Gold Mountain

Gold Mountain

by Pininvest Analysis

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Part of a series about the French ultramarine territories, the “Remains of the Day”, we intend to discuss how the geopolitics of established world powers (and competitive upstarts) cast in new light the potential of the territories – by way of location or abundance of local natural resources

Entreaties of the upstarts, foremost by China, are hardly surprising as new comers on the world scene will not constrain their ambitions to the post-WW II order

The challenge upends the post-colonial framework, in which the rights of French citizenship were recognized to the local population and the territorial organization framed in ‘Départements’

Failing to give effective answers to the travails of Guyane française (French Guiana), its hardships and its scant hopes for a better future, while sitting on a 'mountain of gold', France's hold could well be undermined  by some challenging world powers, ready to turn the principled ways of French politics upside down

France's long and convoluted history in Guyane may be more fragile than it appears




Entitled to political voting rights in French elections, to educational and social benefits aligned on French laws and regulations, the approach bestows on the local population the ‘manna’ of the mother country

From the perspective of the overseas territories however, this generous settlement comes at a price – the straight jacket of French law, the result of domestic political horse-trading in which ultramarine interests are an after-thought (if they are considered at all)

The need to recognize the singularity, the potential and the specific demands of each territory is counter-intuitive to the French institutions

Still, this reversal from centralized policies bestowed on the territories to decentralized decision processes seems to offer the best chance to counter the mounting competition for influence across the world, in the Pacific and in the Western hemisphere as well …


'Grandeur' is no free ride

Whether France will prove willing to manage such a policy shift should be indicative of the ability of the country’s political elite to explain the need to break the mold – and of the French themselves to set their sights beyond the Pyrénées Mountains (and the Rhine)

France – and the French – are still eager to pull their weight on the world scene, but it is not clear the country is willing to pay the price

And the signals may not be encouraging


Guyane or French Guiana, a French overseas territory on the North rim of South America, bordering with Brazil, could turn out well enough, but after many false starts over 350 years, one will be forgiven to reserve judgment

From the first settlement by the French at Cayenne, in 1624, the history of French Guiana has left a long trail of deadly diseases (yellow fever, dysentery and malaria), and bloody massacres of slaves on which the agriculture came to rely from 1654 until final abolition in 1848

Hardly known by the French themselves except for its infamous Devil’s Island penal colony established in 1852, to be abolished only in 1946, and its Kourou space launching base (since 1964), French Guiana has to grapple with issues Paris prefers to downplay (or to ignore)

For a detailed - and very helpful history timeline - check World Atlas

French Guiana  credit - World Atlas

With a stunning population growth – 269 352 as of 2017 according to INSEE, the national statistical service, approx. double 134 968 recorded in 1995 – and an estimated 296 711 in 2019, French Guiana seems well on its way to reach the INSEE estimate of 2030 (424 000), mainly based on fecundity projections (page 2 of antianechos - jan. 2013)

Population growth also used to be boosted by immigration from neighboring Brazil (a trend since the 1960's), Suriname (in context of the 1982-1992 civil war in the country), Guyana and Haiti (since the 1980's and related to polical troubles in the country). As of 2007-2012, immigration appears to have reversed (-0.2%)

Overall, the sizable foreign population, 35.1%, and close to half the births in 2014 (48%) from foreign mothers (with a fecundity ratio of 4.6 children - much higher than for the French mothers with 3.1 children) has undoubtedly laid the groundwork for the INSEE demographic projections

It is hardly surprising the housing, education and social equipments are unable to keep up

  • unemployment is widespread : 57% of 15-24 year-old, 27% of the men age 25-54  and 39% of the women in the same age group
  • poor lodging facilities struggle to keep up with population growth - overcrowded with on average 3.4 persons per household, limited equipment (45% of lodgings with warm water, 37% with one-room airco and sewage services in 44% of the lodgings)
  • education records are mediocre - with more than 50% leaving school with no degree or with the bare minimum, and  only 16% with a professional training

All told, the formal INSEE study for French Guiana, at pains to check all the boxes, as the service is requested to do for any French Département, is a valiant effort

But there does not seem to be an end in sight


Dumping Gold Mountain 

The 3-million hectares Guiana Amazonian Park is part of the Amazonian forest which covers 96% of the Département of Guyane (83 846 square kms, which is the size of Portugal)

