Has anything changed since French Guiana’s 2017 social upheaval?

Four years since social unrest gripped French Guiana, the territory has seen marginal improvements; nevertheless, many of the structural problems of the French département persist.


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In March 2017, the French overseas department of Guyane (known in English as French Guiana) was wracked by demonstrations and a general strike that brought the local economy to a standstill. The root causes were popular discontent with high crime rates, the high cost of living, and the poor quality of social services—in particular, healthcare. So, how much has changed since 2017? The reality is that in the four years since French Guiana’s social unrest, there have been marginal improvements, but many of the French territory’s structural problems persist.

Facing the Atlantic on the northeastern shoulder of South America, Guyane has a long association with France, with the first durable settlement established in 1643 at Cayenne. The colony’s early economic development was dominated by sugar cultivation, which required considerable labor and led to the importation of slaves from Africa, who were forced to undergo the brutal Middle Passage on their way from their homelands to the Americas. Sugar’s importance declined with the end of slavery and was, for a period, replaced by bananas. From 1852 to 1953, the colony was also the home of the infamous penal colony built on Devil’s Island. Today, agriculture plays an inconsequential role in the economy, while manufacturing is almost nonexistent.

Incorporated into the French nation-state in 1946 as a département, Guyane has a close economic relationship with Europe. The department’s currency is the euro, while the European Space Agency makes use of the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, which was established in 1964. The Space Center is the department’s greatest source of economic activity, employing close to 5,000 people and generating about 15 percent of Guyane’s GDP. Trade is dominated by France, to which Guyane exports fish, gold, and timber, and from which it imports foodstuffs and other staples.

Guyane’s population of a little under 300,000 is largely Black or mixed Black and European (around 66 percent) and White European (around 12 percent), with the rest of the population made up of East Indians, Chinese, Amerindians, Hmong, Haitians (many of them there illegally), Brazilians (attracted by illicit gold mining), and Syrian-Lebanese (a portion of which are refugees seeking to get to France). Most people live along the coastal strip, including in the capital of Cayenne. The interior is sparsely populated, mainly by Amerindians—some of whom frequently cross the border into Suriname. Significantly, close to 99 percent of the interior territory is covered by forests, with 41 percent designated as a national park. Transportation in the interior is a challenge; the department has only 500 miles of paved road, and travel beyond the coast is often conducted by boat. French Guiana’s structural problems have fueled societal discontent and crime.

Guyane is the second poorest of France’s five overseas departments, with an unemployment rate of over 20 percent (over 30 percent for youth) and around 40 percent of the population living in poverty. Despite high poverty and unemployment rates, the cost of living is high, due in part to the large-scale importation of food and other staples from European France. Other reports indicate there are problems with malaria, yellow fever, and dengue. Moreover, the department’s HIV infection rate is much higher than that of metropolitan France.

In 2016, Guyane also gained the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate among French departments. Criminal activities are prevalent, with much of them wrapped in the expansion of illegal gold mining. Beyond digging up strips of rain forest, one of the major problems directly linked to illegal mining is the use of a dangerous pollutant: mercury. As Dominiek Plouvier, Director of the Amazon Conservation Team, notes: “Mercury, used in the extraction process is the big problem. It pollutes the rivers, which then poisons the fish, which in turn poisons the people who eat the fish.”

Most of the gold miners, known as garimpeiros, come across the border from Brazil. In response to these incursions, the French Foreign Legion has begun to seek out and destroy mining camps. This violent competition has added an element of disorder in the department’s interior, especially as the miners have demonstrated a willingness to strike back at law enforcement.

In 2017, many of the aforementioned problems boiled over, with demonstrations rocking the department. Led by the 500 Brothers Against Crime (500 frères contre la délinquance) activist collective, crowds at protests included families, workers, farmers, doctors, and lawyers. The 500 Brothers, notable for their black t-shirts and balaclavas, were a key force in demonstrating against the department’s inequities.

The French response to the social turmoil was to increase spending in Guyane, with new monies earmarked as part of a plan d’urgence, which pledged 1.086 billion euros, to be followed by additional supplemental spending of 2.1 billion euros. The French government, as well as its local municipalities, approached the crisis with the belief that strong state intervention—with spending allocated to healthcare, education, and transport—would put Guyane on the right track. French concern was further demonstrated by the visit of President Emmanuel Macron later in 2017.

