Company towns left behind
Unused industrial sites sit vacant and overgrown
MOENGO, Suriname — The graffiti on the stadium wall says you’re in the “Bauxiet Stadje,” or Bauxite Town. But, they no longer mine the red clay from which Alcoa made aluminum.
As a result, sewers are failing, squatters seize vacant houses, and there’s not much for young people to do. At least Moengo, population roughly 10,000, has a winning voetbal (soccer) team.
“You hear, ‘This used to be like this, this used to be like that,’ “said sculptor Yair Callender, a Dutch citizen of Surinamese descent who was a visiting artist in Moengo from January through March. “You feel just the disillusion of people.”
Alcoa ended a century of bauxite mining in the area around Moengo in late 2015, and now the only related jobs are in demolition and site security. Locals say mining has been replaced by a “hustle culture,” in which people scrape out a living day by day.
In a South American land in which the economy shrank by 10 percent last year and inflation hit 55 percent, that’s getting tougher.
“I am not sure the town will die,” said Marten Schalkwijk, professor of social change and development at Anton de Kom University, in the capital, Paramaribo, 66 miles west of Moengo. “People have not left in large groups. They are not leaving because they don’t have anywhere to go.”
It’s hard to believe that Alcoa’s Suriname century, which propelled a backward, plantationbased economy into industrial age prosperity, began in Moengo — just as it’s hard to believe that the battered Monongahela River town of Braddock was once the epicenter of the American steel industry.
But beneath Moengo’s veneer of palm trees and tropical breezes lies the same kind of industrial ruin that Pittsburgh’s Mon Valley and other ravaged Rust Belt communities are still trying to recover from decades after their economic engines died.
More industrial decline is on display 47 air miles southwest of Moengo in the river town of Paranam, the former site of Alcoa’s smelter and refinery. There, the jungle is relentlessly encroaching on a soccer stadium, a recreational hall, a playground and a gymnasium that were vital components of a thriving Alcoa company town. The once well-kept labor village where Alcoa built housing for its middle-class workers has become, in the words of a former Alcoa accountant, “a labor jungle.”