Suriname was at an existential crossroads. It was 1998, and both conservationists and international logging companies had set their sights on the country’s astounding natural resources. These included one of the last and largest tracts of pristine tropical rainforest on Earth, as well as a water supply that accounts for more than 10 percent of the freshwater in our planet’s rivers. At the time, some conservationists argued that the environment should be protected from everyone, even the indigenous communities who’d lived there for centuries. Logging companies claimed that those same communities should profit from their land, whatever the larger environmental costs. In essence, everyone had their own answer to the same question: “What would be best for the people of Suriname?”
We were motivated by a different question. “What did the people of Suriname want for their land,” we asked, “and how could we help them achieve that?” It turned out to be a question that would forever change the course of environmental philanthropy.
After lengthy discussions with the indigenous Trio and Maroon communities, the Suriname government, and Conservation International, the Harbers Family Foundation made a strategic donation to establish the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, preserving a rainforest nearly the size of New Jersey (1.6 million hectares). It would eventually be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Most importantly, however, we ensured that those same indigenous communities remained the primary stakeholders in the land they’d lived on for centuries, enabling them to earn more money through ecotourism than they would’ve through deforestation. What began as an effort to simply “do the right thing” has since become a model for sustainable, respectful conservation that has been replicated around the world.