Parasitic Ants and Bush Negroes: Entomology and Race in the Surinamese Amazon

Arguably, the first farmers in Amazonia were ants. For the last 50 million years, leafcutter ants have carried pieces of leaves to their homes to cultivate the fungus that serves them as food. They are often considered a pest as they destroy agricultural crops in order to feed its fungus. The ants are attracted to human settlements, especially if they engage in logging for agricultural planting, as these provide them with ample low-to-the-ground leave material. Histories of leafcutter ants and human agriculture are, therefore, interrelated.

Suriname’s Amazonian interior is home to both Indigenous people and Maroons (descendants of Africans who fled slavery), and has been outside government control for most of Suriname’s history as a colony. This paper departs from observations made during the exploratory push in Suriname’s interior over the course of the 1930s and 40s. Looking at different texts from the early «discoverers», this contribution reveals how contemporaries presupposed that the levels of deforestation, ant infestation, and «ecologicality» of the different Amazonian communities were determined by ethnicity, with Maroons in the role of «destroyers», culprits of the ants, or «parasites».

Based on literature on both the ecology and the history of Maroon and Amerindian societies, complemented with original research in Dutch and Surinamese archives, this paper analyses how ant infestation in colonial eyes symbolized the parasitic nature of certain Amazonian societies in comparison to others, providing the discursive tools to translate age-old essentialist ideas towards different non-white populations into supposedly scientific proof of their ecological destructiveness. It argues that this reinforcement of racial stereotypes through ecological observation has importantly influenced the policy choices made in late colonial as well as post-independence Suriname, to the detriment of both the rainforest and its inhabitants.