• Indigenous peoples in French Guiana

    Indigenous peoples in French Guiana

    French Guiana is an overseas department and region of France in South America. Although France has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, French Guiana’s 10,000 indigenous inhabitants are facing a number of challenges, especially in relation to illegal gold mining affecting the natural habitats and the local populations who depend on those habitats.

The Indigenous World 2023: French Guiana

French Guiana is a French overseas territory located in the eastern Amazon, in South America. It shares a border to the west with Suriname, and to the east and south with Brazil. The area of the territory is 83,846 km². The population is estimated at 301,099 inhabitants (INSEE, 2023) living mainly in the capital of Cayenne and along the coast. More than 90% of the territory is covered by a dense equatorial forest representing 1% of the Amazon rainforest. The interior of the country is only accessible by plane or by canoe.

During colonization (1604-1946), France applied the principle of “terra nullius” – vacant land owned by no one – to take over the lands of Indigenous Peoples. French Guiana has no longer officially been a colony since 1946 but it is still administered by the French government, which owns over 90% of the territory.

The Constitution of the French Republic prohibits ethnic statistics. It is therefore difficult to ascertain the exact number of Indigenous Peoples. According to researchers’ estimates, these peoples represent some 4% of the Guianese population, or more than 12,000 individuals. Six Aboriginal communities survived colonization: the Kali'na Tileuyu, the Lokono and the Pahikweneh live on the coast near urban centres and the Wayãpi, Teko and Wayana live in the interior of the territory along the rivers.

In 2007, France ratified the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but refuses to ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169. Indeed, the Constitution of the French Republic does not recognize the specific rights of Indigenous Peoples on the grounds that all French citizens are equal in the eyes of the law.


Indigenous Peoples’ protected areas

French Guiana shares many natural riches with the Amazon. More than 90% of the territory is covered by primary forest and an impressive network of rivers. In 2007, a national park of nearly 3.4 million hectares was created in the south of the territory. The Amazonian Park of French Guiana is connected to the Tumucumaque Mountains National Park in Brazil. With a total area of 7.3 million hectares, these two national parks form the largest protected tropical area in the world.[1]

Since 1987, France has recognized the existence of protected areas dedicated to Indigenous Peoples. National legislation provides for the possibility of allocating areas of land to them known as areas of “collective use rights”. The objective is to allow the inhabitants to benefit from sufficiently large areas of land to be able to practise hunting, fishing, gathering, agriculture and to meet their subsistence needs. These are therefore located in areas of primary forest with an abundance of fauna and flora. Thanks to their traditional and environmentally-friendly way of life, Indigenous Peoples’ land management is one of the best strategies for biodiversity conservation in French Guiana.

These subsistence areas are managed directly by the Indigenous leaders of one or more villages. They decide on the use and distribution of the land among the inhabitants. Indigenous Peoples do not, however, hold title to the land. In fact, the French government remains the owner of these Indigenous lands. To obtain land use rights, Indigenous leaders must apply to the French government’s representative in French Guiana, the Prefect, who has the power to validate or cancel the creation of a subsistence area.[2]


Subsistence areas affected by economic development

Indigenous Peoples’ protected areas currently account for more than 750,000 hectares, or around 5% of the territory of French Guiana. The system of land allocation by decision of the Prefect is, however, being increasingly challenged by Indigenous Peoples for several reasons.

Firstly, the “subsistence” criterion, provided for in national legislation in 1987 to justify the creation of a zone, is now obsolete. Indeed, the notion of subsistence cannot nowadays be limited to hunting, fishing and gathering given the social, economic and legal changes that have taken place in French Guiana, as well as the new lifestyles among the young Indigenous generation. Indigenous Peoples are therefore calling for legislative reform so that they can develop environmentally-friendly economic and community projects in these areas.[3]

Secondly, the administrative procedures for requesting land are complex and requests often go unanswered by the Prefect for several years. At the same time, however, the French government authorizes urban construction projects and industrial projects on these lands and these have an impact on the living spaces of Indigenous Peoples.

Indeed, French Guiana has strong development needs due to its high population growth (+2.1% per year). The territory is having to face many challenges concerning housing, food, transport and energy. These projects require the use of large areas of land, often at the expense of forest and protected areas. Indigenous Peoples are therefore demanding that the French government respect their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). To do this, they are using the mechanisms of the United Nations, such as in 2019 when they fought the “Montagne d’or” mining project.[4]


Police repression of Indigenous activists

As a landowner the French government sometimes authorizes industrial projects on lands that have been claimed by Indigenous Peoples for many years. This is currently the case of the power plant project, [5] which involves clearing 78 hectares of forest near an Indigenous village. This project is being driven by the “Hydrogène de France” company, which obtained the Prefect’s authorization to construct the power station. The company claims to have obtained the agreement of the Indigenous village chief but, in fact, it did not follow the consultation protocol.

This situation has created serious tensions. The company accused the chief, Mr. Roland Sjabere, of damaging their equipment to prevent the project from going ahead. On 24 October 2022, the security forces arrested the Indigenous leader.[6] They entered the village without the prior consent of the inhabitants and used tear gas and handcuffed the leader in front of the frightened inhabitants. And yet this man is a respected leader legitimately advocating for respect for the integrity of his people’s territory.

This arrest took place under unacceptable conditions and outraged Guianese public opinion. Indigenous organizations have denounced the total lack of respect for an Indigenous leader who is a member of the Customary Grand Council. To this day, the power plant project is still underway with the support of the French government and non-Indigenous Guianese politicians.


