Marjo de Theije, one of the staff members of the Anthropology Department of the VU, carries out research on Brazilian goldminers in Suriname and was in Albina two days after the riots. She wrote a personal account of the situation in Albina:
Nobody was prepared for a tragedy like this. Suriname is a country proud to be a place where many cultural groups live peacefully together. This is exemplified by the close proximity of the mosque and the synagogue in the centre of Paramaribo. However, “Albina” happened. And society is short of explanations. Albina, or better Papatam, the industrial area where the attack on the Brazilians happened, was surprised by the riots on Christmas eve 2009. Papatam housed several commerces related to the gold mining business along the upstream Marowijne river (and Lawa and Tapanahoni and into French Guiana). In Papatam miners buy the fuel and other necessities for their operations, and send the boats with provisions and machines, spare parts and the hoses for the hydraulic pumps they use to uncover the gold. There were also hotels and barracks where people who work in the Garimpo hang out hammocks to stay one or two nights on their way to or from Paramaribo. Only ruins rest of this transit place after December 24.
An estimated three quarters of the small scale miners in the region are Brazilian migrants, the other quarter are Maroons, who are also the traditional population of most of the interior of the country. Together they dominate the boat transport over the rivers and most trade, with the exception of a growing number of Chinese supermarkets that were established the last years.
In the interior Brazilians and Maroons share the territory without big problems. Many Maroons speak Portuguese as a result of living and working for many years with Brazilians, there are mixed relationships and children born from these relationships, and everybody listens to the same (mostly Brazilian but also Surinamese reggae) music and watches the same (Brazilian) television programs. Because everybody was aware of this harmonious sociability, the events are received with disbelief and shock. The most amazing part is probably the fact that 20 women were sexually violated and raped.
In Paramaribo popular commentaries are dominated by disgust of the violence – especially against the women – and plundering. But at the same time the Brazilian community is criticized for not integrating in Surinamese society. They don’t learn the local languages and “Small Belem” in the North of Paramaribo is exactly as the name suggests a copy of a 100% Brazilian neighborhood. Because most Surinamese residents never set foot in the interior gold fields, their opinion of the Brazilian migrants in their country is based on isolated observations.
Until recently most Brazilians in the country had no legal staying permits or licenses to work in small scale gold mining, and thus received the label “illegal” and “criminal”. On top of this, in Suriname society it is believed that the Brazilians “carry away our gold.” Although it can be argued that most of the revenues are invested in Suriname, and that small scale gold mining is very important for the local economy (12,6 % of the Suriname population depends on it), the idea that these strangers come to the country to take away the riches is persistent. It does not explain the rage of Christmas Eve in Papatam, but it surely takes an important place in the formulation of justifications.
Marjo de Theije is associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at VU University Amsterdam. This text appeared in Portuguese in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. On Standplaats Wereld, De Theije wrote earlier about goldminers in Suriname and the financial crisis.