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Oil in Suriname: a light at the end of the tunnel?

by Eva Koemar –

“Our current president – he must be from the afterlife, he says that he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody knows which tunnel, or what that light looks like. He is a man of slogans, many slogans. So were those who came before him. We must not blame only Santokhi! The others were no different. I think that we, in the past 47 years, have continuously been undermining our eygi srefi, our own selves. […] We failed to create a future for Suriname.”

(Paul Middellijn, Suriname Unite 2023)

As a child from a low-income background, I have always been fascinated by money. I was never raised as a materialist, nor have I ever experienced poverty beyond the occasional struggle meal – my mom is a magician when it comes to managing limited funds and I have inherited her talents. Still, the allure, seduction and corruption that surround money have been working on my imagination from a very young age. I never dreamt about being wealthy per se. Working in a VIP booth after high school taught me that many goods and services that sport a ‘luxury’ label (and matching price tag) are in fact depressingly mediocre; signifiers of status rather than objects of genuine enjoyment. Instead, I was captivated by the symbolism surrounding money, its polarizing nature and the lengths people would go to, to obtain it.

Money is both coveted and suspicious, as it facilitates both social advancement and destabilization. I observed this paradox in the Surinamese context for the first time in 2020 when large oil reserves were discovered along the coast. Initially, a wave of excitement swept through the country – a flutter of great expectations fed by hope and media speculation. The presidential elections were going on at the time, and both incumbent Dési Bouterse and his challenger Chandrikapersad Santokhi actively used the discovery in their campaigns. The prospect of a flourishing oil industry was a godsend to both candidates. Suriname had been going through an economic crisis for several years, and the valuable resource was conceived of as a remedy against the precarious trajectory the country was going down. Santokhi went as far as to call the oil ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ – a statement that would be questioned and mocked in the years to follow

When I started my graduate program in September 2022, I had just returned from Paramaribo for the first time. The casual conversations my partner and I had had with neighbours, taxi drivers and family, had left us with a sense of excitement and anticipation. Slowly but surely, new infrastructural projects were rising from the ground – beacons of optimism in their victory over the swampy soil that held them. Friends confided their hopes for a modernized, prosperous Suriname in us, and some of them were already scheming for ways to capitalize on the foreign investment that they deemed inevitable. I concluded that whatever was going to happen in the next few years, I wanted to be there.

So I went. Five months later, I found myself interviewing and shadowing entrepreneurs – men and women from Paramaribo who ran businesses ranging from wood logging companies to neighbourhood stores. The mood had shifted; the inflation of the Surinamese Dollar was at an all-time high and plans to exploit the oil were getting pushed back from 2025 to 2027 to 2028. Many of my interlocutors expressed scepticism about oil as a vehicle for economic development. If natural resources could really transform Suriname into the next Saudi Arabia, they said, it would have happened by now. They reasoned that the problem wasn’t a lack of money, but the corruption, greed and short-term vision that resulted from an abundance of it. One participant elaborated:

“Why do you think Chan [Santokhi] does not raise the taxes on wood? Because his ‘friends’ [political patrons] are in the logging business. Santokhi doesn’t want to take stricter measures, and do you know why? Because those bastards that make money off of the nation’s back have financed his campaign. Now he owes them a favour. Our society runs on favours and no one wants to admit it.”

His perspective was not unique. In most of my interviews, narratives of mistrust and inequitable extraction prevailed over a positive vision for the future in relation to oil. Interestingly, these negatives were often framed as inevitabilities inherent to making money itself. Another interlocutor spoke of money as a debasing, yet seductive poison that takes hold of a person’s agency:

“When you see that much money, your eyes will get too big for your own good, and you will just want to take what you can. You will forget your higher ideals. Money really is that powerful, it corrupts the soul… but I cannot blame those guys. In order to thrive in a shady system, you have to become shady yourself.”

Note that he also referenced ‘the system’, by which he means the (still largely patronage-based) political climate in Suriname.

What I took away from my fieldwork is that changes in the global market, such as the discovery of an oil reserve, can have a profound impact on local contexts. What this impact is, depends on the prevailing social systems and attitudes towards welfare that have been established there through the years. As a lecturer at the VU, I am looking forward to giving new students the tools to explore the unfolding cases they are interested in and helping them become the engaged anthropologists we need to comment on them.

Eva Koemar (1997) is a social anthropologist of Dutch and Surinamese descent. She holds a Master’s from the University of Amsterdam and works as a junior lecturer at the VU. Her main field of interest is the anthropology of money. Her thesis fieldwork explored the relationship between plans to exploit large oil fields along the Surinamese coast and the future perspectives of local entrepreneurs.

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