officially Republic of Suriname, Dutch Republiek Suriname
Country, northern coast of South America.
Area: 63,251 sq mi (163,820 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 493,000.
Capital: Paramaribo. The population includes South Asians, Creoles,
Javanese, and smaller groups of people of African, Chinese, American
Indian, and Dutch descent. Languages: Dutch (official), English, Sranan
(a creole language), Javanese, Sarnami (derived from Hindi and Urdu).
Religions: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant, other Christians),
Hinduism, Islam, traditional beliefs. Currency: Suriname dollar.
Suriname has a low, narrow coastal plain, inland savannas, a forested
plateau region, and mountain ranges. A number of major rivers, including
the Courantyne, Maroni, and Suriname, cross the country to empty into
the Atlantic. Bauxite mining, aluminum production, and agriculture are
the largest sectors of the economy. Exports include rice, bananas,
sugarcane, oranges, and shrimp. Suriname is a republic with one
legislative house; its head of state and government is the president. It
was inhabited by various South American Indian peoples prior to European
settlement. Spanish explorers claimed Suriname in 1593, but the Dutch
began to settle there in 1602, followed by the English in 1651. It was
ceded to the Dutch in 1667, and in 1682 the Dutch West India Company
introduced coffee and sugarcane plantations and African slaves to
cultivate them. Slavery was abolished in 1863, and indentured servants
were brought from China, Java, and India to work the plantations, adding
to the ethnic mix of the population. Except for brief interludes of
British rule (1799–1802, 1804–15), Suriname remained a Dutch colony. It
gained internal autonomy in 1954 and independence in 1975. A military
coup in 1980 ended civilian control until the electorate approved a new
constitution in 1987. Military control resumed after a coup in 1990.
Elections were held in 1992, and civilian democratic government
Official name Republiek Suriname (Republic of Suriname)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative house
(National Assembly )
Head of state and government President
Official language Dutch
Official religion none
Monetary unit Suriname dollar (SRD)1
Population estimate (2008) 516,000
Total area (sq mi) 63,251
Total area (sq km) 163,820
1The Suriname dollar (SRD) replaced the Suriname guilder (SRG) on Jan.
1, 2004, at a rate of 1 SRD = SRG 1,000.
officially Republic of Suriname, Dutch Republiek Suriname
country located on the northern coast of South America. Suriname is
bordered on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by French
Guiana, on the south by Brazil, and on the west by Guyana. It claims two
disputed territories totaling some 6,800 square miles (17,612 square
kilometres) in the southwest and southeast, bordering on Guyana and
French Guiana, respectively. The capital is Paramaribo.
Suriname is one of the smallest countries in South America. Formerly
known as Dutch Guiana, it was a plantation colony of The Netherlands.
Suriname gained its independence on Nov. 25, 1975.
Relief and drainage
The narrow coastal zone, some 226 miles (364 kilometres) long,
consists of sandbanks and mudbanks deposited by the southern equatorial
currents from the area surrounding the mouth of the Amazon River. South
of the mudbanks begins the New Coastal Plain, also formed from sand and
clay from the mouth of the Amazon. The region, covering some 6,600
square miles, consists of swampland. The soil of the swamps is clay, in
which a great deal of peat has formed. The region is traversed by sandy
ridges that run parallel to the coast. Suriname’s most fertile soils
occur in the inundated lands reclaimed by diking and drainage (polders),
which are principally in the New Coastal Plain.
South of the New Coastal Plain is the Old Coastal Plain, which covers
some 1,550 square miles. It consists largely of fine clays and sands and
contains a variety of topographies, including old ridges, clay flats,
South of the Old Coastal Plain is the Zanderij formation, a
40-mile-wide landscape of rolling hills. This formation rests on
bleached sand sediments, rich in quartz. Most of the region is covered
by tropical rain forest, but swamps and areas of savanna grassland are
Farther to the south is an area, covering some 80 percent of the
country, that consists largely of a central mountain range, its various
branches, and scattered hilly areas. The southern four-fifths of the
country is almost entirely covered with tropical rain forest. In the
southwest near the Brazilian border is the Sipaliwini Plain, another
savanna area. The highest summit, at 4,035 feet (1,230 metres), is
Juliana Top, in the Wilhelmina Mountains.
Suriname’s major rivers flow northward into the Atlantic. They
include the Courantyne, which forms part of the boundary with Guyana,
the Coppename, the Suriname, and the Maroni, which forms part of the
border with French Guiana.
