HARRISONBURG, Va. — What is now an all-consuming campaign started quietly nine years ago with a routine U.S. government contract for environmental toxicologist Dan Peplow, a longtime member of Seattle Mennonite Church.
Sarah Augustine, a Mennonite sociologist who co-founded the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, addressed about 100 people at Eastern Mennonite University on Feb. 6 in a talk co-sponsored by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society. — Photo by Jon Styer/EMU
So learned about 100 people at Eastern Mennonite University on Feb. 6 as they listened to guest speaker Sarah Augustine, now married to Peplow.
The U.S. Embassy in Suriname, on South America’s northern coast, hired Peplow in 2004 to test some people living in rural areas to see if gold mining might be having an impact on their health profiles.
Peplow, who holds a doctorate in ecotoxicology, was shocked by the results of testing blood, hair and urine of 262 Wayana villagers living along a major river, the Tapanahony. Every one of them had been poisoned by methylmercury, one of the world’s most toxic chemicals.
As Peplow knew from many famous cases in the 20th century, methylmercury poisoning typically can be traced to eating contaminated fish. Its effects are irreversible — impaired vision, hearing, speech and muscle control. Poisoned children often have severe deformities at birth and mental retardation.
Even more shocking to Peplow was the discovery that U.S. officials had no intention of warning the Wayana about the dangers and the likely source of the problem — river water contaminated by gold mining, often by North American businesses.
Peplow teamed up with a sociologist from Seattle Mennonite to secure interpreters and transportation to return to the Amazon rainforest and inform the Wayana. That sociologist was Augustine, whom he married in 2004.
They made the rounds of the United Nations Environmental Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank and government officials of both Suriname and the United States.
The couple gradually realized nobody from the outside world was going to take an interest if they didn’t commit for the long haul. They were both college-teaching academics who owned a small farm, not experienced activists. In search of assistance, they tapped their only firm base of support: their church.
With the help of fellow Mennonites and a Quaker or two, they formed the nonprofit Suriname Indigenous Health Fund in 2006.
From the beginning, they said this fund would only do what the indigenous people of Suriname wanted. But how to set up communication between those living on the banks of the Tapanahony — at least 90 minutes by bush plane into the interior of Suriname — and those living in Washington state?
Augustine said they set up a time-consuming system of sending information to the capital of Suriname to be translated into Dutch, the country’s official language, then into Wayana and then hand-carried for days to Wayana villages. Feedback returned by a similar route. Once a year or so, either Peplow or Augustine would lead a small group of visitors to consult with the Wayana in person.
The Wayana requested a movie to tell their story. It took years, Augustine said, because the Wayana wanted it done their way, based on lengthy interviews they did with each other. A 25-minute version of this footage, Indigenous Suriname, won three international awards, including one from the United Nations and one from the Smithsonian. Last year, an hourlong version was released, Inside Suriname: Human Rights in an Era of Global Development.
These days, Peplow and Augustine have given up on receiving help from governmental agencies and large nonprofits — most of whom, they believe, have agendas at variance with the local control and self-determination the Wayana desire.
Instead, the couple hopes the social justice stream of Christians will embrace the cause of survival in Suriname.
As a first step, they are asking churches of all stripes to denounce the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a philosophy dating to the early colonial era whereby any people viewed as “heathens, infidels or pagans” were considered to have no reason to exist, and were treated likewise. In late 2012, the World Council of Churches took this step.
More information about the work of the Suriname Indigenous Fund, including film clips and contact information, can be found at sihfund.org.