Suriname has come a long way in the past decade as the economy has stabilized and experienced tremendous growthSuriname has come a long way in the past decade, economy has stabilized and experienced tremendous growth, which peaked at 7% in 2008 and has remained buoyant ever since. Furthermore, investment from both the private and the public sectors have supported growth across all sectors of the economic activity. What is your opinion on the state of the economy in Suriname?
You have to bear in mind that this is a new government, established in August of last year. When you look at the country, it’s continuity of leaders and of cabinets, and we’re at the crossroad to make some top decisions. In the area of investment, for example, we see a stable economy and potential to grow. We have to show to the people that voted for us that we have good education, good healthcare, that we’re working toward a social security system that’s open for the whole of Suriname. This development, the decisions that we’re taking now, must benefit all people in Suriname.
You have to bear in mind the composition of the people in Suriname. Most of the times, when you come to Suriname, you’ll see Paramaribo; but Paramaribo is only a dot on the whole territory of Suriname. It has been developed since the immigration of people of several countries, starting with the slavery, people from Asia, and the original people, the Amerindians. I mention that because, when you look at the people of Suriname, you also have people in the interior, tribes that still live in the interior with their own local constituency, and when we talk about wealth, we’re talking about the whole country. So this differs a little bit for the interior, as for Paramaribo. When we talk about bringing health care for the people in the interior, our challenges and difficulties are based on the logistics.
On the other side, most of the time, when we talk about development, we reflect it in Paramaribo. When we talk about job creation, we talk about Paramaribo and the coastal area because half of the population lives in the coastal area. So, your question about bringing development, when we attract investors, for example in the mining sector, we also want the local people in the interior to benefit from the development.
Talking about investments, which main advantages would you highlight about Suriname for U.S. investors who are looking for opportunities, and what message would you send them about the opportunities that they can find, not only in Paramaribo, but in all of Suriname?
There are several areas that are still untouched. We have a great cultural heritage, Suriname relies on the Amazon region, and we have natural reserves. Since this Ministry is also about the environment, we want to make sure that, when we attract investors, we promote green investments with forefront technology and without a negative impact in the environment. We have a lot of potential because we have one of the world’s best fresh water resources, we are also proud of our pristine nature reserve that is about 1.6 million hectares (almost 10% of the surface) for example. Another strong point is that we have human capital. When you look at the average, most of our people speak at least two languages, for example, Dutch and English. They also have their native language coming from their ancestors: the Chinese speak Chinese, the Indian speak Urdu as the third language, and my family comes from Indonesia, so I can still understand Javanese. That’s still an untapped resource.Let’s talk about the Ministry of Labor and the plans for the future. This Ministry is willing to create about 5,000 new jobs in the following years. Officially, about 1,400 job seekers are registered in this Ministry. What measures are currently being taken to boost employment in Suriname?
There are two types of job seekers: the ones with formal education and the ones without a formal education. My role is to let those job seekers secure jobs. We have people who have a formal education, but still need professional skills training; and we have people that missed a formal education. Within the Ministry of Labor, we have an institute that is conducting vocational training. They are now being empowered to deliver hands-on training. In August, we will start with six trainings in the building sector. I think by the end of next year, we will have trained 400 or 500 people. Also, with the expansion in the oil sector, we are preparing people in construction and in welding, and working with materials as well.
Which main economic sectors would you highlight as those that have the most economic impact?
The mining sector is one, but, again, the challenge is not to disturb the biodiversity. That means we need skilled and qualified people in the environment sector because we need to have a good balance. I think mineral and liquid mineral mining are important, and we are getting into agriculture, as well. The Ministry is responsible for labor and the environment, and they both go together. We focus on development, but also on keeping the environment sustainable. We heard that the Ministry of Labor, the Minister of Planning, Land and Forest Management, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs have already signed an agreement in order to protect and preserve the coast of Suriname. What other measures are being taken by the Ministry of Labor in order to protect the environment of Suriname?
There are several initiatives within the Ministry that we support. We are looking at defending the coast in the coastal area. We are planning to have a harbor and other infrastructures, but studies still have to be made first. We are doing all of this in order to have a mango planting project, as well. We have not done anything with wind energy yet, but we are creating energy with micro hydro plants. We have a lot of rivers where we put a propeller inside the water so we do not have to build a dam and put land underwater. We want to promote these five MW plants for villages.
When you are creating these projects, you are creating jobs in turn.
Yes, we are linking environmental activities with employment generation.One of the main roles of the Ministry of Labor, Technological Development and Environment is the promotion of technological development. In this regard, how would you evaluate your country in terms of new technological development?
Not much has been done. I want to collect all the institutes, like colleges and universities, and bring them together in order to develop technology in agriculture, farming, and fisheries. I have observed in the Ministry that this technology development must be used and functioned as a bridge from the environmental projects and labor. It is not technology in the sense of computers and microchips, but how you work with efficient techniques. For example, in agriculture, we work without chemicals; small-scale miners do not work with mercury. We want to promote how to work with clean energy and safe materials. We want to work in the forests where you only harvest the biggest trees. If you take the big trees out, the small trees can get more sunlight and will have a better chance to develop. We have implemented an integrated system that has a balance.
Bearing in mind the importance of the U.S. for the economy in Suriname, what is your opinion on how both economies are working together to further develop the country?
Although Suriname is part of Central America, we are in a unique position. Dutch is the first language, but our neighboring countries speak English, French, and Portuguese, not Spanish. We are probably the only country here that has Europe as a neighbor; but, then again, we are not really integrated yet with French Guiana or the Caribbean community, even not really with Brazil. Our cultural relation is stronger with the Netherlands, or with the U.S. When you put the T.V. on, you will see that most of the programs are in English coming from the U.S. When you put the radio on and listen to music, there is an influence from the U.S. Our electrical system is not the same as in Brazil, for instance. Most of it is the same as it is in Europe (NEN/1010) but we also use the American system. We import most products from the U.S. I do not give an opinion of whether it is good or bad. The education system is not even like the one in the Netherlands.What sector of the economy do you think has the most potential for U.S. investors?
There are several. There is a small population and economy here. Half of the population lives in the coastal area. The first advantage that people from the U.S. have is the language. You have educated people. For people who want to invest in call centers, the language is an advantage. Everyone can speak Dutch and English. There is still some room for investment in the mining sector, as well as in the tourism sector, especially in eco-tourism.We know that you have a degree in Electrical Engineering and Energy Techniques. You have been on the boards of many companies. From all the success you have already obtained in your professional career, what makes you feel the most proud?
All the activities combined. When I make decisions here, I use all the experience I have with students, with university teachers, and with polytechnic colleges. You look at them as youngsters going into the labor market. When I was on the Board of the Chamber of Commerce, it gave me a sense of how to balance certain issues, from the private sector and from unions. With my position as a Minister, I cannot take sides. I think every part of my life gives me the strength to make certain decisions. Bearing in mind Suriname is still the undiscovered gem of the Caribbean, what message would you like to send that highlights all the potential that Suriname has to offer?
In the environmental context, my message as the Minister of Labor would be that we are inviting investors in order to establish partnerships for a sustainable development of the country. We want to preserve nature and biodiversity.