Suriname has a tropical climate. The populated area in the north has
four seasons: a minor rainy season from early December to early
February, a minor dry season from early February to late April, a major
rainy season from late April to mid-August, and a major dry season from
mid-August to early December. Daytime temperatures in Paramaribo range
between 73° and 88° F (23° and 31° C), with an annual average
temperature of 81° F (27° C). In the interior, diurnal temperature
extremes can vary by as much as 18° F (11° C). The range in average
temperatures between the warmest month, September, and the coldest,
January, is only 3° F (2° C). Rainfall is highest in the central and
southeastern parts of the country. Annual rainfall averages 76 inches
(1,930 millimetres) in the west and 95 inches in Paramaribo.
Plant and animal life
The flora of the coastal area is better known than that of the
interior. It consists of some 4,000 species of ferns and seed plants and
a large number of mosses, weeds, and mildews. About 90 percent of
Suriname’s area is covered with heterogeneous tropical forest consisting
of more than 1,000 species of trees. The baboen (Virola surinamensis),
which grows in the coastal area, is used to make plywood. The kapok
(Ceiba pentandra) reaches a height of more than 150 feet.
There are some 150 species of mammals, including monkeys, wild pigs,
deer, manatees, jaguars, ocelots, armadillos, sloths, and anteaters. The
tapir is the largest land mammal. Reptiles include caimans, iguanas, and
the boa constrictor. The beaches on the eastern part of the coast are
breeding grounds for marine turtles, which are protected by law. About
650 species of birds, including hummingbirds, vultures, and parrots,
have been identified. Some 350 species of fish occupy coastal and inland
Some 80 percent of the total population is concentrated in
Paramaribo and the surrounding area. Small urban centres include Nieuw
Nickerie, in the northwest near the Guyanese border; Albina, in the
northeast on the border with French Guiana; Moengo, in the centre of the
bauxite-mining region in northeastern Suriname; and Paranam, in the
bauxite-mining and bauxite-processing region on the Suriname River south
of Paramaribo. Small settlements of Bush Negroes (descendants of escaped
African slaves) and South American Indians make up almost the entire
population of the interior. Some Indian villages are located in the
coastal area, and nomadic Indian tribes live along the Brazilian border
in the south.
The so-called Hindustanis, or East Indians, descendants of
contract labourers from India, are the largest ethnic group, with more
than a third of the population. The second major ethnic group is the
Creoles, people of African or mixed European and African descent, who
make up about a third of the population. The descendants of Javanese
contract labourers make up about 14 percent of the population. Bush
Negroes constitute less than 10 percent of the population, and American
Indians make up about 3 percent. Minor ethnic groups include descendants
of Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese, Portuguese, and Dutch immigrants; Creoles
from the West Indies; and a few North Americans.
Dutch is the official language, but the extent to which members of
the various ethnic groups are able to use the language differs. Most of
the population learns Dutch as a second language. English is widely
spoken. Additional languages include Sranan (Taki-Taki) and other creole
languages; Sarnami, which originated from Hindi and Urdu; Javanese; and
a number of American Indian languages.
The principal religion is Christianity, imposed on the population by
European colonizers. About a third of the Creoles are Protestant, and
another third are Roman Catholic. The East Indians are predominantly
Hindu. Most of the Javanese and a small East Indian group are Muslim.
Judaism, present in Suriname since the early 16th century, is still
practiced, and many of the Chinese are Confucians. African and native
Indian religions are still widely practiced.
The population has a relatively high rate of natural increase. Birth
and death rates have decreased since the 1960s. About 40 percent of the
population is under 15 years of age, and about 75 percent is under 30.
After 1973, when it was announced that Suriname would become
independent, a large number of people emigrated to The Netherlands. By
1980, according to some estimates, one-third of the population had left
the country; many of those who left were professionals and skilled
With the rise in 1986 of a guerrilla movement, based in northeastern
Suriname and enjoying widespread support among Bush Negroes, the
National Army has carried out raids in the Bush Negro villages. The
killing and detaining of a large number of Bush Negroes has resulted in
the flight of some 10,000 to 12,000 of them to French Guiana.
Suriname has a higher standard of living than many Latin-American
countries. During the 1980s the economy experienced a decline, resulting
mainly from falling export prices for bauxite and from a reduction in
development aid from the United States and The Netherlands. This decline
was marked by inflation, a growing budget deficit, and unemployment.
Government expenditures account for almost half of total consumption.
