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December, 4, 2016

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Mine brings change to Suriname town

LANGA TABIKI, Suriname -- Muddy footpaths wind past empty homes, most collapsing into ruins. Dozens of stores and bars have closed. The most prominent citizen, the chief of a tribe descended from escaped African slaves, has decamped to the capital.

A gold mine operated by a U.S.-based company opened recently in the rainforest of southern Suriname, bringing hundreds of jobs and badly needed revenue to a government struggling with some of the highest inflation in the world.

But it has also emptied out the nearest community, Langa Tabiki, a small frontier town with an outsized role in the history and culture of this South American nation, one that has depended heavily on wildcat mining.

'Area of interest'

Thousands of independent miners have left the area, driven off by soldiers and private security keeping them away from the nearly 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) of forest in the "area of interest" allotted by the government to Newmont Mining Corp. Only a few stragglers remain.

"Most people have already left to other places in the country to try their luck," said Tjamie Ceder, one of those who stayed. "Langa Tabiki, once again, has become a ghost town."

Langa Tabiki, which sits about 11 miles (17 kilometers) from the Merian mine, is home to the Paramaka people, one of several small groups descended from indigenous people and escaped African slaves from coastal plantations who won control of the land after a decades-long war with the government and mercenaries. It is a region where people take pride in their independence from a distant central government and the formal economy.

Lifelong residents like Ceder see the new mine as an intrusion on their way of life. "Newmont did not discover that the soil here contains so much gold. My father, who was a miner as well, he already knew this," Ceder said. "I want to live and earn a living just like my father did, not by working for foreigners."

Newmont, based in Denver, Colorado, expects Merian will produce 500,000 ounces of gold annually in the first five years and has total reserves of 4.2 million ounces, worth about US$5 billion at current prices. Suriname's government has a 25 percent stake in the mine and says the project is critical in a country where the economy, buffeted by falling commodity prices, is forecast to shrink 9 percent this year and inflation is nearing 80 percent.

"This project shows foreign investors still have faith, not only in our small economy, but also in the political stability of Suriname," President Desi Bouterse said at the Nov. 17 opening ceremony.

Newmont has pledged to restore land damaged by its mine with "no net loss of biodiversity" and won't use mercury. That's in contrast to the independent miners who alarmed environmentalists for years with the unchecked use of the toxic metal to extract gold and who tore apart the forest with excavators and high-powered hoses. Newmont CEO Gary Goldberg said Merian would be the "safest and most environmentally friendly mine in the world."

The company says its roughly 1,000 employees include about 200 Paramaka — a large percentage of the entire community. A company spokesman, Albert Ramdin, said Newmont also has invested US$1.5 million in local infrastructure and set up a fund to pay for new schools and clinics.

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