LANGA TABIKI, Suriname – Muddy footpaths wind past empty homes, most collapsing into ruins. Dozens of stores and bars have closed. The most prominent citizen, the chief of a tribe descended from escaped African slaves, has decamped to the capital.
A gold mine operated by a U.S.-based company opened recently in the rainforest of southern Suriname, bringing hundreds of jobs and badly needed revenue to a government struggling with some of the highest inflation in the world.
But it has also emptied out the nearest community, Langa Tabiki, a small frontier town with an outsized role in the history and culture of this South American nation, one that has depended heavily on wildcat mining.
Thousands of independent miners have left the area, driven off by soldiers and private security keeping them away from the nearly 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) of forest in the "area of interest" allotted by the government to Newmont Mining Corp. Only a few stragglers remain.
"Most people have already left to other places in the country to try their luck," said Tjamie Ceder, one of those who stayed. "Langa Tabiki, once again, has become a ghost town."
Langa Tabiki, which sits about 11 miles (17 kilometers) from the Merian mine, is home to the Paramaka people, one of several small groups descended from indigenous people and escaped African slaves from coastal plantations who won control of the land after a decades-long war with the government and mercenaries. It is a region where people take pride in their independence from a distant central government and the formal economy.
Lifelong residents like Ceder see the new mine as an intrusion on their way of life. "Newmont did not discover that the soil here contains so much gold. My father, who was a miner as well, he already knew this," Ceder said. "I want to live and earn a living just like my father did, not by working for foreigners."
Newmont, based in Denver, Colorado, expects Merian will produce 500,000 ounces of gold annually in the first five years and has total reserves of 4.2 million ounces, worth about $5 billion at current prices. Suriname's government has a 25 percent stake in the mine and says the project is critical in a country where the economy, buffeted by falling commodity prices, is forecast to shrink 9 percent this year and inflation is nearing 80 percent.
"This project shows foreign investors still have faith, not only in our small economy, but also in the political stability of Suriname," President Desi Bouterse said at the Nov. 17 opening ceremony.
Newmont has pledged to restore land damaged by its mine with "no net loss of biodiversity" and won't use mercury. That's in contrast to the independent miners who alarmed environmentalists for years with the unchecked use of the toxic metal to extract gold and who tore apart the forest with excavators and high-powered hoses. Newmont CEO Gary Goldberg said Merian would be the "safest and most environmentally friendly mine in the world."
The company says its roughly 1,000 employees include about 200 Paramaka — a large percentage of the entire community. A company spokesman, Albert Ramdin, said Newmont also has invested $1.5 million in local infrastructure and set up a fund to pay for new schools and clinics.
Two years after work began on the project, Langa Tabiki seems to be returning to the forest. The only store still open offers only alcohol, frozen chicken and canned beans. The largest house, owned by the leader of the Paramaka, is empty because he moved to Paramaribo for unspecified health reasons. The elementary school, which had about 200 students in the 1970s, is largely empty, though it has a new building donated by Newmont.
Mine workers, meanwhile, largely live at the mine compound itself.
Lieselotte Vaneeckhaute, a researcher at the Belgian university Vrije Universiteit Brussel who has studied the economic effects of the mine, said workers are spending their money mostly in the capital. "People who now have gotten formal jobs for the first time prefer to spend their time off in Paramaribo," she said.
Langa Tabiki is on an island in the Marowijne River, which forms the border with French Guiana. It is a four-hour drive from Paramaribo on mostly unpaved roads. Still, it thrived for years and became the Paramaka capital. "It used to be a hustle and bustle here," said Ezechiel Paulus, one of the village elders.
It became a focal point of the civil war that raged in Suriname in 1986-92. Rebels fighting against the regime of Bouterse, then military dictator, briefly chose Langa Tabiki as their headquarters and fighting raged all around. People fled en masse.
After peace was restored, a rush for gold made the town lively again. No one knows the exact number of miners, but there were thousands, a mix of locals and people who came from Brazil and elsewhere. Supermarkets, service stations, mechanic shops, bars and brothels opened along the 55 miles (90 kilometers) of dirt road leading to the town.
Nearly all the businesses left as most wildcat miners headed elsewhere, leaving only a handful who hope the government will provide an area where they can mine again. They direct their anger at Bouterse.
"He promised us he would never sell our gold to a foreign company," said miner Johannes Joris. "Look what he has done. He just came here, telling us the gold is no longer ours."
Similar sentiments can be found to the north, where Canada-based Iamgold Corp. has operated a gold mine since 2004. Earlier this month, independent miners set up roadblocks and rioted while demanding land for mining. Troops broke up the protest, arrested 10 people and confiscated equipment.
Paulus worries that without independent mining his town will wither away. "You could grow some cassava roots, or catch fish to sell in the surrounding villages, but that would not be enough to support a family," he said. "Gold prospecting is the only way to earn a decent living."