Contribution by Nouvel Titouan
3rd year student in bachelor international business Development
« I am very curious about the geopolitical issues, I often read articles on the web, or newspaper. I discovered this subject through a French YouTube channel “Mister Geopolitix” and by a Canal+ series “Guyane”. »
For centuries the conquest of gold has fascinated human beings around the globe. We all know the 19th century gold rush across the USA, but who knows about the gold panning in French Guiana today and all the consequences it involves?
The resource extraction, environmental pollution, afflux of illegal workers from neighbouring countries, physical dangers … these are the issues this article will deal with.
Background: gold in French Guyana
To begin with, gold can be found on every continent. South America represents 20% of the global production. Extraction is concentred in the Andes, the south east of the Amazonian forest, and the plateau of the Guiana’s, known as “the Guiana shield”. French Guiana is a traditional hotspot for gold panning, since the mid-19th century, when the firsts gold seekers arrived, and gathered together to create the many villages that still exist today.
French Guiana is known for its use as spaceport for the European space programme, but it is also a wealthy ground, full of resources mainly recovered by the tropical jungle. Even if the territory is a French department, the standard of living is way below than the French mainland, while the cost of living is higher. Poverty is visible, a high unemployment rate, the high delinquency rate leads a part of the population to more and more illegal activities. Since the 1990’s, due to the rise of the gold price, Guiana witnesses a strong enthusiasm for illegal exploitation. Gold panning came up as an easy solution for those who are in a difficult situation. Just go deeply into the Amazonian forest, dig, search the nuggets, and get out of poverty. Fortunately, there are still some private and legal enterprises, which exploit the soil at the research of the precious metal; unfortunately, they do not offer enough jobs.
How the illegal panning is operated
As a result, there are now about 10 000 people who participate in the illegal quest for gold in the French Amazonian forest. These men are named “garimpeiros”. They are mainly inhabitants from the neighbouring countries. Four years ago, there were only around 7600 of them. They developed a complex organisation: they go on a previously identified spot, with workers that are recruited by will or by force. These can be employed in logistics, extractions, cooking or prostitution. Their camps may be close to a village organisation, where gold can be transformed into jewellery and where the garimpeiros can find some little groceries shop. A market economy has emerged, where everything is bought and sold with gold grams.
Life in these camps is dangerous and rude, people live in poor hygiene conditions, may pick up fights, and a lot of what a small worker may earn goes into alcohol, drugs and prostitution. Each year 160 garimpeiros die due to this violence. The heads of these traffic networks benefit of the immediate proximity with Suriname or Brazil in order to organize their business. These armed criminals bring material from Suriname to the French side of the border and return with gold to sell it outside the French borders. WWF estimates that, each year around 10 tons of gold are extracted from the Guiana ground. Some border towns have even been created were several gold buyers have shown up. All this gold, worth approximately 350 million Euros per year, vanishes in the hands of the traffickers in Brazil or Suriname. Concerning the gold jewellery we buy in Europe, according to a study of WWF in 2011, it is very rare for manufacturers, retailers, and refiners to know where and how exactly the gold has been extracted.
When the garimpeiros arrive on a spot, they put in place all their equipment as if it was a wasteland, setting up a temporary camp. To extract the gold, they use big water pumps to extract a mud on which then they spread mercury all over. Mercury is a useful ally: it pushes the gold to agglomerate into heavier pieces, and when the water is running down the plank, the gold stays on the plank, unmoved by the water.
But mercury is also a very toxic metal. Their entire extraction process, to which of course they do not apply any garbage treatment, propagates the pollution into the river and the soil. The mercury, oil, and other harmful chemicals used in their extraction techniques are severely disturbing biodiversity, endangering endemic animals and vegetation. The forest is highly polluted (see also here), the river has changed its colour, and the fish has become poisonous. The 300 estimated camps contaminate first the rivers, the natural habitat of the fish, which is then caught and eaten by the local tribes. Therefore, it is also a massive health issue for the natives, with more diseases, toxoplasmosis, and cancer. In some zones, up to 90% of the population have a mercury rate superior to the maximum rates… In addition, the garimperos exert a physical threat on the natives.
The garimpeiros, whether they are French, Brazilian, or Surinamese, all want to have their piece of the cake. This raises another issue: the disrespect of the borders. On top of polluting the environment, French resources are illegally extracted. The French government must deal with both the gold seekers from France and the illegal job seekers from other countries, which cannot satisfy their own inhabitants.
The garimpeiros are of course not limited to French Guiana. Unfortunately for the Amazonian region, gold panning is also an issue on the neighbouring territories. Suriname and Guyana (the independent Republic and former British colony) account for the major part of the plateau’s deforestation. Despite the 30 000 camps destroyed over the last decade and the 25 million Euros of material destroyed by French forces between February and November 2018, the French army does not manage to downsize this phenomena enough. In the words of the MP Gabriel Serville, despite the military presence, they are not enough to assure the French sovereignty on this faraway land.
Perhaps the French government could collaborate more with these others states in order to fight together against this plague. They could set up joint interstate military and police forces, or they could try to define a common social policy to restrain the phenomena. However, according to France 1ère.info (March 2019), the Surinamese government announced they stopped the collaboration with French forces after a misunderstanding during a joint military operation. It is a reminder of the uncertainty about the two countries’ common border on the Maroni River, which is still not delimited properly.
As we have been able to see, illegal gold panning is a serious issue, which is polluting both the people and the environment. It is understandable that the local indigenous tribes feel like they are forgotten by the state.
The French government has shown environmental sensitivity in finally dropping the “Gold Mountain” project in French Guiana, even though it was a legal, private enterprise. It now has the moral and political duty to find solutions for preserving the natives’ living condition against the invasion of illegal gold seekers.
This student blogpost was produced within the framework of the 3rd-year module « International Issues and Challenges » of ESSCA’s Bachelor in International Management, following a course design developed by the EU-Asia Institute. The opinions expressed are of course those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the institute.