• Indigenous peoples in French Guiana

    Indigenous peoples in French Guiana

    French Guiana is an overseas department and region of France in South America. Although France has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, French Guiana’s 10,000 indigenous inhabitants are facing a number of challenges, especially in relation to illegal gold mining affecting the natural habitats and the local populations who depend on those habitats.
  • Peoples

    5 per cent of the population of French Guiana, or around 10,000 persons, are indigenous peoples
  • Rights

    2007: France adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Land rights

    8 per cent of the area of French Guiana is recognised as Areas of Collective Land Use Rights, concessions and transfers, and give the indigenous peoples only a simple right to use of the land

Indigenous World 2019: French Guiana

Guiana is an overseas department and region of France in South America. It is bordered to the west by Suriname and the south and east by Brazil. It has a population of 259,865 inhabitants (INSEE, 2015). The interior of the country (90% of the land mass) is covered by dense equatorial forest that is only accessible by plane or canoe along the Maroni River from the west or the Oyapock River from the south-east.

Indigenous peoples account for 5% of the population, or around 10,000 people. The Pahikweneh, Lokono and Téleuyu (or Kali’na) live along the coast between Saint Laurent du Maroni and Saint Georges de l’Oyapock. The Wayampi and Teko live in the Upper Oyapock, and the Wayana, plus a few Teko and Apalaï, in the Upper Maroni. Their traditional practices of fishing, hunting, gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture have become increasingly difficult due to numerous regulations and mining activities.

France has ratified the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but not ILO Convention 169. It only recognises Areas of Collective Land Use Rights (Zones de Droits d’Usage Collectifs / ZDUC), concessions and transfers. These areas cover 8% of the area of Guiana and give only a simple right to use of the land.

The President of the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations (Grand conseil coutumier des populations amérindiennes et bushinenge), Sylvio Van Der Pilj, reminded the Congress of Deputies1 at the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG) on 27 November 2018 of the following: “[…] This change will need to be made with us, and we need to be listened to whenever the issue affects us […] Always remember, always recall that the history of Guiana is above all Amerindian.”2 As in 2017, Guiana’s indigenous world remained mobilised largely around the ‘Montagne d’Or’ (Gold Mountain) mining project, the land issue and the production of the statutory change bill in 2018. This mobilisation is highly significant in the struggle for recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights.

‘Montagne d’or’ mining project

Gold mining in Guiana has long been a semi-artisanal affair focused on secondary alluvial exploitation. Nevertheless, the Montagne d’Or company (CMO) is looking to develop what it calls “responsible” industrial-scale opencast mining. Located 125 km south of Saint Laurent du Maroni, near the Lucifer Dékou Biological Reserve, it aims to extract around 6.7 tonnes of gold per year over a 12-year period, being 85 tonnes in all. The company is, however, facing questions and challenges from some sectors of the population, who are denouncing the project.

On 5 March 2018, the file prepared by CMO enabled a public debate to take place between March and July, and the National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP) subsequently decided to call for additional expert reports into cyanidation and hydrogeology. The CNDP’s Report3 notes that 1,500 people attended the meetings or thematic workshops, and more than 5,900 visits were made to the participatory platform, giving rise to 232 opinions, 211 questions and 39 contributions. The mobilisation reflected the deep fractures in Guianese society, fractures that have come to the surface around a plan that has been debated for more than 18 months. Some elected representatives and economic circles favourable to the project had limited participation in the debate, rejecting the principle of it or organising parallel discussions in other fora. The sector of the population most vulnerable to its potential economic consequences also had limited engagement. Representatives of Amerindian populations, either their associations or customary leaders, stated their opposition to the project. The Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations issued “a negative opinion on the project”, particularly on 9 August during the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples at Saint Rose de Lima, and again on 31 August at the Plenary Assembly of the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations.4

While the Bushinenge5 and Hmong6 groups were less represented, despite the documents being translated, it was noted that:

The opinions expressed during this public debate were generally hostile to the project. It is possible that those in favour did not make their opinions known […] Several technical questions seriously challenged the project’s feasibility [...] The issue of environmental impacts could not be properly clarified due to the lack of an impact study [...] This public debate was riven by the deep cleavages in Guianese society, more particularly between the so-called ‘indigenous’ population and the economic and political leaders.7

On 5 May, the international scientific community sent the President of the Republic a statement noting their opposition to the project in order to prevent a “veritable human and environmental disaster.”8

On 14 June, in its report on human rights in the Overseas Territories,9 the National Consultative Human Rights Commission (CNCDH)10 made arguments for and against the project and recommended a moratorium pending an independent study into its social, environmental and human rights impacts, to gain a better understanding of the identified risks. On 26 June, a delegation from Indigenous Youth (Jeunesse autochtone), invited to Paris by MEP Yannick Jadot, participated in several demonstrations against the project. On 18 September, François de Rugy, appointed Minister of State for Environmental Transition and Solidarity on 4 September, stated: “The public debate alone has shown that this project cannot be implemented as planned. We will need to reconsider it in one way or another. I will work on it. My belief is now that we cannot implement it as it is. That’s quite clear.” On 16 November, CMO submitted a number of major developments in response to the concerns raised during the public debate. These concerned the use of cyanide, the production of on-site energy, and the creation of a Fund for the Development and Diversification of the Guianese Economy. On 18 November, David Riché, Guiana’s President of Mayors, called for a Guiana-wide referendum on the Montagne d’Or project.

