French Guiana is one of the few remaining European colonial holdings left behind after European de-colonization occurred all over the globe in the 1950s through the 1990s. French Guiana is a French territory and as such is also a member of the European Union. It is the largest French external territory. This colonial territory’s continued attachment to a European country is due primarily to the low quality of the soil and the almost impenetrable rainforest jungle. Due to these limitations other people make few claims on the territory and other European countries are no longer colonizing.
The Lay Of The Land
This territory was first settled by the French in 1604 and was the site of a notorious penal colony on “Devils Island” off the mainland coast. That prison settlement was closed in 1951. The population of French Guiana is about 200,000 people, most of whom live along the Atlantic coast at the north of the country. Brazil lies to the south and east of French Guiana and Suriname lies to the west. The land is low lying coastal plains that rise into hills and low mountains as you move southward. Ninety percent of the country is covered by jungle so dense that is is difficult to penetrate. And, the country is located just north of the equator, so the climate is tropical, hot and humid with little seasonal temperature variation.
During the late 19th century there was a territorial conflict with Brazil about the exact boundaries of the southern region of French Guiana. The conflict focused on a vast area of jungle which for a few years became a pro-French independent state named Couani. Although there was some fighting among settlers, the dispute was settled, largely in favor of Brazil by the arbitration of the Swiss government. There have also been conflicts among some the various ethnic groups that live in the interior of the country, but the jungle is so dense and the population so low that no sustained territorial struggles have emerged.
The most common territorial issue is immigration by clandestine gold prospectors from Brazil and Suriname. French Guiana has gold scattered over it’s entire territory which is attractive to outsiders. Gold mining is one of French Guiana’s industries. The border with Suriname is formed by the Maroni River, which flows through rain forest and is difficult to patrol. There have been several attempts to combat illegal gold mining in French Guiana, beginning with Operation Anaconda initiated in 2003, followed by Operation Harpie in 2008 and Operation Harpie Reinforce in 2010. Colonel Francois Muller, the commander of French Guiana’s gendarme, believes these operations have been successful, but after they terminated, Brazilian miners called, garimperiros, began prospecting for gold.
Aside from immigration issues and gold, there is also a conflict with Suriname over the headwaters of the Lawa River. There is an area between the Litani River and the Maroni River that both countries lay claim to, but which is in French Guiana. French Guiana is the last territory on the American mainland that is still controlled by a non-American power. Suriname is interested in the headwaters to the Lawa partly because it would expand their territory at Frances expense and partly to gain control of territory that is know to produce gold. The Maroni River was long the accepted border in the coastal region, and no one carried where the line was drawn upstream because it was in the rainforest jungle.
In 1861 a Franco-Dutch commission established that the Lawa River was the source of the Maroni River which opened the question of who owned the region between the Litani and the Maroni Rivers. At first it was an academic point, but in 1880 gold was found in that region and everything changed. Since then the dispute has bounced back and fourth, but no one has definitively established their claim, so the this inland slice of territory remains in legal limbo.
In the northeast corner of French Guiana about 50 miles south of the Atlantic coast, there is a bridge that crosses the Oyapock River and connects to Brazil on the other side. The bridge was completed in 2011 and officially opened in 2013. The 1,240 foot-long span designed with cable-stayed construction is the only bridge in French Guiana that carries automobile traffic across a major river. The bridge is the result of a treaty signed in 2005 between France and Brazil and the bridge represents the stable territorial claims and borders between French Guiana and Brazil.
The Territorial Cycle
French Guiana doesn’t grow enough food to feed itself. There is a substantial shrimp industry off the coast in the north, and there cattle and pigs raised on the mainland but the large part of the food supply comes from trade and is dependent on France to arrange the food supply chain. A territory is only viable if it can produce enough food to support the population that moves onto it. French Guiana has some of the poorest soils in the world. The soil is low in nitrogen, potassium and organic matter. This deficiency would limit the population growth of French Guiana if it weren’t for overseas trade of imported foods. In reality, French Guiana has a high human fertility rate and a growing population.
In the past agriculture was focused on growing bananas and sugar. The bananas were for export and the sugar was for rum production, but due to the poor soil and it high acidity, farmers have switched to raising livestock and a few vegetables and fruits. Generally farmers add lime to the soil to balance its acidity. They also use slash and burn agriculture so the ashes from the fires will elevate soil pH and contribute minerals and nutrients. Even with these methods, agriculture only represents a very small percentage of the gross domestic product although it occupies about 18 percent of the labor force. Food imports are the backbone of French Guiana’s territorial cycle, allowing the land territory to support more people than domestic agriculture alone would allow.