Since the 1855 gold discovery on Arataye River by the Brazilian Joseph Paolino, a gold rush lasted for almost a century

The heart of alluvial gold mining - credit the New York Botanical Garden

Wildcat, illegal mining was reignited by rising gold prices and new mechanized technology since the early 1990's and the fact that data from the Mining Inventory carried out by the official BRGM on public land was made available to the public in 1996 did not help (quoted by Geographic Guyanas)

The explosive growth in wildcat mining also correlates the extreme poverty of the Brazilian neighboring states of Amapà, Parà and Maranhão, with the border town of Oiapoque in Amapà their entry point

With the huge influx of Brazilian goldminers, called garimpeiros and estimated at 15 000 operating in French Guiana (who really knows...?), deforestation is the most visible sign of environmental rape, but the mining process is more destructive (and lethal) still

According to the 2011 Pulitzer Center on Crisis Management report by Damon Tabor, forest deforestation aerial surveys by the French forest service (ONF) have not been released since 2006

Prior to 2006, annual deforestation rates increased 20 times from 1990 (200 ha) to 2000 (4 000 ha) and tripled again by 2006 (12 000 ha). Mr. Tabor further reported an informal estimate of 20 000 ha for the year 2010

As Mr. Tabor describes the process, after clearing a few acres of the trees, large crater-like swimming pools are dug in

Alluvial gold mining - credit D.Tabor Pulitzer Center - Harper's Magazine 2011

By sluicing the walls of one pool, sediment settles at the bottom and is pumped into another pit from where it is then diverted into a wooden container with a the mercury-filled filtration box inside

The gold flakes – to which the mercury bonds in minutes – drop to the bottom of the wooden container, a process which is much quicker than the manual – and economically unviable – gold panning of old

Mercury is burned off the gold either at the jungle mine or in a gold-buying shop, starting the cycle dramatic cycle of lethal dissemination described by Mr. Tabor

Burned off, the mercury may travel thousands of miles in the troposphere (the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere) before it may settle in a lake or river where it transforms in toxic methylmercury, in ever larger concentrations as it moves up the aquatic food chain

Actual mercury volumes released by the wildcatters in French Guiana are impossible to come by, and probably official data are estimates in the best of cases, but they are huge – 50 tons per year according to Mr. Tabor or 20 tons in a recent French radio report

This is not to suggest the French authorities have not attempted to roll back the Brazilian invasion, with an 850-man Gendarmerie operation code-named ‘Harpie’ (named after an indigenous eagle) launched in 2008

Any success the Gendarmerie booked in destroying camps and sending garimpeiros back to Brazil has been borderline-absurd (or beyond), camps and shacks rebuild in a matter of days, mines back in operation within weeks

Against a Gendarmerie estimate of 10 tons of illegal gold extracted each year (again reported by Mr. Damon for 2009), gold confiscations (139 pounds) do not need further comment


This is the context in which the Montagne d’or – Gold Mountain – mining project supported by Canadian and Russian miners – confronted the French authorities with a stark alternative

  • to support environmental  protection of the rain forest as a matter of principle, wildcat mining looming in the background,
  • or to make a positive contribution to the local economy of French Guiana

We reported in some practical detail the mining process in French Guiana, for contrast with the statements of the French Ministry for Environmental Affairs, who has final say on Guiana’s rain forest , rejecting the project as of June 2019 as 'incompatible with the requirements of environmental protection in any mining project', to the dismay (and outrage) of French Guiana's representatives

It is fair to assume the miners made any number of commitments to limit environmental impact and we refer to the Geographic Guyana article to imply that indeed the regenerative natural power of the Amazon is for real, provided a number of conservative measures are implemented, none of which weighed enough in the arbitrage


Hardly competent in these issues, we believe a broader picture is relevant

  • environmental protection is not absolute - as principled advocates suggest - but a matter of compromise, carefully crafted and supported by all parties
  • the 'Gold Mountain' decision process would be an elegant model of dysfunctional French politics, with the recent success of Green parties in the European Parliament dominating the scene, if the consequences were not so dire
  • credibility of former colonial powers - in this case, France - has to be nurtured and should never become the after-thought of political confrontations
  • blissfully underrated, alternatives will be emerging as the former colonial powers prove unable,  or unwilling, to account for the singularities overseas

Hardly encouraging... but in the long haul, good sense may still be the winning proposition - with more 'ultramarine' territories to consider in our follow-up reports