• 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

The Indigenous World 2021: French Guiana

French Guiana is a French overseas territory located in South America. It shares a border to the west with Suriname, along the Maroni River, and to the east with Brazil along the Oyapock River. It covers an area of 83,846 km2. The population numbers 268,700 inhabitants (INSEE, 2017) who live mainly in the capital of Cayenne and along the coast. The interior of the country is covered with dense equatorial forest and is only accessible by plane or canoe.

French Guiana officially became a colony of France in 1604. France applied the principle of “terra nullius” to appropriate the lands of the Indigenous Peoples. Since 1946, French Guiana is no longer a colony but remains administered by France. More than 90% of Guiana’s territory is owned by the French government.

The French Constitution prohibits ethnic statistics. According to researchers’ estimates, its Indigenous Peoples make up some 4% of Guiana's population, or more than 10,000 individuals. Six Indigenous communities survived colonisation: the Kali'na Tileuyu, Lokono and Pahikweneh who live on the coast near the urban centres and the Wayãpi, Teko and Wayana people who live in isolated territories in the headwaters of the Oyapock and Maroni rivers.

France ratified the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 but has not signed up to ILO Convention 169. Since 1987, areas of collective use rights, concessions and land transfers have been granted to the Indigenous Peoples. They do not hold title deeds, however, because the French government remains the owner of these lands. These areas account for more than 750,000 hectares, or around 5% of the total area of French Guiana.

During the social protests in French Guiana between March and April 2017, on 2 April, the Minister for Overseas France signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indigenous and Bushinenge peoples in which the government made 20 commitments. These included the return of 400,000 hectares of land to the Amerindian peoples, and a referral to the Council of State to consider the constitutionality of ILO Convention 169. This Memorandum of Understanding is included in the French Guiana Agreements of 21 April 2017. No land has been returned to date, however.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Indigenous people

On 17 March 2020, the French government decided to enforce a strict quarantine of the population in French Guiana, even though the pandemic had not yet reached a level of severity in South America. On 11 May 2020, once the pandemic in Europe had subsided, the French government decided to end the quarantine, including in French Guiana. It was not until May 2020, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic actually became a serious issue in South America.

Moreover, the lack of effective border controls facilitated the movement of individuals between France and French Guiana, and also between Brazil and French Guiana. The lax policy around COVID-19 implemented by the President of Brazil, Jaïr Bolsonaro, resulted in thousands of Brazilian citizens becoming infected, and the fact that they were able to cross into French Guiana therefore caused a huge increase in the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the border area. French Guiana’s Indigenous Peoples were therefore the first to suffer from this transmission.[1]

The lockdown of the entire country in March 2020 led to a halt in supplies to food stores in isolated areas. As a result, Indigenous people living in remote areas suffered food shortages as well as shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks and hydroalcoholic gels. The Indigenous associations had to call for donations from international NGOs in order to distribute food and health products to the Indigenous villages themselves. The lockdown of Indigenous villages in April 2020 subsequently led to mistrust and stigmatisation of the Indigenous Peoples on the part of the Guianese population.

In addition, illegal gold panners took advantage of the lockdown to scale up illegal gold panning on the Maroni and Oyapock rivers. This situation created major tension. The Indigenous leaders of the Wayana community warned the French authorities that they would build their own dam on the river if France was unable to stop these people. In fact, these movements by gold panners facilitated the transmission of COVID-19 in the Indigenous territories. With no cooperation between the military forces of France and Suriname, however, the illegal gold panners continued to escape the authorities.

To address the situation, the French government therefore took unilateral measures, without proper consultation of the Indigenous communities. At the start of the pandemic, the French Health Agency published information on COVID-19 in the media in French, Portuguese and Creole (Afro-descendant dialect). At the request of the Indigenous associations, this information was translated into the different Indigenous languages.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that Indigenous Peoples are more vulnerable than other groups to pandemics such as COVID-19.[2] However, the French Health Agency refused to put specific health measures in place for the Indigenous population. Indeed, the French Constitution prohibits taking measures based on the race or origin of individuals. The French Health Agency is also refusing to communicate the number of Indigenous individuals infected, hospitalised, on ventilation or having died due to COVID-19. There is therefore no data to determine the impact of the pandemic on French Guiana’s Indigenous Peoples.

