By Georg Ismar
In a factory in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo, screeching saws cut through trunks of tropical wood, while sacks of sawdust are piled up outside.
“I export 10 containers in one month to Europe,” boasts factory boss Jimmy Chen. His business exports floor coverings, mainly to Britain, Germany and Belgium, where the market is booming for the beautiful and robust wood of the rainforests in this former Dutch colony.
South America’s smallest country – with about 550,000 residents – is the greenest in the world, with 93 per cent of its territory covered by forest.
But while the authorities laud the wood trade’s benefits to the economy, concern is growing over the power of the Chinese entrepreneurs who dominate it – and over the impact that the hacking down of forests is having on climate change.
“The first Chinese came to Suriname in 1853. They were reliable partners since the beginning,” former foreign minister Winston Lackin says.
About 10 per cent of Suriname’s population now consists of Chinese, who have their own supermarkets, restaurants and even a “massage club” in the capital.
Not all the Chinese follow the example of Jimmy Chen, whose wood is processed and turned into finished products in Suriname instead of being exported for processing abroad.
The Algemene Surinaamse Houtunie, an organisation of sawmill owners, is concerned that Chinese exports could jeopardise the industry, which employs up to 6,000 people in the country.
“The Chinese influence grows day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute,” says Andre Soeltaansingh, president of the organisation.
“Our proposal is to ban the entire export.” But, he adds, “the state needs the foreign money.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, feel that Suriname should not fell trees at all.
The levels of deforestation in the sparsely inhabited country are nowhere near those in Brazil, but concern is nevertheless growing that it could accelerate climate change.
An export ban on some trunks is due to come into force in February, but it will only apply to Gronfolo and Basralocus trees – not to the frequently used Kopi.
Meanwhile, Chinese entrepreneurs are using middlemen to buy logging concessions, according to Soeltaansingh. The price of a concession measuring 50,000 hectares is about 40,000 dollars annually.
Export taxes must be paid on tree trunks, but not on products such as the flooring made by Jimmy Chen.
Outside Paramaribo, it does not look as though the concern of local entrepreneurs and environmentalists is having any impact on the wood trade.
Trucks loaded with tree trunks rumble on dusty roads leading to ports, while trunks marked for export are piled up on the roadside.
The Chinese argue that the wood needs to be processed abroad, because there are not enough companies capable of turning it into furniture or flooring in Suriname.
The argument is not entirely wrong, Soeltaansingh concedes. – DPA
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