While the new spending probably helped limit social tensions, it hardly addressed the department’s structural problems. Guyane remains heavily dependent on the French state; when state spending rises, salaries tend to increase, construction benefits from new projects, and the provision of social services improves. However, when the French government periodically retrenches due to fiscal pressures, its effects endure the distance and deeply impact Guyane’s economy. Moreover, the heavy dependence on the French state has resulted in an “underdeveloped and insufficiently diversified” private sector. (Those comments were made in 2021 by Paul Roselé Chim, Director of Research at the University of Guyane, who also noted that the large state role in the economy led to other “problem areas including excessive government deficits financed by bank credit, excessive governmental interference in the economy, and protectionism that increases the costs of local production”).

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 further complicated matters, as the South American department was harder hit than other parts of France. According to the World Health Organization, as of April 10, 2021, Guyane has suffered 17,549 confirmed cases and 178 deaths. France responded to the crisis by sending more medical assistance and flying patients to better facilities in Martinique, another French overseas department in the Caribbean. In July 2020, Prime Minister Jean Castex visited Guyane, seeking to show solidarity with the department through a tour that took him to a local hospital, a food distribution center, and a COVID-19 crisis center. He did not meet with the local population, but instead focused on medical workers, aid workers, and local officials. Nonetheless, the pandemic underscored a struggling medical system.

One other factor looms large over Guyane’s socioeconomic development: oil. Neighboring Suriname and Guyana have made substantial discoveries of offshore oil deposits. Considering that Guyane is part of the geographical formation known as the Guiana Shield, there has been considerable speculation that it too shares the same oil potential as its neighbors. Despite that hope, exploration results in Guyane have been disappointing, with the French oil giant Total ceasing its drilling operations in the area.

Another factor discouraging oil exploration is the French government’s complete ban—set to come into effect in 2040—on the extraction of crude oil and natural gas in any French territory. Although 2040 appears to be in the distant future, the timeline is different for energy companies. As Oil Price’s Matthew Smith explains: “Arguably, 19 years is insufficient time to undertake the required exploration, appraisal, and then development drilling to bring a commercially viable crude oil discovery online, recoup the capital invested and then generate profits. When that is coupled with the poor exploration history of offshore French Guiana, weak oil prices, the volatile outlook for crude oil prices, and the looming emergence of peak oil demand, it is a risky jurisdiction for energy companies with little upside.”

One last factor to consider when looking at Guyane in 2017 and 2021 is the changing regional geo-economic landscape. The discovery of oil in Guyana has taken one of the region’s poorest economies and transformed it into a prospective new petrostate. Guyana’s real GDP growth in 2020, despite the impact of the global pandemic, was 26.2 percent. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Guyanese economy is set to expand a further 8.1 percent in 2021, with its most GDP growth this year to date being 16.4 percent. Although Suriname underwent a major economic downturn in 2020, oil could facilitate a burst of development over the next several years, especially if well managed.

Among other development projects under consideration are a bridge over the Marowijne (or Maroni) river that marks the border between Guyane and Suriname; a potential free trade zone between the two countries; and the possible construction of a hydropower plant in the Wane Creek area. At the same time, cross-border issues, such as environmental damage to the Amazon River basin caused by illicit mining, have emerged on the radar of organizations such as the Organization of Americans States, Inter-American Development Bank, and World Bank.

The newfound oil wealth in the Southern Caribbean (which includes Trinidad and Tobago) has brought with it a willingness to develop Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane. While Guyane may miss out on the oil boom of its neighbors, it may still have the opportunity to more fully integrate its local economy with the region and delink itself somewhat from the French metropole.

Like Guyana and Suriname, Guyane’s development has suffered from a history of vulnerability to external shocks, a poor geographic location, and inadequate physical and social infrastructure. However, the world around Guyane is changing, and many of the crosscurrents it currently faces are likely to challenge the structural problems that led to the social turmoil of 2017. New outbreaks of public discontent cannot be ruled out, but the advent of a more interconnected region could help stimulate employment and economic opportunities for a region of the world long overlooked.

Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and a Research Fellow at Global Americans. He is currently working on a book on the new Cold War in the Caribbean.

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