Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
French Guiana is located on the northeastern coast of South America. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east and south by Brazil, and on the west by Suriname. Tropical forests cover more than four-fifths of the country, which has a total area of 91,000 sq km.
French Guiana is the oldest of France’s overseas possessions and the only French territory on the South America mainland. French occupation of the area began in the early 1600s and after a brief period of prosperity due to the discovery of gold in the interior it declined in importance except as a penal colony (Devil’s Island).
Large parts of the country are accessible only by river. Some plantations were established using African forced labour but these ventures were largely failures and following the abolition of slavery in 1848, most of the plantations closed.
In 1946 the country became a département d’outre mer (overseas department) of France. The 1970s were marked by increased tensions between the resident population and immigrant workers and growing demands for independence.
In 1986–7 French Guiana’s relationship with neighbouring Suriname deteriorated as increasing numbers of Surinamese indigenous peoples and Maroons fled over the border to escape violence between rebel groups and Surinamese government forces. This placed a severe strain on the infrastructure of French Guiana. The French Government refused to recognize them as refugees but provided food and medical care.
Democratic parliamentary government in Suriname was restored at the beginning of 1988, and under the Portal Agreement refugees were guaranteed a safe return.
In April 1990 France and Suriname agreed to arrange for the repatriation of an estimated 10,000 mostly Maroon refugees to Suriname from French Guiana. Following several alleged attempts at forcible repatriation, by July 1992 about 6,000 officially registered refugees had accepted French Government incentives to return to Suriname.
Main languages: French, Creole
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), African-derived and indigenous religions
Main minority groups: indigenous minorities totalling 4,000 (3.6%), Maroons (no data) Most of the residents of French Guiana are of African and mixed
Afro-European/indigenous descent (66%). Some indigenous people (12%) include Taino (Arawak), Galibi and Palikur on the coast, and Emerillon, Oyampi and Wayana in the remote interior (Source: CIA, 2000).
A considerable number of Maroons or ‘Bush Negroes’ (Saramancas, Boeschs, and Bonis) also live along the waterways in the interior. Maroons are descendants of African populations who escaped from slavery and retain an identity based on their West African origins. Historically international borders have meant little to Maroons who have always crossed regularly and maintained close contact with Maroon kinfolk in Suriname.
There is also a noticeable settlement of Vietnamese who migrated around the mid-twentieth century.
As an overseas department of France, French Guiana is represented in both houses of the French National Assembly. Locally it is administered by a prefect, who is assisted by a 19-member general council and a 31-member regional council, each elected by universal adult suffrage.
Under the Inini Statute indigenous people could live as they liked, but in 1969 the statute was abolished, bringing them abruptly under French socio-cultural rule. Traditional indigenous land claims are not recognized and the indigenous population is under threat due to the increasing invasion of French colonists and Brazilian gold mining prospectors. The country is rich in rain-forests with potential for commercial exploitation; less than one per cent of the land is devoted to agriculture. A satellite-launching base established in 1968 by the European Space Agency at Kourou has played a significant role in helping to boost the area’s economy.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Association des Amérindiens de Guyane Française
Federation des Organisations Amerindiennes de Guyane (FOAG)
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