The beach in front of Elmina Castle has been taken over by gold seekers. Young men looking for a quick buck build gold sluices in the shadow of West Africa’s most famous slave fort. They pile the sluices high with beach sand, then drown the sand with buckets of seawater laced with mercury.
We arrived in Ghana four days ago, but we can’t shake the feeling that we’re still in Suriname. The streets are full of faces that wouldn’t be out of place in the gold camps of Brokopondo. Even the language triggers a sense of deja vu—Akan, a local tongue spoken in Ghana, somehow became “Aukan” on its way across the Atlantic, and is still the lingua franca of Suriname’s Ndyuka Maroons.
But the countries share more than a common ethnic heritage. 225 million years ago, during the time of the Pangea megacontinent, there was no division between West Africa and the Guyanas. The soil here is the same as the soil in Suriname. It nurtures similar crops, and holds similar treasures.
But we’re not here to look for gold. We’re here to look for people in power.
But there is a sort of honor and courage in what the small-scale gold miners do, which is where the latest film in the Empire series comes in. Shot in two different mining communities in Suriname’s interior, the piece tells the story of a group of Maroon miners trying their best to eke out a living from their ancestral soil. They aren’t backed by a multi-national corporation, and they have only the most basic tools, but they show up every day to earn their living on their own terms.
Principal photography in Suriname wrapped on May 7th, 2012.
The crew on the remains of the sole railroad line built by the Dutch in Suriname. Known as the Lamaspoorweg, this line was built at the turn of the 20th century for the transportation of gold from the country’s interior to ports in the north. Low gold yields led to the railroad’s demise, but today’s artisanal gold miners use the railroad as a footpath to their gold camps.
More information about the railroad in Dutch here.
From left to right: assistant Gilbert Lobato de Mesquita, anthropologist Marieke Heemskerk, and Eline Jongsma (with tripod ). Photo by Kel O’Neill.
Guess what? There’s a gold rush going on in Suriname and its no joke.
Every day, gold seekers travel from the city to the bush, their hired minibuses stuffed with water pumps and pick axes. You can buy these items—along with knee-high waders and vials of mercury—at any of the Chinese-owned supply stores that line Saramacca Straat in Paramaribo. The mining itself mostly happens south of the city, on the ancestral lands of Maroon and Amerindian tribes. Tribal leaders are in on the game, and earn healthy commissions (paid in gold, of course) on everything that comes out of the ground.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Dutch explorers came to the Wild Coast of South America looking for gold. In the ensuing centuries, they found some deposits in Suriname, locked away in the impenetrable jungle of the country’s interior. Faced with the daunting prospect of creating the infrastructure necessary to extract the riches, the Dutch quickly shifted their focus to more profitable ventures, like the slave trade and sugar plantations.
Now that gold prices are through the roof and Suriname’s road system is (marginally) better than it was during Holland’s Golden Century, it’s time to take a look at the players behind one of the least documented mineral grabs in the 21st century.
Photo: a freshly-smelted 500 gram bar of Surinamese gold, market price $25,000