Gaitrie Satnarain

Gaitrie Satnarain

An entrepreneur saving wildlife habitats and Surinamese tourism

Shortly before graduation from the University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill Campus in 2012, Gaitrie Satnarain looked around and saw that there were very few experts in climate change technology operating in Suriname. So she became one herself by establishing GUS Climate Change Observer.

“People here think that climate change effects are far from us, even though we’re experiencing temperature change and severe winds that we didn’t have before,” she remembers about that seminal moment two years ago. “They will have to build their houses differently from what they’re doing now, since most of Suriname’s inhabitants live in the coastal plain which is only one meter above sea level. A rise in that level could be catastrophic.”

In her way of thinking, the situation is more urgent than many of the country’s inhabitants – especially those in Suriname’s indigenous and tribal communities – might believe. “Ironically, the Surinamese government is up to date with their awareness of the issues and technology regarding climate change, but there is not enough communication,” she says, “with those communities who are the most vulnerable group. There is always a challenge to explain what you want them to do, primarily because of language.”

She brought that sense of urgency to infoDev’s WINC Grow Your Business (GyB) workshops in April, where 49 women, representing all 14 CARICOM territories, underwent intensive entrepreneurial training over six days in Antigua and St. Lucia. This was the second such workshop series run by WINC, aimed at creating opportunities for women entrepreneurs to review and adapt their business strategy for improved competitiveness, focusing on innovation development, product differentiation and entrepreneurship.

Her plans center on consulting with entities like the government of Suriname, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund, the University of Suriname and tour companies to identify alternative attractions for visitors even before the most drastic climate changes begin to take effect. Since successfully completing the intensive schedule at the St. Lucia workshop, Gaitrie has been gathering as much information as she can about marketable tourist attractions in anticipation of the loss of her country’s beachfront to the erosion of the Guiana Current, which may erode enough of it to destroy wildlife habitat and the beach itself.

Many of the activities now enjoyed by visitors, such as nature walks and swimming could soon be gone forever. “Because the shoreline is alternately shrinking and growing in various places, Matapica beach may be gone in a year – and where will turtles go?” she asks. “Where will the tourist income come from, with fish harvests shrinking as well? What should we put in place in addition to just telling people about climate change?” This is where her obsession with data collection comes in handy. “Make sure you have enough information,” she says. “When you approach people they expect that you have a lot of it.”

Gaitrie is currently focused on an environmental community outreach program at Johanna Margaretha Plantation in District Commewijne, Suriname, where men, mostly via fishing, carry out most of the impactful activity. “When fishing season isn’t great, they get tourists. During February-July (the turtle nesting period), they make extra income as uncertified beach operators. There is also a problem with poaching of the endangered green and leatherback turtles that nest on the beach.”

Armed with her knowledge from the GyB workshop, she is also working on a business toolkit for working with indigenous communities, including:

• tactics for approaching the community

• a message plan for the community

• how to form alliances with community members

• empowering operating procedures for the community, giving them independently ownership of the plan

“There has to be collaboration between you and key people. I recently had to go to the district commissioner in Commewijne to tell her what I was going to do there. If she had said no, then I’d have to just go away. In the maroon communities, you talk to the captain (regional leader) thru the basja; you don’t talk directly to the captain. The people have to trust you; that’s the way to get community members involved.”

She’s determined not to be a detached consultant. “I can’t just be sitting in Paramaribo and wait for people to reach me, even if I have Internet. You go into an area and observe the problems, make observations about what can be done and see if the locals are willing to do anything about it. People often go to areas without involving the community, and as soon as the consultant leaves, nobody knows what s/he has done, so you have to detail what you are doing.”

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