The tragedy of residential schools

In October 2022, a journalist’s investigation led to the publication of a book on the young Indigenous children forcibly interned in Catholic boarding schools in French Guiana.[7] As early as the 1930s, hundreds of Indigenous children were placed in these residential schools, known as “Indian homes”. The voices of former residents are now being heard, just as in Canada where the issue of residential schools has been the subject of controversy for several years.

The creation of an association in the memory of the Indian homes has been announced at the initiative of the Grand Customary Council.[8] This association will lead a project to set up a “truth and reconciliation” commission to address the violence committed in these residential schools. This will enable civil (non-criminal) investigations to be opened into the violence committed against these people in order to move towards a recognition of the victims and their painful history. It is a question of knowing the truth, understanding the causes and responsibilities, and considering measures to ensure reparation and non-repetition. It is also a question of publicly opening a debate on the prejudice suffered by these Indigenous children, removed from their family and their customs, the victims of a cultural genocide.[9]

The difficulty is that France is still reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for its actions during the colonial period and it refuses to apologize. In French Guiana, the French government has done nothing to provide reparations to the Indigenous Peoples. This is unlike in Canada, which has set up a similar commission for the tragedy of its Catholic residential schools. There, this work resulted in an official apology from Pope Francis and a pardon from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.


Election of a new President for the Customary Grand Council

On 12 March 2022, the chief of the black Maroon people of the island, Mr. Bruno Apouyou, became the new President of the Grand Customary Council[10] of French Guiana with a three-year mandate.

The Grand Customary Council is an institution created in 2007 at the initiative of the French government. It is responsible for representing the Indigenous and Maroon peoples of French Guiana. It defends their legal, economic, social, cultural, educational and environmental interests. However, the Customary Grand Council does not have administrative autonomy because it is under the supervision of the French government. It can be consulted by the Prefect or local political authorities on decisions affecting the lives of Indigenous and Maroon peoples. The Customary Grand Council issues “advisory” opinions that are not binding. The Prefect therefore has the power to follow these opinions or not.

Since its creation, the French government has imposed a system of shared governance between the Indigenous and Maroon peoples on the Grand Customary Council. The customary rights and traditions of these two peoples are, however, radically different. Again, this was done without any FPIC.

Although these two peoples live in good harmony, the election of a Maroon leader in 2022 resulted in a deadlock in terms of defending the specific interests of each people. The new president has made known his willingness to defend the specific interests of the Maroon people. The President of the Grand Customary Council therefore does not have the authority to express himself on matters concerning Indigenous Peoples in discussions with the French government. This is why they are demanding the creation of an independent institution governed by their own Indigenous leaders.



Alexandre Sommer-Schaechtele belongs to the Kali'na Tileuyu people. He is a legal expert on Indigenous Peoples’ rights and holds a Master's degree in business law from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis (France). In 2014, he became a member of the Organisation des Nations Autochtones de Guyane française (Organization of Indigenous Nations of French Guiana). In 2018, he followed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Indigenous Fellowship Programme in Geneva. Since then he has been conducting advocacy and writing reports on the situation of the Indigenous Peoples of French Guiana in order to alert the United Nations experts. He gives conferences in France and abroad.


This article is part of the 37th edition of 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 2023 in full here.



Notes and references

[1] WWF French Guyana website, https://www.wwf.fr/espaces-prioritaires/guyane

[2] Légifrance. Code général de la propriété des personnes publiques. Partie réglementaire. 5ème partie. Livre Ier. Titre IV. Chapitre III : Concessions et cessions à des communautés d’habitants (Articles R5143-1 à D5143-6). https://www.legifrance.gouv.fr/codes/section_lc/LEGITEXT000006070299/LEGISCTA000029399369/

[3] “Les zones de droit d'usage des Amérindiens: comprendre les attributions du foncier pour mieux le gérer (1/2).” Guyane la 1ère, 12 November 2019, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/guyane/zones-droit-usage-amerindiens-comprendre-attributions-du-foncier-mieux-gerer-770565.html

[4] “Treaty Bodies - How a UN Committee contributed to end a controversial mining project in French Guiana.” International Service for Human Rights, 14 November 2019, https://ishr.ch/latest-updates/treaty-bodies-how-a-un-committee-contributed-to-end-a-controversial-mining-project-in-french-guiana/

[5] CEOG website, https://www.ceog.fr/le-projet

[6] “Roland Sjabere placé en garde à vue à Saint-Laurent.” Mo News Guyane, 24 October 2022, https://monewsguyane.com/2022/10/24/roland-sjabere-place-en-garde-a-vue-a-saint-laurent/

[7] “En Guyane, l’histoire encore taboue de « l’éducation forcée » d’enfants amérindiens.” Ouest-France, 3 October 2022, https://www.ouest-france.fr/region-guyane/en-guyane-l-histoire-encore-taboue-de-l-education-forcee-d-enfants-amerindiens-90cb2600-3b3f-11ed-a64e-162cc23a7f46

[8]  “Homes indiens: un collectif pour faire reconnaître les ‘traumatismes’.” France-Guyane, 2 February 2023, https://www.franceguyane.fr/actualite/societe-social-emploi/homes-indiens-un-collectif-pour-la-reconnaissance-des-verites-922242.php

[9] “Guyane: les enfants autochtones veulent la vérité sur les violences dans les pensionnats catholiques.” Ouest-France, 2 February 2023, https://www.ouest-france.fr/region-guyane/guyane-les-enfants-autochtones-veulent-la-verite-sur-les-violences-dans-les-pensionnats-catholiques-2226b042-a2f1-11ed-8428-de9553521eb9

[10] “Bruno Apouyou élu à la tête du Grand Conseil Coutumier.” Guyane la 1ère, 13 March 2022, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/guyane/bruno-apouyou-elu-a-la-tete-du-grand-conseil-coutumier-1253829.html

Tags: Global governance



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