The civil service employs about 45 percent of the work force.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Less than 1 percent of Suriname’s land is arable, and about half of
this is cultivated. Most of the farmland is on the New Coastal Plain. In
this region drainage is necessary most of the year, owing to a surplus
of precipitation. During dry periods evaporation exceeds precipitation,
and irrigation is necessary.
More than half of the cultivated land in Suriname is planted with
rice, the basic food staple. There are two rice harvests every year, the
principal one in the spring and a second crop in the autumn. Some rice
is exported, as are bananas, citrus fruits, coconuts, and palm oil.
Sugar, coffee, and cocoa, formerly important export items, are produced
mainly for domestic consumption.
Suriname has great timber resources, but they have not been fully
exploited. Plywood and timber are exported. There is a small fishing
industry, centred in Paramaribo, that exports shrimp to North America.
The main industry in Suriname is the mining and processing of
bauxite. Mines exist near Moengo, Paranam, and Overdacht. There are
aluminum smelter and an alumina refinery in Paranam.
The Brokopondo Dam and a hydroelectric power plant on the Suriname
River produce electricity for the bauxite-refining operations in
Paranam. The dam impounds the 600-square-mile W.J. van Blommestein Lake.
The Suriname State Oil Company (Staatsolie) produces a limited amount of
oil from wells in the Tambaredjo area.
Apart from the bauxite and wood-processing industries, manufacturing
is limited to small import-substitution enterprises. Processed foods,
clothing, cigarettes, and construction material are produced for the
Finance and trade
Local banks and insurance companies either are subsidiaries of or
cooperate with foreign companies, mostly from The Netherlands and the
United States. Monetary policy is controlled by the minister of finance
and the president of the Central Bank of Suriname (established 1957),
the bank of issue.
Bauxite, alumina, and aluminum account for almost three-fourths of
total exports. Imports consist mostly of fuels, food products, capital
goods, industrial products, and industrial raw materials. Suriname’s
main trade partners are the United States and The Netherlands.
Surface transport systems are for the most part limited to the
coastal area. The East–West Highway connects Paramaribo with Albina on
the eastern border and with Nieuw Nickerie on the western border. There
is a road from Paramaribo to Afobaka near the Brokopondo Dam. Only
one-fourth of the roads are paved. Rivers and canals are an important
means of transport. The lower courses of the larger rivers are
accessible to oceangoing vessels. Paramaribo is the chief port.
Zanderij, the international airport, began operation in 1934.
Administration and social conditions
Under the 1987 constitution, legislative power is exercised by an
elected 51-member National Assembly, which elects a president and vice
president. The president, vice president, and members of the National
Assembly serve five-year terms. The president is the chairman of a
nonelective, military-influenced Council of State, which ensures that
the government’s actions conform to the law. It has constitutional
powers to annul laws passed by the National Assembly. The judicial
system consists of a Court of Justice and three cantonal courts.
Suriname’s system of education is modeled on that of The
Netherlands, and Dutch is the language of instruction. School attendance
is compulsory for children up to age 12, and education at all levels is
free. More than 90 percent of the children in the coastal areas attend
primary school. Suriname has secondary schools, junior colleges, a
teacher’s college, and vocational and technical schools. The University
of Suriname in Paramaribo, founded in 1968 and renamed the Anton de Kom
University in 1980, has faculties of law, medicine, social science and
economics, engineering, and natural resources.
Health and welfare
Health conditions are relatively good in Suriname. Most tropical
diseases are being combated effectively. Medical care in the interior is
provided by the Foundation for Medical Mission of the Evangelical
Brethren in Suriname, which operates medical centres in the main Bush
Negro and American Indian settlements.
Most of the population has health insurance. All collective labour
agreements include medical care. The unemployed and workers in the
informal sector, however, must obtain a “certificate of poverty” from
the government to receive free medical care. Unemployment benefits and
other social provisions are almost nonexistent.
Suriname is a culturally divided society, with contact between its
ethnic groups largely limited to the economic sphere. Fine arts, such as
painting and sculpture, are primarily middle-class concerns dominated by
Western—primarily Dutch—cultural standards.
There is one government-owned television station (with one channel),
as well as a government-owned radio station and a number of small
commercial radio stations. There are a few government-owned publications
and two privately owned daily newspapers.
