Indigenous World 2020: French Guiana
French Guiana is an overseas department and region of France in South America. It is bordered to the west by Suriname and to the south and east by Brazil. It has a population of 268,700 inhabitants (INSEE, 2017). The interior of the country is covered by dense equatorial forest that is only accessible by plane or canoe along the Maroni River to the west or the Oyapock River to the south-east. Ninety (90) per cent of the territory is owned by the French state, under the system of “terra nullius” that was applied during the colonial era, to the detriment of the Indigenous Peoples who were dispossessed of their lands.
The Indigenous Peoples account for between 3-4% of the population, i.e. between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The Kali’na Tileuyu, Pahikweneh and Lokono live along the coast between Saint Laurent du Maroni and Saint Georges de l’Oyapock. The Wayampi Teko live in the Upper Oyapock and the Wayana plus a few Teko and Apalaï in the Upper Maroni. Their traditional practices of fishing, hunting, gathering and slash-and-burn agriculture have become increasingly difficult due to numerous regulations and increasing mining activity.
France has ratified the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) but not ILO Convention 169. It only recognises Zones of Collective Use Rights (ZDUC), concessions and transfers. These areas cover 8% of the country’s land mass and give no more than a simple right of use over the land.
During the social unrest in French Guiana between March and April 2017, the Overseas Minister signed a Memorandum of Understanding (on 2 April 2017) with the Indigenous and Bushinenge people in which the government made 20 commitments. These included the return of 400,000 hectares of land to the Amerindian peoples and an undertaking that the State Council would consider the constitutionality of ILO Convention 169. This Memorandum of Understanding was incorporated into the Guiana Accord on 21 April 2017.
The Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations
The Grand Customary Council is a consultative body created at the initiative of France by means of Law No. 2017-256 of 28 February 2017 creating substantive equality for Overseas France (EROM).
Its aim is to “ensure representation of the Amerindian and Bushinenge populations of Guiana and defend their environmental, education al, cultural, social, economic and legal rights” (Article L.7124-11 para 1 CGCT). “It shall be placed under the State Representative of the Guiana Territorial Authority” (Article L.7124-11 para 2 CGCT).1
The law requires shared governance between the Amerindian (Indigenous) and Bushinenge (black Maroon) populations. On 11 February 2018, the 18 members of the Grand Customary Council were elected for six years in the presence of Amerindian and Bushinenge chiefs and associations. On 12 June 2018, the Grand Customary Council elected its officers for a three-year term. These comprise an Indigenous president and vice-president together with a Bushinenge second vice-president and secretary. This new institution replaces the former Consultative Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations (CCPAB), established by Law No. 2007-224 of 21 February 2007.2 It has the power to initiate investigations into the deliberations of the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG).
On 14 January 2020, the President of the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations, Sylvio Van Der Pilj, reminded the outgoing Congress of Deputies3 of the following: “The Grand Customary Council is placed under the authority of the French state and the CTG. It is a tool that gives Indigenous Peoples a purely consultative voice. And yet it should be a decision-making body with regard to issues such as land management and mining permits.”4
Planned statutory development for French Guiana
This is in line with the Guiana Accord of 21 April 2017,5 which anticipates:
That the government shall be informed by the Guiana Congress of Deputies of the planned development of a statute, referring where appropriate to the draft agreement on the future of Guiana adopted on 29 June 2001 and, by extension, the Guiana Project. At the same time, the government commits to taking the necessary measures to publish a decree convening the Guianese electorate for a referendum on said planned statute according to a timetable to be negotiated between the CTG and the state.
This could be by means of an organic law or during the next reform of the French Constitution. This latter, however, has been postponed indefinitely by the French government. Moreover, out of 33 members of the Grand Customary Council, only two form part of the ad hoc commission authorised by the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG) to work on French Guiana’s draft statute. Unlike the statute for New Caledonia that was agreed in the Nouméa Accords of 5 May 1998, the negotiations with France are not being conducted by the Indigenous Peoples themselves but by the elected representatives, some of them pro-separatist, mostly from the Afro-descendant (or Guianese Creole) community.
In his speech of 14 January 2020, the President of the Grand Customary Council, Sylvio Van Der Pilj, noted that “the draft statute for French Guiana must take into account all of Guiana’s communities, starting with its Indigenous Peoples”. During this same speech, he challenged the use of the Guianese flag, the origins of which are union and Afro-separatist, and do not represent the Indigenous Peoples of the country.
Returning land to the Amerindians
The return of land was a commitment made by France in the Memorandum of Understanding of 2 April 2017 signed by the Overseas Minister and five representatives of Guiana’s Indigenous organisations: Alexandre Sommer-Schaechtele (Organisation of Guianese Indigenous Nations ONAG), Jean-Philippe Chambrier (Federation of Guianese Indigenous Organisations FOAG), Jocelyn Thérèse (former Consultative Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations CCPAB), Christophe Pierre (Guianese Indigenous Youth JAG) and Claudette Labonte (Pahikweneh Federation of Guiana FPG).
On 22 November 2018, the signatories to the agreement met with an Interministerial Land Mission established by the government and ONAG presented maps showing the boundaries of the Indigenous territories. The results of this Interministerial Mission were never fed back to the Indigenous associations, however.
