Stephanie Kramawitana is one of the leading tour operators of district Nickerie in Suriname. The one and only female tour operator of Bigipon in Nikerie, began her career in 2004 as a cook in the tourism sector. She now owns an eco-lodge in the middle of the Bigipan lagoon area where she organizes tourism activities for her clients including bird watching, mud bathing, canoe racing, fishing etc. Besides managing her eco-lodge, she often leads the tour; drives the boat; catches fish and Caiman (alligator) as demonstration for her guests.

Stephanie recalls her childhood; ‘I used to play

with the boys and loved to do adventures with them. I always felt I am equal with them and can perform equally as them’. Ultimately, when she became an adult, she showed her similar passion to work in the field where no women from her locality dared to get involved.

When Stephanie first joined the tourism sector she served as a cook for a tour agency which would bring a group of tourists for bird watching in Bigipan. Her job was not easy. She further explains, ‘I had to wake up at 2 am for preparing meal, so that I could bring it on time in Bigipan for the guests who used to depart for birdwatching in the morning.’ Additionally, after her maternity period she found the job further challenging but she had to carry on it, so decided to leave her children with their grandparents until she get back to home at evening. Stephanie wanted to delve further into the tourism sector. So, she kept enhancing her skills and knowledge within this field.

One day Stephanie got an opportunity to have conversation with World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the organization was about to donate its hut built in the middle of the Bigipon lagoon. When she expressed her interest to use that hut for her tourism business she had been granted it via Solom, a local organization. She somehow convinced her husband to support her in securing credit from the bank for her business. However later on, she managed to pay back the credits and has been able to build a new lodge in Bigipon lagoon and she also returned the hut to Solom.

During the setting up of her business, Stephanie encountered many challenges. She found people tried to discourage her and placed hurdles in her way. She further adds, “my boats were burnt and broke down. But, I did break down because I had to make a long journey. Thus, I bought new boat and kept on moving ahead.”

There are still some challenges in her sector. Tour operators like Stephanie are affected by the global impact of climate change. In 2009, the water level in Bigipan, went extremely low, consequently, they could not use boats, fish died and tourism was badly affected. This is the area where UNDP Suriname is implementing the Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA+) project to conserve the mangrove eco system.

Stephanie is concerned about illegal fishing and over fishing activities in Bigipan. She believes these activities would create an imbalance in the ecosystem which could ultimately impact tourism, and of course her business. She emphasizes, “the authority has to be strict in monitoring of such illegal activities. At least once a week they should be monitored closely and controlled effectively.”

During her 16 year career, Stephanie has noticed a lot of changes in Bigipan regarding mangrove plants. She says, “mangrove plants regenerate itself in the lagoon”. She points to the dense forest of the inland area and says, “few years back, there had been only few mangrove plants and now it has become a dense forest of mangrove.” She again indicates to the opposite direction and says, “the mangrove plants nearby the seashore are gradually disappearing. It must be because of the increasing sea level and salty water which made the plant fail to survive.”

For a small entrepreneur like Stephanie, big businesses can really be a threat sometimes. For instance, a hotel chain in Suriname is currently in the process of establishing a resort occupying a space four times bigger than her lodge. She assumes such business could replace local entrepreneurs such as herself and it could also pose a threat to eco-tourism of Bigipan. Out of concern for her business and the environment, she networked with other local tour operators and tried to draw attention to the authority on prohibiting such business of outsiders in Bigipan area.

Stephanie does not have lavish dreams, she just wants her two teenaged sons, who often assist in her business during leisure period, to carry on her business smoothly in the future as she wants to hand it over to them as a safety net for their future!

Story written by Manorama Sunuwar (Nepal), International UN Volunteer, Gender Specialist working with UNDP Suriname. Manorama met Stephanie during her field visits and was highly impressed by Stephanie’s work ethics and ability to overcome so many challenges to create a business for herself in order to support her family and especially her children.