear legislation, and there are clear processes defined for these kinds of activities, and they involve public consultations and publicly available documentation regarding Environmental and Social studies. These studies can not be concluded without public consultation and publication. And none of that has happened. So saying that it was done because otherwise the government would not be moving forward is just plain nonsense.

It is the project owner, in this case mister Barbero or Terra Invest who needs to do the ESIA (Environmental and Social impact assessment) and not the government. So he is hereby admitting that he has not done it. And therefore it has not been done. (update. This week mister Soeverein came on national television and said that as the official representative of the Mennonites he can say with certainty that the ESIA’s are still in progress. This is an interesting contradiction to what Barbero said earlier).

– Was an environmental impact study conducted for the allocation of these lands to the Mennonites? Who should conduct it?

– It was not conducted. The only way to conduct this kind of ESIA is through a public process, as even the international oil companies and the large scale mineral companies are aware and abide by. It needs to be conducted by the Project proponent. That would be Terra Invest.

– Is it true that there is a need to bring Mennonites from Bolivia for the sake of food security in Suriname?

– That is absolute nonsense. There are many other ways to improve food security in the country. Food security is often suffered by the most vulnerable communities, and those are the indigenous and tribal people. And this will in fact increase food insecurity, as it will destroy and scare away the fauna, will poison the rivers and will destroy the ability of the communities living there to practice shifting agriculture.

– Do you know where the locations are where the first 50 families of Bolivian Mennonites arrived in Suriname to establish the first colony?

– I do not. What I do know is that the 560.000 hectares will destroy over 8 villages and poison rivers for at least another 2 villages.

– What impact would this decision have on threatened primary forests and deforestation in Suriname?

– Quite simple. It will destroy at minimum 451.000 hectares of primary rainforest to begin with, but as we know, this will only be the start.

Crystal-clear waters flow through the pristine forests of Suriname.

– How would the conversion of these lands into agricultural areas affect indigenous and tribal communities, as well as local streams, rivers, and the region’s biodiversity?

– The areas encompass 8 villages and will poison tens of streams and at least 2 major rivers. It will pretty much kill the region’s biodiversity. Lets think about it. If you want to do large scale agriculture, then you will need to completely remove all the vegetation, this will most likely involve burning the trees and the remaining foliage. Then you will have a farm surrounded by primary rainforest, and nature will want to come back. So you will have to deploy lots of pesticides to keep all the insects at bay. Then, you will have the wildlife that will have to be kept at bay. This means killing jaguars, spider monkeys, you name it. We also know from experts that this land is not very fertile, so very soon you will need to apply great amounts of fertilizer. This fertilizer and its rest products will seep into the groundwater, which will then get into the rivers, poisoning and killing the life in the river, and making it unsafe to use downstream.

– How would this affect Suriname’s current commitment as a carbon-negative country?

– It will be the end of Suriname’s status as a carbon negative country. It’s that simple. We know that their targeted partners, the Mennonites have shown the ability to deforest as much as 30.000 hectares a year. That means that we will be emitting an additional 22 mln tonnes of CO2e. And that will effectively end our carbon negative status.

– How would this decision affect Suriname’s economic potential in terms of carbon storage and absorption services?

– It will destroy that potential.

The fact is that this is simply unethical! There are not one, but two judgments against the state clearly stating that it must recognize indigenous and tribal lands and rights.

– What would the loss of up to 2 billion dollars per year mean for the country?

– It is 2/3 of the current GDP, so it will represent a huge loss for current and future generations.

The 2 billion dollars refer to a simple calculation of our carbon absorption. Thus, Suriname absorbs approximately 20 million tons of net CO2e per year. It is a carbon sink. Using an approximate carbon price of 100 dollars, which is a conservative estimate of its value in 2030, we would be eligible to sell 20 million tons for 100 dollars each, resulting in a total of 2 billion dollars.

– How do you plan to convey your call to the President of the Republic of Suriname?

– Once we get enough signatures, I intend to request an audience with the President.

– What specific assurances do you hope to obtain to halt this process?

– I want to see in writing that the land use conversion request is denied by the minister of forest.

– How would you encourage other citizens to join your cause and sign the petition?

– I encourage them to take the time to read. I am convinced that any Surinamese that takes a good look at what’s happening, will agree that we need a transparent appropriate process. And that is what I am demanding. I am not against jobs, I am not against improved food security or increased agriculture.. I am against violating human rights, I am against needless and senseless murder of millions of wildlife creatures and I am against poisoning and polluting these rivers and creeks. And I imagine that many others will agree.

I would share with them that we can not be indifferent to what is happening, as it will impact all of us in the short and mid term: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference”: (Elie Wiesel).