At the end of December 2018, the Organisation of Amerindian Nations of Guiana (Organisation des Nations Amérindiennes de Guyane / ONAG) lodged a petition concerning the project with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). This UN body is responsible for ensuring respect for the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and France has been a member since 28 July 1971. In its petition, ONAG emphasises: “Montagne d’or is a mining site situated on ancestral lands, close to sacred pre-Colombian relics with a risk of polluting hunting and fishing areas. […] The public debate and the express visit of the Interministerial Commission on Gold Activity in October 2018 in no way represents a consultation process” and recalled Article 32 of the UNDRIP.11 On 14 December, CERD sent a letter to the French state requesting that it provide information on a number of points, including the location of the mining project on the territory of the indigenous Kalina and Wayana peoples and the lack of consultation.12

The Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations

On 11 February 2018, elections for the Grand Customary Council were held in the presence of the Amerindian and Bushinenge chiefs and associations. As Law No. 2017-256, of 28 February 2017, on Real Overseas Equality (EROM) stipulates, the aim of the Grand Customary Council is “to provide representation of French Guiana’s Amerindian and Bushinenge populations and to defend their environmental, educational, cultural, social, economic and legal interests” (Article L7124-11).13 This new institution replaces the former Consultative Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations (Conseil consultatif des populations amérindiennes et Bushinenge/CCPAB).14

Decree No. 2018-273, of 13 April 2018, on the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations draws on Article 78 of Law No. 2017-256 EROM by updating the Grand Council’s operating procedures.15

The Grand Customary Council elected its officers for six years on 12 June. Two of its members form part of the ad hoc commission appointed on 10 December during the Plenary Assembly of the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG). This commission comprises 33 members responsible for developing plans for Guiana.

Day of action on teaching maternal languages at school

On 22 September 2018, a petition to the Vice-Chancellor of the Guiana Academy on maternal languages was launched in the context of a “Day of Action for Guiana’s Languages.”16 The petition states that:

On paper, everyone would seem to be in agreement: the teaching of maternal languages at school is a factor of success for pupils. Linguists have long said this, the Ministry has acted, the academic project clearly confirms it: the training of teachers that speak Guianese languages is a priority, with the aim of opening up bilingual courses and schools that give equal hours to French and maternal languages, along the Maroni and Oyapock rivers in particular.

And yet mother-tongue speakers (ILM) working in primary schools for years, even decades, are still not given their rightful place. They teach Amerindian languages (kali’na, wayana, teko, wayãpi, parikwaki), businengue (nenge(e) tongo, saamaka tongo), hmong or Portuguese, they have participated alongside their Creole-speaking counterparts in the creation of learning methods, educational tools, dictionaries, they encourage – within pedagogical teams – thousands of children to take up apprenticeships each year […]

They were promised a training pathway in order to access the competitive entry examinations (CRPE) and permanent posts. And yet, as this new school year begins, there has been nothing from the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. No budget released, no information, and not even any response to their letter sent to the Vice-Chancellor two months ago. While they wait, they continue to work in insecure conditions, with no clearly defined status, often without equipment, and even sometimes without a regular classroom […]

Moreover, the post of Guiana Languages Inspector, which should have been created last year, is still not up and running. The same tinkering that has been going on for years risks discouraging the most motivated and dedicated colleagues, at a time when their work is close to bearing fruit. A new generation of multilingual teachers, experienced, trained and wishing to work in their communities, is in the process of emerging, just at a time when there is a lack of teachers in numerous classes.

This is why we are calling on the Vice-Chancellor and Minister to provide a response within the briefest delay, in order to release the funds promised for the training of ILM and for the Guiana Languages Inspector.

At a time when the working conditions and training of teachers and administrative staff are being seriously eroded, at a time when management are accusing us when really it is the government that is failing, at a time when the teaching of Guianese Creole should be consolidated, the situation of ILM and bilingual teachers is a concern to each and every one of us!

