Author: Chloe Farand
Posted on: Guardian|April 27th, 2018
Through the window of the small propeller plane leaving the capital Cayenne, the jungle’s canopy stretches out as far as the eye can see.
More than 90% covered by luxuriant rainforest, French Guiana has little in common with mainland France bar the name.
Yet this corner of the Amazon forest is awaiting a decision by Emmanuel Macron’s government over the development of a controversial open-pit gold mine that would be the country’s largest.
Wedged between Brazil and Suriname and about the size of Portugal, French Guiana is one of France’s lesser-known overseas departments.
Its dense primary forest boasts unique biodiversity and remains mysteriously wild, with most of the population concentrated along the coast.
The territory has attracted shallow artisanal mining of its gold-rich soil for more than 150 years. Now, multinational companies are eyeing up deeper, untouched gold reserves.
The company is seeking an exploitation licence to dig a mine the volume of 32 football stadiums in a remote part of the forest previously exploited for its gold – a project supported by Macron.
Planned over an 800-hectare site between two protected natural reserves, the mine would run along a slope less than 100 metres from the edge of one of the reserves.
Environmentalists and indigenous chiefs have vehemently opposed the “mega-mine”, warning of serious risks of pollution in the basin of the Mana river which flows through indigenous land, and damage to the area’s biodiversity.
Opponents have particularly expressed concerns over the 57,000 tonnes of explosives, 46,500 tonnes of cyanides and 142m litres of fuel WWF estimated the company will use over the mine’s 12-year lifespan. Montagne d’Or has contested the figures.
Christophe Pierre, a 24-year-old indigenous activist from the village of Terre Rouge about 100km away from the proposed mine is unyielding.
“The project is intolerable and not negotiable,” he said. “It impedes on our living space. There is hunting land nearby and pre-Colombian sites were found next to the proposed mine.
“We never gave up our sovereignty on this land. The French state does not recognise our presence prior to its arrival but this has been our land for thousands for years.”
A public debate over the mine has started in French Guiana, but a final decision will ultimately be taken by the French government in Paris, 4,500 miles (7,000km) away.
Michel Dubouillé, general secretary of the local green party Guyane Écologie, cringed at the thought of a decision being taken “by people who share very little of our daily life here”.
“Paris is completely disconnected from us,” agreed Alexis Tiouka, a member of the Kalina people from the village of Awala-Yalimapo, whose family has long spoken up about indigenous rights in French Guiana.
“The forest is endangered because of legal and illegal mining. Our environment is completely polluted. We find traces of mercury in the rivers we fish in. People are ill because the whole food chain is contaminated. This shouldn’t just be about economic development,” Tiouka said.
The high price of gold continues to attract illegal gold miners from Brazil who pollute rivers and underground water with mercury, which is banned in France, while bringing an explosive cocktail of drugs, prostitution and violence into the forest.
France’s forest management body estimates up to 15,000 illegal miners could be working on up to 500 sites across French Guiana.
Montagne d’Or has argued its institutional presence in the area would help reduce illegal mining but opponents dismissed the claims as an “illusion”, citing cases of collusion between legal and illegal miners.
The company’s president, Pierre Paris, insists the project follows “responsible mining” principles which minimise environmental and social impacts and that the mine will help “the development of a robust economy in French Guiana where gold has always played a part”.
“Nowhere in the world have we seen ‘clean’ mines,” said Harry Hodebourg, co-founder of Or de Question, a group of 29 local organisations and 120 international NGOs opposing the project.
Denouncing the mine as “social and environmental violence”, Hodebourg criticised the company’s “aggressive” publicity campaign, including its sponsoring of the local cycling tour and this year’s carnival – a mainstay of the cultural calendar.
“This project is a Trojan horse,” he added. “If we let this one pass, it will set precedent for at least five other mining projects already in the pipeline and we might not have the energy to fight all of those too.”
Alongside the mine, Montagne d’Or plans a major infrastructure project. The company wants to build a new road into the forest and is considering generating its own power with fuel and renewable energy sources to meet its electricity need, estimated to be as much as all of Cayenne.
Officials are also accelerating plans for the construction of a new port, necessary for the import of chemical products and equipment.
Local mayor, Léon Bertrand, described the project as “an urgent short-term solution” to curtail “a major social crisis waiting to happen”.
“This is not just about digging a huge hole on the bark of the planet for gold. The project would be a strong signal that French Guiana is open to investments,” he said.
But the mine’s economic benefits are disputed. In a report, WWF France slammed the project as “an economic mirage” saying it would require €420m (£367m) of public finance with few positive economic impacts for French Guyana.
For Mary Fleury, an ethnobotanist at the French Research Institute for Development, the project is the symbol of two clashing visions of development.
She said thousands of jobs could be created by promoting the territory’s biodiversity and local knowledge to boost research, teaching and innovation.
“But this must be a political vision,” she said. “For the moment, the only vision officials have is to develop the territory with mining fields.”