– What are your plans to strengthen the campaign and garner more support?

– I will continue with the online publications, stimulate local publications, make local television and radio appearances and keep explaining what is going on here. As I believe that many people have been purposefully misled to think that this is an issue about Mennonites or about inclusiveness. But it’s not. It’s about who we are as a nation… do we value and respect human rights? Do we value our forests? Or will we stand by and watch as it burns. As you know “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”: (Elie Wiesel).

Furthermore, I believe in equity. And what I see unfolding before my eyes is profoundly unjust.

– How do you envision the process of public debate on this issue?

– It begins with the government providing transparency on what they are doing exactly, providing clarity on the status of the different requests and documents, and then ceasing and desisting in their actions regarding this process.

Then it should be presented to Parliament, and Parliament should invite the different groups of civil society to be heard. Starting with the indigenous and tribal communities who will be immediately affected.

In parallel, there should be studies issues, first off, a land quality study, to determine what type of agriculture can even be done there, and ofcourse an ESIA with a strong focus on the damage to ecosystems, biodiversity, and the social impacts of displacing these communities.

– How do you plan to address potential opponents and foster constructive dialogue?

– Well…. Not really sure to be honest. I intend to remain respectful and constructive from my end.

At the same time…… this is my country, and this forest belongs to all of us. And I will keep fighting to protect it.

Many years ago, I remember working for the cabinet of the President, and there was an indigenous leader who was pleading for land rights recognition. And I remember that during a speech  he uttered such frustration, but he remained spirited. He went on to say how he would never stop fighting for his rights. I did not really understand him at the time…… well, that is many years ago now, and I have seen the destruction mounting and I have seen how the rich and powerful treat the forest and its people.

And I have to admit that I much better understand his frustration now.  Because I too will not stop. I will not stand by and let the forest burn.

– Why is it crucial to respect international law regarding indigenous and tribal peoples and lands?

– Because it’s the right thing to do. Period.

We also need these communities to continue stewarding and protecting the forests, because without forests, our chances to survive the climate crisis are nil..

– How do you plan to ensure Free, Prior, and Informed Consent in this process?

– Well…. There are clear guidelines on how the indigenous and tribal people wish to be consulted. The local organizations have published guides and guidelines on how this needs to be done.

– How do you plan to maintain strong and active citizen mobilization?

– Not really sure to be honest. I’m not using to being an activist so to speak. I guess I’ll just keep asking for help from folks like the media outlets.

I will however also keep pushing for my fellow citizens to realize that it is us the people who have power. We are the ones who put the policymakers there, and we have a right to inclusive governance. It was promised to us, and it is a right embedded in the constitution. I plan to keep reminding people and making it clear that we do have power. And that with that power comes responsibility. We need to speak up, we need to make our voices heard. Once we lose this forest…its gone for a lifetime.

This fertilizer and its residual products will seep into the groundwater, which will then reach the rivers, poisoning and killing life in the river.

– What strategies will you use to keep attention on this issue?

– I will keep looking for media outlets to communicate it and I will support legal action against the government.

– What does it mean to you to be a citizen of the greenest and most forested country in the world? What is your personal connection to Suriname’s green identity?

– I have been working to protect Suriname’s forests for the past decade and I have fallen deeply in love with the forests, the people living there and all it’s beautiful creatures and ecosystems.

To me there really is nothing like spending time in these beautiful forests, floating along on it’s rivers

I have made it my life’s mission to protect these forests and I am determined to stand with them. I know it’s silly, but when I watch the Lorax, I really do feel a kinship. I guess I consider myself to be the Lorax for Suriname’s forests.

– We have information about the project of 300,000 hectares for Bolivian Mennonites to engage in agriculture in Suriname. Now you are mentioning that 580,000 hectares of forest are at risk. Does that mean that not only will land be allocated to the Mennonites coming from Bolivia, but also to other groups? Do you know who they are and where they will come from?

– The documents show 560,000 hectares of forest to be converted to agricultural designation. I don’t know for who they are, maybe it’s for the Mennonites, maybe not. I just don’t know. But, honestly, for me, it’s about the fact that they are designating them as agricultural lands. That’s not something they can decide just like that. I imagine maybe it’s for the Mennonites, but perhaps for local farmers? Or other people? .

– In Suriname’s history, have there been initiatives like this before, involving the allocation and impact on the forest for large-scale agricultural production?

– Not in recent history. Perhaps many years ago for logging. But never on this scale of agricultural conversion. And if there were large-scale initiatives for agriculture, I believe it was on the coast.

