Suriname: Of Birds and Bats at Brownsberg

About 10 AM on Monday, we were picked up by our driver for Brownsberg Nature Park, the reserve owned by STINASU to the south of Paramaribo. But our driver, a maroon man who had taken the Chrisitan name Alexander, had come in a pickup, not the van we were told to expect. It's a three-hour drive to Brownsberg an almost impossible stretch to span without a driving rain in Suriname so we stopped off at a local store, bought a tarp, wrapped it over our bags, and tied it down. None too soon. Less than an hour from Paramaribo, the rain began, and soon after just after we passed Alcoa's Paranam mine the blacktop ended and the road turned into red-clay gumbo. Alexander zigged and zagged around the deepest potholes, but by the time we arrived at Brownsberg, I felt like a paint can fresh from the mixer.

Then the real fun began. Saskia, a large maroon woman with red hennaed hair and wearing a traditional wrap around her waist, was expecting us. She knew that we had been reserved into the hammock camp, because (we were told) all the other buildings were reserved. She knew too that we had been told that we might be able to get an actual building to work in if anyone cancelled at the last minute. She said we were in luck; a building was available, but first there were some additional fees to take care of. They started with Jason's additional fee for the driver (which we had already paid for) and concluded with the driver's "parking fee." (He was parked outside the registration shanty--amid a cluster of local cars--for about five minutes.) It was an obvious shakedown, but we assumed it was in return for getting us into better facilities, so we paid.

Then Saskia took us to the "research center." It looked like the set for a movie about the Black Hole of Calcutta in there. Jason (who has been around the world--Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, all over Africa) said it was the worst he had ever seen. I think the whole place could be summed up by noting that a dead rat had been nailed to the wall next to the entrance. We started scouting around and found that almost none of the other buildings in the camp were occupied, so we went to talk to Saskia. She sighed heavily. The other buildings were impossible, she said. "What if someone with reservations shows up? What would the people at STINASU say?" By now, I'll admit, I was getting worked up, and this line of argument was making me mad. Without my dad's help, STINASU might not exist today. Certainly, he did more to help them than any other single American. Saskia ruminated. Maybe there was some place she could put us.

We walked through the camp, farther and farther back, until we reached this gigantic, new research building built by the World Wildlife Fund--though it looked like it hadn't been touched in God know's how long. Inside, was a nice space for dad to work in and livable conditions (bare mattresses, cold showers, but running water and electricity from the generator). We moved in quickly and got our equipment out to start stringing nets as soon as possible.

Our guide was a young man from Brownsweg, the maroon village at the foot of Brownsberg, named Ramond Finisie, but everyone called him by the nickname "Melkie" (Dutch for "milky"). I asked him about it later, and he just shrugged; "My mother called me that." Melkie was days from twenty years old, but he looked sixteen at most, with wide, searching eyes. He often wore a wrap similar to Saskia's but tied around his neck like a half cape; seeing him like that, swinging his machete, he had a decidely swashbuckling air. But Melkie's still-nascent English (he's been studying it a mere three months) wrapped him in silence, until he slowly grew to know us better. That first night, Melkie chopped a half dozen poles, and my dad chopped four more--not as flawless as Atinjoe's but totally serviceable--and we got quickly to work stringing the nets across four trails that opened into a park-like clearing near our house.

But the results continued to be puzzling. We caught several bats--including some species new to the trip--but there were still none of the rare schulzi and, even stranger, still none of the highly common Artibeus. At one point in the evening, we took a break and walked down to the bar in the center of camp, a ramshackle spot called Rocky's, for a rum and coke. (In truth, he gave us a small bottle of rum and a bottle of Coke, and we divided it equally into three plastic cups.) Musing over the absence of the fruit bats, dad said, "I just can't believe it, but I suppose the herpetologists probably couldn't believe it when they couldn't find any frogs." He was referring, of course, to the rapid disappearance of rainforest frogs, sparked by global warming, but he quickly added that it was way too soon to predict such a dire cause.

Still, Brownsberg makes for a perfect place to consider the possibility of unintended consequences. The whole of the park overlooks Lake Brokopondo. The man-made lake was constructed in the early '60s to provide hydroelectric power to the processing plants at Paranam and elsewhere, engaged in turning the bauxite mined by Suralco (Alcoa's Surinamese subsidiary) into aluminum. It would be clean, environmentally friendly energy, the company argued. Unfortunately, the damming of the Suriname River displaced about 5000 people (most maroon villagers), and the animals, which everyone had assumed would simply flee the rising waters, stood around confused as they began to sink. The government launched Operation Gwamba, which basically entailed scooping 10,000 animals into motor boats and releasing them on dry land, but that was only a fraction of the problem. The flooded trees began leeching into the water and essentially poisoning the fish in the Suriname River. According to a long-term study, there were 172 species of fish just before the river was dammed in 1964; by 1968, that number was down to 62 and down to 41--and holding--by 1978. The dam that was supposed to provide clean energy has extirpated three quarters of the fish.

STINASU was founded in 1969 and Brownsberg Nature Park established a year later as an attempt to counterbalance the disaster at Brokopondo. Unfortunately, the cash-strapped park has only rudimentary living quarters, almost no programs, and (most importantly) almost no staff to police the park itself. As a result, the protected rainforest has become a regular target for illegal gold-miners known as pork-knockers--a term coined in the 1950s when the miners lived in the bush on salt pork. Today, the operations are huge, using heavy equipment, hydro cannons, and a quicksilver process to separate the gold.

Yesterday, Jason and I hiked down from the mountain to a recently discovered pork-knocker mine along Witi Creek to survey the damage. Eight or more giant pools stood filled with green water and bulldozed rock and gravel piles rose more than ten feet high, all spread across a stadium-sized hole cut in the middle of the forest. "Had they been down here for years?" I asked Melkie, seeing the extent of the operation. "Eight months," he said. "Before that, all trees." We continued on to the lake but could only get as close as the stinking, sulfuric backwater marshes around the water's edge. It was a grim scene all around and a stark vision of devastation, past and present. On the way back up the trail, we encountered a group of tourists with two local guides. One had a shotgun slung over his shoulder; the other was carrying a long stick poked through the gill of an enormous river fish.

The man with the fish, a creole named Dion Coutinho, asked what we were doing at Brownsberg. When we told him about the bats, he said that he was our man. Every night, he set mist-nets to catch birds in the forest, and he pulled at least a dozen bats from his nets every morning. Such netting comes as more bad news; not only is it illegal, but mist-nets are a deadly tool when used indiscriminately. They so devastated the bird population in Japan that they are now illegal to own there.

Later that night, Melkie asked if he could take one of the bats from our nets, and he slipped it out like an expert. Suddenly, we realized why Melkie had been chosen as our guide; not only was he learning English, but he knew how to use a mist-net.

We had a good night collecting, but we kept asking Melkie more and more about netting in the park. Songbirds were the primary target, sold at the market in Paramaribo. Their trafficking is so widespread and open that a songbird competition is held each Sunday in the city park. One bird normally brings about $20 to $30 dollars US, but rare species or bird's with dramatic plummage might bring as much as $750 US. Every morning in the camp, the young men--Melkie included--walked to the park headquarters with wicker cages holding the previous night's haul of songbirds. Who knows how many bats have also been caught and killed. "Not enough to kill every single Artibeus," dad said, "but it can't be good for the bats or birds."

As Alexander pulled the pickup out of the camp this morning, our bags again tarped and tied, Melkie flagged us down. He leaned into dad's window.

"You go home now?" he asked.

"First to Raleigh Falls," dad replied.

"When you go home," Melkie said, "you leave me one those nets?"