The Surinen (from whom the country’s name derives) were the
area’s earliest known inhabitants. By the 16th century, however, the
Surinen had been driven out by other American Indian groups. Europeans
learned of Suriname (and other areas in the Guyana region) from
Christopher Columbus, who sighted its coast in 1498. A Spanish
expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda sailed along the
coast of Suriname in 1499, and the Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón
visited the region in 1500. Settlements attempted by the Spanish, Dutch,
British, and French during the first half of the 17th century all
failed, in part because of resistance by the native Indian inhabitants.
The first permanent settlement of Europeans in Suriname was
established by a group of British planters and their slaves in 1651. In
1667 Suriname was seized by a Dutch fleet, and that year it was ceded to
The Netherlands in exchange for Nieuw Amsterdam (New York). Except for
the years 1799–1802 and 1804–15, when it was under British rule,
Suriname remained part of The Netherlands until its independence in
Suriname developed into a flourishing plantation colony after Dutch
planters, driven out of Brazil from the mid-17th century, settled in the
area. Sugar was the main export, and the production of coffee, cacao,
cotton, indigo, and wood gained importance during the 18th century.
Until the mid-19th century the majority of the population were
slaves, mostly from the west coast of Africa. The small white population
was mainly of Dutch origin. Jews, who had come from Portugal, Spain, and
Italy, mainly by way of Brazil, made up one-third of the whites, and the
remainder came mostly from France, Germany, and Great Britain.
In 1853 Chinese and Madeiran contract labourers were brought to
Suriname to work on the plantations. Many of these workers eventually
became small-scale merchants. On July 1, 1863, slavery was abolished in
Suriname. The former slaves, however, were placed under government
supervision for a period of 10 years in order to perform labour under
contract. Contract labourers from India (called East Indians) were
recruited to replace the former slaves, and workers also came to
Suriname from Java, Indon.
Despite efforts to preserve plantation production, Suriname’s
position as an agricultural supplier declined. In 1916 Alcoa (Aluminum
Company of America) began mining the country’s newly discovered reserves
of bauxite, the principal ore of aluminum. Later, especially after World
War II, Dutch interest in Suriname revived, seen first in the arrival of
the Dutch mining company Billiton in 1939. The Netherlands began to
provide development aid to Suriname in 1948, the year in which talks on
Suriname’s internal political autonomy began.
After World War II the issue of universal suffrage served as a
catalyst for political mobilization. Political parties were set up, most
of them organized along ethnic lines. The light-skinned Creole elite,
who opposed universal suffrage, set up the Suriname National Party
(Nationale Partij Suriname; NPS). The Progressive Suriname People’s
Party (Progressieve Suriname Volkspartij; PSV) organized the
working-class Creoles. The East Indians and Indonesians were eventually
grouped within the United Hindu Party (VHP; later called the Progressive
Reform Party) and the Indonesian Peasants’ Party (Kaum-Tani Persuatan
Indonesia; KTPI), respectively. Universal suffrage was instituted in
After Suriname was granted autonomy in its internal affairs in 1954,
development aid from The Netherlands increased steadily. From 1964
onward Suriname, as an associate member of the European Economic
Community (EEC), also received aid from the EEC’s development fund. In
spite of this aid, Suriname’s rate of economic growth was strong only
during the mid-1960s, when there were dramatic increases in the
production of alumina and aluminum.
The 1958 elections produced a coalition government of the NPS and the
VHP. In 1961 the left-wing Nationalist Republican Party (Partij
Nationalistische Republiek; PNR) was established. Among the East Indian
population the Action Group (Aktie Groep) became active. A split
occurred in the NPS–VHP coalition after the 1967 elections, which led to
a coalition of the Action Group and the NPS, but in 1969 that government
fell. A coalition was then formed by the VHP and the Progressive
National Party (Progressieve Nationale Partij; PNP), which was set up by
a group of intellectuals who had left the NPS.
The National Party Alliance, a coalition of the NPS, the PSV, the
KTPI, and the PNR, won the 1973 election. The PNR and most of the
younger party leaders within the NPS favoured independence, as did the
ruling socialist party in The Netherlands. Despite resistance from East
Indians, who feared increased Creole domination, Suriname became
independent on November 25, 1975.
In the late 1970s Suriname’s economy continued to stagnate.
Unemployment was high, and most of the population had incomes at the
minimum subsistence level. On February 25, 1980, after the government’s
refusal to sanction trade union activity within the armed forces, a
group of noncommissioned army officers seized control of the government.
The coup was welcomed by most of the population. The National Military
Council (Nationale Militaire Raad; NMR), installed after the coup,
called on the moderate wing of the PNR to form a Cabinet composed mostly
of civilians. After the new Cabinet proclaimed that Suriname would
return to democracy in two years, the Dutch government agreed to finance
an emergency development program.