– Can you give us an idea of the natural wealth, animal species, flora, etc., of Suriname? How is this green sea, and why is more than 90% of its territory still preserved as a forest?

– Wow… the reason why we still have over 90% forest cover is that in 1998, when we were also looking to grant many logging concessions, the Government decided to create the Central Suriname Nature Reserve. That’s when we decided to become the «greenest country in the world,» and it worked. Now it seems we are considering another option… Will we destroy or preserve our forests?

– What is your response to the President’s statement denying the government’s allocation of land to the Mennonites and refuting the existence of 1 million hectares of reserves, as well as the involvement of Mennonites in the land issue?

– To start with, I suspect that the President did not actually have the opportunity to listen to the podcast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hYw7NbI0go  interview. Which is understandable, as he has a lot on his plate.

Having said all that, I do think it’s important that we not be distracted from the actual issues. Which are large scale forest conversion to agricultural designation and indigenous and tribal land rights.

In terms of the actual statement where the government denies allocating land to the Mennonites. I never said that they have allocated land to the mennonites. And I challenge anyone to show me where I said that. Just to be sure, I went back and listened to the podcast again…but nowhere do I say that the government has issued land to the Mennonites.

In terms of refuting the existence of 1 million hectares of reserves. Again I have to say that I never said that this is the case. The 1 million hectares might e a reference to the statement of Adrian Barbero who in his interview said that he has “orders” for 1 million hectares. But nowhere did I say that the government created 1 million hectares of reserves.

– The statement highlights that Mennonites will only purchase land designated for agriculture, without claims from tribal or indigenous peoples. How do you respond to the assertion that Mennonites should consult with the traditional authority of the area and respect the culture and faith of others before acquiring land?

– Well…. I am not sure how this could be achieved. Considering the fact that the tribal or indidgenous communities have not yet been granted land rights. How could it then be asserted that there would be land witout any claims. I have to say that I am happy to hear that the President seems to be taking into account that the tribal or indigenous people have claims. But seeing as how the land has not yet been demarcated. How then would this take place?

Lets for arguments sake assume that the demarcation and land rights issue had already been resolved. In that case, consulting with the communities would not be sufficient. There would have to be Free Prior and Informed Consent.

Perhaps this can serve to once again clarify the need to resolve the land rights issue structurally.

– The President mentions that there are no Mennonites living or working in Brazil and that there are no plans to settle there. Can you provide more details on the presence or absence of Mennonites in Brazil and if there are any related future projects?

– I never mentioned that Mennonites are living or working in Brazil. So it is interesting that he would mention this. Perhaps he was misinformed by the people who advise him on what it is I actually said.

– The statement also says, «Terra Invest Suriname & Guyana emphasizes that the numerous lies circulating in the Surinamese community hinder the development of Suriname, especially in the fields of agriculture and livestock…» What is your opinion on this statement?

– I have to say that it is quite interesting that the Communication Service of the Country (CDS) is quoting a private company. When looking at the quote itself, it is interesting that what it says is that there are many untruths circulating that are blocking the development of Suriname, and that there is a reference book of information. It goes on to say that the discussion needs to be based on truth and not misleading information. I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with this last statement. So let us deal with facts. Which is what I am attempting to do by refraining from making assumptions, but acting on what I have seen from official government correspondence .Or……perhaps these documents have been forged or faked? If that is the case, I would love to hear that from the government.

– Why do you think the President takes the trouble to mention Terra Invest in his official statement?

– I have to be honest and say that this also confounds me. I am not sure. Perhaps the communication service felt it was important that the company’s communication be mentioned? Not sure, and I do not wish to speculate.

– Is the President’s message also directed at you?

– Well, eventhough the formal communication does not mention my first name, he did clearly mention my last name and he reference a “talking program”. So I think it is safe to assume that is meant for me.

But hey… as I have said before. I am happy to be corrected. If in fact there are no plans to convert 560.000 hectares of forest to agriculture. Then that is great news, and I can go back to spending my time on other endeavours. But if those plans are in fact bonafide and there are plans to execute on that. Well, then I guess that we still have quite some work to do as a nation. And perhaps I still have some work to do as well… as Robert Frost writes: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

***

MORE IN: REVISTA NÓMADAS

REVISTA NÓMADAS

UN LUGAR ÚNICO EN ESTE MUNDO, PARA HISTORIAS ÚNICAS

Te contamos desde el interior de los escenarios de la realidad, iluminados por el faro de la agenda propia, el texto bien labrado y la riqueza poética del audiovisual y de la narrativa sonora, combinaciones perfectas para sentir el corazón del medioambiente y de los anónimos del Planeta.

nomadas-collage