Moreover, the return of this land is in opposition to another of France’s commitments, that of handing over 250,000 hectares of the territorial authority’s land and 20,000 hectares of other land to non-indigenous farmers. To resolve the conflict, the French government wishes to transfer 400,000 hectares of land in the Zones of Collective Use Rights (ZDUC), currently owned by the French state. The signatories to the 2 April 2017 Memorandum of Understanding have denounced this plan. The ZDUC and the concessions currently account for more than 700,000 hectares of land. Ceding 400,000 hectares in these areas would represent a huge loss for the Indigenous Peoples, who are demanding the allocation of new lands in compensation for their colonisation.
They are also denouncing the legal system of the ZDUC, which was implemented by means of Decree No. 87-267 of 14 April 1987 and which restricts Indigenous activities to hunting and fishing and no longer meets the economic expectations of the younger generation of Indigenous Peoples.
The “Montagne d’Or” mining project
Gold mining in French Guiana has long been a semi-artisanal affair focused on the secondary exploitation of alluvial gold. The Russo-Canadian consortium (Nordgold-Columbus Gold) known as Montagne d’Or has, however, been seeking to develop what it terms “responsible” industrial-scale open pit mining. Situated 125 km south of Saint Laurent du Maroni, near the Lucifer Dékou Bioreserve, it aims to extract some tonnes of gold a year over 12 years, being 85 tonnes in The multinational’s plans have come up against a widely unfavourable response from public opinion and strong opposition from environmentalists and the Indigenous Peoples themselves.6
On 19 October 2018, the Organisation of Guianese Indigenous Nations (ONAG) submitted an “Early Warning Application” for the project to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). This UN body is responsible for ensuring respect for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ratified by France on 28 July 1971. In its request, ONAG emphasised the following: “Montagne d’or is mining on ancestral lands, close to sacred pre-Colombian remains and with a risk of polluting hunting and fishing zones [...] The public debate and the visit of the Interministerial Committee to the gold mining activity in October 2018 can under no circumstances be considered a consultation process” and recalled Article 32 of the UNDRIP.7 On 14 December 2018, the CERD sent a letter to the Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations calling on the French government to suspend the mining project and respect the Indigenous Peoples’ free, prior and informed consent, according to their own consultation process, by 8 April 2019.8
On 11 April 2019, the Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations officially responded to the CERD specifying that the government had not yet made a decision on the future of the project.
French Environment Minister, François de Rugy, announced during the Environmental Defence Council of 23 May 2019 that the Montagne d’Or project “would not go ahead”. This decision was in line with statements made by President Emmanuel Macron following reports from the IPBES experts on biodiversity. He had stated that the project “was not compatible” with the government’s environmental ambitions. ONAG’s appeal was thus a success for the Indigenous Peoples.9
The decision was confirmed on 23 September 2019 at the UN Climate Summit and, against all expectations, was welcomed by the President of the Guiana Territorial Authority, who had been a stated supporter of the project. The President of the Grand Customary Council, attending at the invitation of the French President, reported however that during his discussions with Emmanuel Macron, this latter indicated that France did not intend to ratify ILO Convention 169.
Notes and references
- See the General Code on Territorial Authorities, Article L 7124 on Légifrance. Accessed 15 May 2017: https://Legifrance.gouv.fr,
- The CCPAB was created by Law No. 2007-24 of 21 February 2007 following an amendment of the Guianese Senator, Georges
- The Congress of Deputies was held on 27 November at the Guiana Territorial Authority (CTG). The elected representatives had to choose between two projects for Guiana proposed by the CTG and the Guianese Front or “Front for Statutory Change”. A four-point resolution was adopted: approval of the work of the Parliamentary Assembly, the creation of an ad hoc commission to draw up the Guiana project; referral to the government of a referendum on statutory development; and referral to the Prime Minister for CTG capacity
- See Guyane 1ère: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaX6bp4BAI4
- Government of France, Légifrance. “Accord de Guyane du 21 avril 2017 Protocole « Pou Lagwiyann dékolé»”. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte. do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000034519630&categorieLien=id
- French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP). 4 July 2018 : “Les Guyanais et le Projet Minier de la Montagne D’or”. https://www.ifop.com/publication/les-guyanais- et-le-projet-minier-de-la-montagne-dor/
- Facebook Group Organisation des Nations Autochtones de Guyane – CERD/EWUAP/France 2018. Accessed 27 February 2020: https://www. facebook.com/onag973/
- ONAG Press Release dated 11 January 2019, online on ONAG’s Facebook page, viewed on 14 January
- Sommer-Schaechtele, Alexandre ”Comment un Comité de l’ONU a contribué à l’abandon d’un projet minier controversé en Guyane française”. Open Global Rights, 7 November 2019: https://www.openglobalrights.org/UN-committee- contributed-to-end-mining-project-french-guiana/?lang=French)
Alexandre Sommer-Schaechtele is vice-president of the Organisation of Guianese Indigenous Nations, a lecturer and jurist specialising in Indigenous Peoples’ rights. He belongs to the Kali’na Tileuyu Indigenous nation. A jurist by training, he studied at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis (France) and obtained a Master’s in banking law then a Master’s in Business Law in 2011. He has been a member of the Organisation of Guianese Indigenous Nations since 7 March 2014 and vice-president since 3 June 2017. In July 2018, he became a human rights expert following training at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on the UN mechanisms and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Since November 2018 he has been responsible for human rights and international relations courses at Guiana University. He lectures in France, abroad and at the United Nations.
This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here