After the military coup in 1980, government expenditures rose
dramatically, particularly defense spending. The economy, moreover,
steadily deteriorated, as a result of the suspension of foreign aid, the
stagnation of private foreign investment, and the decline of the export
(especially bauxite) sector. The country’s domestic affairs continued to
be strained, reflecting an uncertain and tense relationship between the
military, with de facto power, and the nominal civilian government led
by a president. The military leaders, initially without a clear
political ideology, began to take a conciliatory approach toward
left-wing radical factions close to the NMR, which led to the formation
in August 1981 of the Revolutionary Front, headed by Lieutenant Colonel
Dési Bouterse. The Front included the Revolutionary People’s Party
(Revolutionaire Volkspartij; RVP), the PNR, and some of the trade and
farm workers’ unions. By the following year, however, as military
leaders showed few signs of willingness to surrender control, trade
unions, business associations, and professional groups began to proclaim
their discontent. The conflict reached a climax in December 1982 when 15
prominent civilians were executed. The Netherlands and the United States
immediately suspended development aid. In February 1983 a left-wing
coalition was able to form a government, but a strike in the vital
bauxite industry and the threat of a general strike led to its dismissal
by the military within one year.
Raids by the Surinamese Liberation Army, a guerrilla group better
known as the Jungle Commando (JC; consisting mainly of Bush Negroes),
disrupted bauxite mining and led to the killing of many Bush Negro
civilians by the National Army; thousands of Bush Negroes fled to French
Guiana. The deteriorating economic and political situation forced the
military to open a dialogue with the leaders of the principal political
parties that had operated before the coup. In 1985 a National Assembly
was formed; a new Cabinet of Ministers was installed the following year,
and a new constitution was approved in a referendum on September 30,
1987. Elections held on November 25, 1987, resulted in the defeat of the
political wing of the military. The Front for Democracy and Development
(Front voor Democratic en Ontwikkeling; FDO), a coalition of the VHP,
NPS, and KTPI, formed a new government.
In 1988 the Suriname and French governments (the latter as the
sovereign of neighbouring French Guiana) began peace negotiations with
the JC on the repatriation of the Bush Negroes and the incorporation of
the JC in the police force. An agreement signed in July 1989 was opposed
by the military as well as by the Tucayana Amerindians, a group of
native Indians armed by the military. On December 24, 1990, military
leaders once again seized control of the government.
Henk E. Chin
In response to political pressure from the United States, The
Netherlands, France, and the Organization of American States, elections
were held on May 25, 1991. The New Front for Democracy and Development,
which included the old Front and the Suriname Labour Party (Surinaamse
Partij van de Arbeid; SPA), won a majority of seats in the National
Assembly and elected Ronald Venetiaan president. The new government
quickly passed an act that officially deprived the military of all
political power and in 1992 signed an agreement with the JC and the
Tucayana regarding repatriation of Bush Negroes from French Guiana.
Venetiaan sought to rein in both inflation and the budget deficit, but
his reform efforts were hampered by a bloated bureaucracy and by cocaine
trafficking, in which the Suriname military and former president
Bouterse were implicated. Bouterse had retained broad appeal in
Suriname; he served as president of the National Democratic Party
(Nationale Democratische Partij; NDP) and was widely viewed as the real
power behind Jules Wijdenbosch, who was elected president of the country
In 1997 the government of The Netherlands issued an arrest warrant
for Bouterse on charges of drug smuggling, but Suriname failed to
extradite him; in 1999 he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 16
years in prison. During Wijdenbosch’s administration (1996–2000)
Suriname was beset with economic problems—an International Monetary Fund
report declared the country “practically bankrupt”—and a deterioration
of social services. Facing protests, Wijdenbosch called early elections,
and in 2000 Venetiaan returned to the presidency. Under his guidance,
the economy improved, the armed forces were depoliticized, and loans
were negotiated with The Netherlands and the Inter-American Development
Bank to finance health, education, and social programs. Venetiaan was
reelected president in 2005 in a special session of the National
Assembly after no candidate claimed a two-thirds majority in the general
elections. Tensions within the SPAstalled legislative progress, however.
Moreover, in the early 21st century Suriname faced several seemingly
intractable problems—among them a vast criminal economy that included
drug trafficking and gold smuggling. The country also lost a
longstanding maritime border dispute with neighbouring Guyana, which
gained promising oil-rich zones from Suriname in the ruling.