The Customary Grand Council of the Amerindian and Bushinenge populations

The Customary Grand Council is a consultative body created at the initiative of France by means of Law No. 2017-256 of 28 February 2017 for Real Equality in Overseas France.[3] The Customary Grand Council is responsible for representing the Amerindian and Bushinenge populations of French Guiana and defending their legal, economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental interests. This body forms part of the Territorial Collectivity of French Guiana but is administered by the representative of the French government (the Prefect of French Guiana). In 2018, the members of the Grand Customary Council elected an Indigenous Chief, Mr. Sylvio Van Der Pilj, as President for a three-year term. On 14 January 2020, he spoke to the Congress of Elected Representatives:

The Customary Grand Council is a body under the authority of the representative of the French government and the Territorial Collectivity of French Guiana. It enables Indigenous Peoples to provide an advisory-only opinion. And yet this body needs to play a decision-making role on matters such as land management or mining permits.[4]

During the lockdown of Indigenous villages, the Customary Grand Council and Indigenous associations publicly condemned the stigmatisation of Indigenous Peoples by the Guianese population. The President of the Grand Customary Council criticised the French government for not sufficiently involving the Indigenous population in decision-making.[5]

Plans to move French Guiana towards autonomy

This project is the result of the social struggles of 2017, which led to the French Guiana Agreements signed by France on 21 April 2017[6]. These agreements provide for the possibility of moving French Guiana towards greater autonomy. This move could be achieved through the adoption of a law or a reform of the French Constitution that would give more power to the Territorial Collectivity of French Guiana. The negotiations with the French government are currently at a standstill, however.

Furthermore, the President of the Grand Customary Council criticised the Territorial Collectivity of French Guiana for not involving its Indigenous Peoples in the decision-making. Indeed, unlike the independence negotiations for New Caledonia, the negotiations between France and French Guiana are not being conducted by the Indigenous Peoples themselves but by elected politicians and separatists from the majority Afro-descendant population.

In his speech on 14 January 2020, Mr. Sylvio Van Der Pilj recalled that “the project to move towards the autonomy of French Guiana must take place in consultation with all the communities of French Guiana, starting with its Indigenous peoples”. In the same speech, he challenged the separatist flag of French Guiana, whose trade union and Afro-separatist origins do not represent the Indigenous population.[7]

Alexandre Sommer-Schaechtele is a legal expert on Indigenous Peoples’ rights. He belongs to the Indigenous Kali'na Tileuyu people. He studied at the Sophia Antipolis University of Nice (France) where he obtained a Master’s degree in Business Law in 2011. He became a member of the Organisation of Indigenous Nations of French Guiana on 7 March 2014. In July 2018, he followed the human rights training of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Since November 2018, he has been teaching human rights and United Nations mechanisms at the University of French Guiana. He lectures in France and abroad.


This article is part of the 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Massiot, Aude. “Covid-19 : le risque d’un lourd tribut des peuples autochtones.” Libération, 20 April, 2020. https://www.liberation.fr/planete/2020/04/20/le-risque-d-un-lourd-tribut-des-peuples-autochtones_1785857/

[2] UN News. “WHO concerned about COVID-19 impact on indigenous people in the Americas.” 20 July, 2020. https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/07/1068681

[3] Légifrance. “LOI n° 2017-256 du 28 février 2017 de programmation relative à l'égalité réelle outre-mer et portant autres dispositions en matière sociale et économique.” 2017. https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000034103762/

[4] See Guyane 1ère: ONAG 973. “Discours du Grand conseil coutumier et des élus - Congrès des élus - 14 janvier 2020.” Uploaded on 17 January, 2020. Youtube video, 39:57 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaX6bp4BAI4

[5] Grand Conseil Coutumier des Peuples Amérindiens & Bushinengé. “Communiqué: La Guyane face à l’urgence de la Pandémie du Covid-19.” April, 2020. https://radioka.makan-dev.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/GCC-Communiqu%C3%A9-Covid-19.pdf

[6] Légifrance. “Accord de Guyane du 21 avril 2017 - Protocole « Pou Lagwiyann dékolé ».” 2017. https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/jorf/id/JORFTEXT000034519630

[7] See Guyane 1ère: ONAG 973. “Discours du Grand conseil coutumier et des élus - Congrès des élus - 14 janvier 2020.” Uploaded on 17 January, 2020. Youtube video, 39:57 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaX6bp4BAI4



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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