Lead poisoning: one in every five children is suffering

A study has for the first time measured the levels of lead in children across Guiana.17 This study was conducted from 2015 to 2017 by Public Health France. It shows that, of the 590 children aged one to six included in the study, 100 registered above the threshold of 50 µg per litre of blood – the mandatory reporting threshold for lead poisoning has been set at this level since June 2015. After extrapolating this sample, the study concludes that 20% of children in Guiana are suffering from an excessive presence of lead in their blood. It notes that there are high levels among the infant population, among the inhabitants of Trois-Sauts (Camopi), in cassava and its by-products, and that there is simultaneous exposure to lead and methylmercury among the inhabitants of Haut-Maroni and Haut-Oyapock.18

The study recalls that the sources of over-exposure are many (artisanal ceramic food receptacles and cooking utensils, water distributed via lead piping, etc.) and that the health effects are neurological, haematological and renal. Among children, the toxic effects appear even at low levels of lead poisoning.

To conclude, 2018 ended with partial successes for the indigenous peoples of Guiana. The populations of the interior are again facing a wave of suicides and attempted suicides but the fight for rights continues and, for the first time in its history, France now has to explain to the international community its failure to abide by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the UNDRIP.

Notes and references

  1. The Congress of Deputies was held on 27 November at the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG). The elected representatives had to choose between two projects for Guiana proposed by the CTG and the Guianese Front or “Front for Statutory Change”. A four-point resolution was adopted: approval of the work of the Parliamentary Assembly, the creation of an ad hoc commission to draw up the Guiana project; referral to the government for a referendum on statutory development; and referral to the Prime Minister for CTG capacity
  2. See Guyane 1ère, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXEYij2lFHo
  3. GITPA letter: http://bit.ly/2N4AZlt
  4. Press release: “Montagne d’or: commitments in the wind”: https://www.facebook.com/onag973/, viewed on 15 January
  5. Bushinenge comes from the English term Bush Negroes and nenge(e), the name of the Creole language based on English lexicography. This generic term covers all Maroon populations: slaves having escaped the plantations (Jolivet M.J., 2008, “Histoire du marronnage ou le difficile renoncement des Ndjuka”, in Histoire, identités et logiques ethniques coordinated by Collomb G & Jolivet M-J, coll. Le regard de l’ethnologue n°18). The Bushinenge (around 37,000 in 2003) live along the coast and in the country’s interior. (M. Elfort, 2010: Pouvoirs publics, populations amérindiennes et bushinenge en Guyane Française. https://journals.openedition.org.)
  1. The Hmong are political refugees (fleeing from the communist regime in Laos). They arrived in Guiana in They account for some 2% of the Guianese population, or around 5,000 persons.
  2. GITPA letter, op.
  3. 31 May 2018: Statement from the international scientific community against the “Montagne d’or” mining megaproject in See http://bit.ly/2N5us9W
  4. See the CNCDH report: http://bit.ly/2N5uHBS
  5. The National Consultative Human Rights Commission (CNCDH), founded in 1947 at the initiative of René Cassin, is the national institute for the protection and promotion of human rights, accredited with consultative status with the United Nations. In French law, it is an independent administrative authority, with the task of advising public decision-makers on issues of human rights and international humanitarian law, and monitoring France’s international commitments in this
  6. See CERD/EWUAP/France 2018, https://www.facebook.com/onag973/, viewed on 14 January
  7. ONAG Press Release dated 11 January 2019, online on ONAG’s Facebook page, viewed on 14 January
  8. See the General Code on Territorial Authorities, Article L 7124 on Légifrance: http://Legifrance.gouv.fr, viewed on 15 May
  9. The CCPAB was created by Law No. 2007-24 of 21 February 2007 following an amendment of the Guianese Senator, Georges
  10. See: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr, viewed on 21 January
  11. Day of Action for Guiana’s Languages, Petition sent to the Vice-Chancellor of the Guiana Academy [online] http://bit.ly/2N2CjoQ
  12. Audrey Andrieu, Agnès Verrier, Abdessattar Saoudi, Abdelkrim Zeghnoun, Alain Le Tertre, Vanessa Ardill, 18 January 2018, Etude Guyaplomb imprégnation par le plomb des enfants de 1 à 6 ans en Guyane, CIRE GUYANE (ARS, Public Health France), http://bit.ly/2TOsQEa [viewed on 30 January 2019]
  13. The inhabitants of Haut Maroni and Haut Oyapock are largely indigenous (Wayana, Teko, Apalai, Wayampi).

Patrick Kulesza is Executive Director of GITPA (Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones www.gitpa.org)

Rachel Merlet holds a doctorate in anthropology/sociology. She is a GITPA expert and has been working for many years on indigenous issues in the Americas, particularly in French Guiana. Her main research topics are culture, society and health, mediation, inter-culturality, suicidal behaviour, action research, governance and indigenous peoples. 

Christophe Pierre is President of the Réseau Jeunesse Autochtone (Indigenous Youth Network/JAG) and Vice-President of the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations.



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