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Science Is Guiding Business Decisions in Suriname

Conservationists are in the northern Amazon nation of Suriname today calling for better environmental protections from illegal mining and other threats.

To make the case for improved conservation practices, scientists from Conservation International (CI) and partner institutions are presenting a report to government officials that details eastern Suriname’s invaluable biodiversity. The report documents the results of a 2005 expedition and 2006 follow-up survey, led by CI’s Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), during which researchers found 24 species previously unknown to science.

A frog with florescent purple markings (Atelopus spp.) and other amphibians, fish, and insects are among the newly discovered species.

"This is a totally unexplored area: lots of new species, with many more still to be found," says Leeanne Alonso, CI vice president and head of the RAP program. "Our study will be a vital component in determining how to promote economic development in Suriname while protecting the nation’s most valuable natural assets."

Partnerships with Mining Companies

There are few places like Suriname left in the world. Suriname and its neighbors on the Guayana Shield are home to the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical rain forest on the planet. Nearly 20 percent of the world's water runs through the region.

Still, Suriname’s pristine forests are increasingly threatened by small-scale, illegal gold mining. When undertaken without due care, mining can damage fragile ecosystems by degrading water quality within the region's extensive system of rivers, streams, and reservoirs. Small-scale mining has already affected the two unprotected plateaus surveyed during the RAP expedition, 80 miles south of the Suriname capital of Paramaribo

Because it is imperative for mining companies to understand their potentially harmful impacts on the environment, CI partnered with BHP-Billiton Maatschappij Suriname (BMS) and Suriname Aluminium Company LLC (Suralco), a subsidiary of Alcoa Inc., to conduct the RAP expedition. This enabled conservationists to give miners guidance on protecting unique plants and animals during potential future development.

"Where current economic imperatives dictate mining, our responsibility is to ensure that operations are kept within the bounds of our benchmarks," says CI-Suriname Executive Director Ambassador W. Udenhout.

Partnering with companies that have not yet mined in these regions generated important results. In the relatively unexplored region, researchers discovered freshwater sources clean enough to support abundant fish and amphibian life. The expedition team recorded a total of 467 species. Among them, scientists documented 27 species that live nowhere else on Earth. They also rediscovered a rare armored catfish (Harttiella crassicauda) that was thought to be extinct and had not been seen for more than 50 years.

The expedition report presented today highlights the need to protect freshwater streams and prevent natural habitat from becoming fragmented in the face of unchecked or poorly planned development. The sponsoring mining companies continue to partner with CI in Suriname and have funded follow-up research to learn more about whether to pursue projects in this region. Conservationists are hopeful that government leaders will likewise study the RAP's results and consider actions to protect Suriname's biodiversity.

Benefits Beyond Suriname

The ramifications of the report extend far beyond the Suriname plateaus. Its findings could be used to help protect the amphibian populations that are dying worldwide, in part due to a fungal disease that makes their skins more vulnerable to infection. According to Alonso, frog populations discovered during the RAP expedition do not yet have that disease and are still thriving.

Scientists also found fish species in the area to be highly diverse. To ensure the continued survival of the rediscovered catfish, Jan Mol, a local Suriname scientist, recommends, "Hartiella crassicauda should be added as soon as possible to the IUCN Red List of Endangered species to protect it from extinction."

The report’s assessment of Suriname's biodiversity could also provide more reason to keep the Amazon rain forest intact for the benefit of both global water resources and the global climate. Preventing deforestation in the Amazon is important in minimizing the effects of climate change, as cutting and burning tropical forests contributes to 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions.

"Suriname has some of the Amazon’s most pristine and intact rain forest, which offers huge potential for scientific research and economic investment in carbon sequestration, as well as the sustenance it has always provided local communities," Alonso says.

Tom Cohen | EurekAlert!
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