PARAMARIBO, Suriname (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A wide-ranging environmental law drafted by a group of concerned citizens in Suriname has been welcomed by a member of the tiny South American country’s parliament.
“I applaud this initiative,” said Andre Misiekaba MP. “It is a perfect example of how the community can get together and help think about crucial matters. We actually have a responsibility to adopt it.”
The bill - which was presented to Parliament Chair Jennifer Simons in early December - was put together by the Climate Change Expert Group (CCEG), an informal group whose members specialise in various areas.
Its participants include Cornelius Bekker, director of the Meteorological Office, John Goedschalk, director of the Suriname branch of environmental watchdog Conservation International, Ellen Naarendorp, permanent secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs, Cedric Nelom, director of the National Institute for Environment and Development, and Sieuwnath Naipal, a hydrologist and professor at the University of Suriname.
“We all had a personal conviction and determination born from a social awareness and heart for (our) country,” said Naipal, whose environmental activism includes planting cloned mangrove plants in western Coronie district two years ago as a natural protection against shoreline erosion caused by climate change.
The bill features provisions to deal with environmental pollution, the establishment of an environment authority and a fund for climate research, as well as making an environmental impact analysis mandatory for new initiatives, Naipal explained.
Previous laws in Suriname governing the environment did not take the problem of global warming into consideration. The most recent such law dates back to 1980 - before climate change was widely recognised.
“An environmental law is necessary because it is evident that Suriname is feeling the impact of climate change,” Naipal said. “We are a people that is dependent on its natural resources, so while we are ... executing necessary development projects, we should have the tools in place that prevent our sustainability from being threatened. Our next generation should be able to enjoy the natural resources we have now.”
According to Naipal, the draft law allows the government to take measures and precautions to deal with current and future problems.
One particular change the CCEG wants to make is to have the words “climate change” themselves recognised as a formal legislative term.
“We hope that the environment law will contribute to bring a structural change to the level of awareness about climate change,” Naipal said.
He believes much of the region is ahead of Suriname as far as environmental legislation is concerned.
“Guyana has an Environmental Protection Act and an Environmental Protection Agency; Brazil and French Guiana, as well as most Caribbean islands, have legislation in place. Suriname is lagging behind, but that meant that we were able to look around us while we were writing our draft,” he said.
The draft is intended to be a “plug-and-play” law that can be implemented immediately. Naipal said this is because while some environmental legislation has been passed in Suriname, such as a law to protect nature reserves, “there is no umbrella legislation that could serve as a framework that includes the phenomena ‘climate change’.”
Misiekaba, who chairs the Climate Change Committee in parliament, said the draft legislation was timely.
“We have been talking for the past 11 years about introducing this kind of legislation, but the law never came,” he said. “I was looking at taking the initiative to draft it with the help of the environment ministry, but then CCEG came with this.
“The awareness is growing that Suriname is no longer escaping natural disasters. We have been experiencing squalls that are tearing roofs off buildings, rainfall has decreased over the past 50 years, but when it rains, our city floods because our infrastructure cannot handle the excess water,” he added.
Misiekaba pointed out that much of the country’s economic activity is located in its low-lying coastal area.
“We are categorised as a climate change ‘risk’ country. It should be clear that we need to take precautions,” he said, adding that his committee will look at the legislation, add its own advice, and put it on the parliament’s agenda. “I can tell you that across the floor, the opposition and coalition are in agreement that this law needs to come,” he said.
Misiekaba added that he was not at all worried that private citizens would take the wind out of parliament’s sails by drafting legislation.
“My understanding is that it’s not just the people who are concerned about climate change who have written draft legislation. Apparently the business sector is coming with a concept investment law as well. These are all praiseworthy initiatives,” he said.
Marvin Hokstam is a freelance writer based in Suriname.