Paris to decide fate of ‘mega’ gold mine in woodlands of French Guiana

Indigenous people caution the mine is a serious threat to biodiversity, but their future and that of the forest lies in the hands of the French government

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 boastings unique biological diversity and remains mysteriously wild, with most of the population concentrated along the coast.

The territory has attracted shallow artisanal mining of its gold-rich clay for more than 150 years. Now , multinational companies are eyeing up deeper, untouched gold reserves.

The company Montagne d’Or is a joint venture between London-based Nordgold, which is owned by Russia’s second-richest human Alexey Mordashov, and Canada’s Columbus Gold.

The company is trying 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.

Remote forest in French Guiana. Photo: Chloe Farand

Planned over an 800 -hectare site between two protected natural reserves, the mine would run along a slope less than 100 metres from the leading edge of one of the reserves.

Environmentalists and indigenous chiefs have vehemently opposed the “mega-mine”, warning of serious dangers of pollution in the basin of the Mana river which flows through indigenous land, and damage to the area’s biodiversity.

Opponents have especially expressed concerns over the 57,000 tonnes of explosives, 46,500 tonnes of cyanides and 142 m litres of gasoline 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 100 km away from the proposed mine is unyielding.

” The project is intolerable and not negotiable ,” he said.” It obstructs 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 judgment was eventually be taken by the French government in Paris, 4,500 miles( 7,000 km) away.

Michel Dubouille, general secretary of the local green party Guyane Ecologie, cringed at the thought of a decision being taken” by people who share very little of our everyday lives here “.

Alexis Tiouka:’ Paris is completely unplugged from us .’ Photograph: Chloe Farand

” Paris is completely unplugged from us ,” agreed Alexis Tiouka, a is part of the Kalina people from the village of Awala-Yalimapo, whose household have all along spoken up about indigenous rights in French Guiana.

” The forest is endangered because of legal and illegal mining. Our surrounding is wholly polluted. We find traces of mercury in the rivers we fish in. People are ill because the whole food chain is polluted. This shouldn’t simply be about economic growth ,” Tiouka said.

The high cost 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 wood.

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 adversaries rejected specific claims as an “illusion”, citing cases of collusion between legal and illegal miners.

The company’s chairman, Pierre Paris, insists the project follows” responsible mining ” principles which minimise environmental and social impacts and that the mine will assist” the development of a robust economy in French Guiana where gold has always participated in “.

” Nowhere in the world have we insured’ clean’ mines ,” said Harry Hodebourg, co-founder of Or de Question, a group of 29 local organisations and 120 international NGOs resisting the project.

A gold mine in Guyana, some other countries further north along the Atlantic coast. Photo: Ralph Lauer/ Zuma/ Alamy Stock Photo

Denouncing the mine as” social and ecological 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 the least five other mining projects already in the pipeline and we might not have the energy to opposed all of those too .”

But local officials have welcomed the creation of jobs on the territory where unemployment is twice as high as mainland France and more than 40% of people under 25 are jobless.

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 energy want, 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, Leon Bertrand, described the project as” an urgent short-term answer” to curtail” a major social crisis waiting to happen “.

” This is not just about excavating a huge hole on the bark of countries around the world for gold. The project would be a strong signal that French Guiana is open to investments ,” he said.

An indigenous protest against industrial mining. Photo: Clarisse Da Silva

But the mine’s financial benefits are disputed. In a report, WWF France slammed the project as” an economic mirage” saying it would require EUR4 20 m( PS367m) of public finances 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, teach and innovation.

” But this must be a political vision ,” she told.” For the moment, the only vision officials have is to develop the territory with mining fields .”

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