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The president Santokhi withdraws his approval for the arrival of Mennonites to Surinam

From Bolivia, several Mennonite families had their eyes set on Suriname.

March 20th, 2024

The Government of Suriname has decided to withdraw the pilot project that had been approved for the arrival of 50 Mennonite families (mostly from Bolivia) for an agricultural project starting with 30,000 hectares and projected to reach 300,000.

Revista Nómadas

Suriname’s President, Chandrikapersad Santokhi, announced the cancellation of the pilot project with the Mennonites, as reported by the Surinamese media outlet SUN.

The project, which was in progress and had been approved by the Surinamese government, involved the arrival of 50 Mennonite families (mostly from Bolivia) for an agricultural project in Suriname, an initiative that began with 30,000 hectares and was projected to reach 300,000.

Following the report published by Revista Nómadas on January 18, 2024, and replicated by several media outlets in Bolivia and abroad, including in Suriname, Indigenous and tribal communities in Suriname questioned the concession of land to foreigners, while they have been claiming for decades that the State recognize their rights to the land. Likewise, environmental experts warned of the risk of triggering massive deforestation in Suriname, the country with the highest percentage of forest in its territory in the world: 92.5%. They warned that the expansive culture of the Mennonites and their impact on deforestation in the countries where they live threaten the virgin forest in Suriname.

Revista Nómadas, beyond its reports that came out in 2024, collaborated since 2022 in alerting about their potential arrival in Suriname.

There was also an interrogation in the Surinamese Legislature to the Executive, where they denied any arrival of Mennonites, explained that it was a request for concession for a company, and that all procedures would be done in accordance with the law. Consequently, there were official statements from representatives of indigenous peoples rejecting the arrival of Mennonites on lands that are being claimed by them, and many critical voices were raised against the project, the lack of transparency, and adherence to Suriname’s environmental regulations.

But how did the Mennonites from Bolivia get to Suriname? This story has its roots in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where there are more than 120 Mennonite colonies and where Adrián Barbero, a land trader, Argentine by birth and naturalized Bolivian for 10 years, resides. He, along with Ruud Souverein, a Dutchman residing in Suriname, are partners in the agricultural real estate company Terra Invest and responsible for the lobbying with the Surinamese Government, the elaboration of the project, logistics, and everything related to the arrival of the Mennonites in Suriname.

Through this two-year lobbying effort, they had managed to get the Surinamese Government to grant them 30,000 hectares of land, which they would in turn transfer to the Mennonites. This, Barbero said in an interview with Revista Nómadas, was part of a project with which the Surinamese Government intends to convert 300,000 hectares into crops (1.8% of its territory). This is equivalent to twice the size of the city of São Paulo, Brazil, the most populous city in Latin America, with over 12 million inhabitants.

Surinamese Indigenous people questioned the concession of land to foreigners, while they have been claiming that the State recognize their rights to the land.

When Revista Nómadas consulted with representatives of Indigenous peoples and environmentalists in Suriname, they pointed out that they did not even know the details of the place or places where the Mennonites are, and that they were never summoned by anyone to any socialization. Monique Pool, director of the Green Heritage Foundation Suriname, pointed out that, at least with the institution she directs, such socialization did not exist, and attributes to the lack of information from the government the fact that the population does not know about this and other projects that affect Suriname’s forest wealth.

The unstoppable deforestation in Bolivia worried the indigenous communities and environmentalists in Suriname.

Similar responses were given by Indigenous parliamentarian Iona Edwards, who assured that she had not heard of any project socializations either. «When I asked in parliament about the Mennonites, the Government responded that they would carry out a pilot project with 50 Mennonite families and nothing else. They did not even tell us where they will carry it out,» lamented Edwards.

After the report published by Revista Nómadas on January 18, 2024, which was replicated by several media outlets in Bolivia and abroad, the Indigenous people of Suriname questioned the granting of land to foreigners, while they have been demanding for decades that the state recognize their land rights.

Edwards, an Indigenous parliamentarian, told Nómadas that the Government had not informed or consulted them about the arrival of the Mennonites. Recently (in October of last year), they were informed that the pilot project is for 30,000 hectares for 50 Mennonite families, and nothing else; they do not even know where the concessioned lands are.

Mennonite sources who requested anonymity indicated that they had received information from Suriname a few weeks ago that what had been promised to them was different from what they were being granted and that several felt dissatisfied and were deciding not to be part of the project.

Surinamese activist John Goedschalk has been carrying out an international campaign urging the President of Suriname to stop the plans for large-scale agriculture that would deforest hundreds of thousands of hectares, affecting at least «8 indigenous and tribal communities, destroying the last clean rivers and ending millions of forest-based lives.»

John Goedschalk, an experienced professional in forest conservation and climate change aspects, made an urgent call to the President of Suriname to stop this process. He seeks formal and written guarantees that there will be no progress without a public debate and in accordance with the international right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.

He conducted a petition campaign to mobilize society against deforestation. «Let’s keep Suriname as the greenest country in the world» is the central message aimed at uniting citizens to protect the natural heritage of this South American country.

The arrival of Mennonites from Bolivia to Suriname was not happening overnight. There is an approval document, dated October 6, 2022, issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Barbero’s partner, Ruud Souverein, titled «Permission for 50 Mennonite families to travel to Suriname.» It details that the permit is for Mennonite residents of the Valle Esperanza, Valle Hermoso, Yanaigua, and Norte colonies (located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia) and that with that permit they will be able to «work in the agricultural sector for a period of 3 years.»

Environmental experts warned of the risk of triggering massive deforestation in Suriname, the country with the highest percentage of forest in its territory in the world: 92.6%.

Last Saturday, Adrián Barbero himself, through his TikTok account, responded to a question from one of his followers: Are you still in Suriname?

«…Today we are solely focused on growing in Paraguay. We are making some internal policy changes in the company and we are planning projects in Paraguay and we are planning some things in Bolivia, but regarding the general situation of the economy in Bolivia, we are really seeing that it may be possible. We are very hopeful about everything that is happening, hoping that everything improves, yes, but for the moment, today we are focused on Paraguay and we are helping some companies in Brazil, yes, that’s a little bit of the scheme, and we are very hopeful about Argentina, about what is happening with Miley, with the president, with all the new laws that are there, but well, sometimes it goes, sometimes it comes, but there it is, we’ll see, hopefully, for the good of that country, of my country, it works out well. So, well, that’s what we are focused on today, solely on these projects.»

Now, President Chandrikapersad Santokhi confirmed the halt of the pilot project for Bolivian Mennonites to Suriname.

Suriname is a country located in northeastern South America, bordered to the north by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west by Guyana, to the south by Brazil, and to the east by French Guiana. It is a country that covers 163,000 km² (slightly smaller than Uruguay) and has 92.6% of its territory covered by jungle, which houses a large amount of highly preserved Amazon rainforest, and has a population of less than 700,000 inhabitants, of which indigenous peoples are less than 10%.

In this country, marked by its independence from the Netherlands, until now, with only 120,000 hectares cultivated, it had remained immune to agricultural expansion and deforestation. One of the key factors for this is that land is not sold in Suriname, but is leased for long periods of 40 years. In addition, this is overlapped by the demands of indigenous peoples and tribes of formerly enslaved populations, for the right to land and the legal constitution/recognition of collective territories.

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