McGill Research Group Investigating
Canadian Mining in Latin America

French Guiana (Guyane)

Key Data

Population:206,000 people Area:83,534 km2 Density:2 people / km2 Demographics:Creole (mixed-descent): 40%
Other (H'mong, Chinese, Lebanese, Brazilian, Haitian, Surinamese): 42.9%
European: 12%
Amerindian: 2%
Maroon: 1.9%
Mineral Resources: GDP:$3.5 billion GDP per capita:$17,087 GINI:N/A


French Guiana is the European Union’s largest rainforest. [1] That is because it is an overseas department (DOM) of France. Gold was first discovered in 1854. Gold production declined during the interwar period due to a lack of investment and supply difficulties, and by the early 1950s, production was almost nonexistent. After World War II was over, French authorities conducted a large geological survey. When the gold exchange ended in 1971 and inflation increased after the first oil crisis, gold mining gradually recovered. Small-scale – often illegal – mining spread from Brazil and Suriname during the gold rush sparked by the surge in prices in the late 1970s and proliferates to this day. [3] The sharp rise in gold prices since 2003 bolstered small-scale and often illegal mining. [1]

Mining Characteristics

French Guiana is part of the Guiana Shield, a geological formation encompassing Guyana and Suriname, as well as parts of Venezuela and northeastern Brazil. The Guiana Shield is strikingly similar to parts of Western Africa, in terms of geology, part of the evidence cited to support the theory that Africa and South America once formed a single continent. [1] The mineral rich region is densely forested – 95% of French Guiana is humid tropical rainforest. [2]


Small-scale mining, the pr, contributes to deforestation and mercury contamination. [5] Former President Sarkozy instituted a number of measures to curtail illegal mining, rampant due to the number of nature reserves and high unemployment. The government encourages large-scale mining with a heavy emphasis on ‘environmental sustainability’. In 2008, the Canadian company IAMGOLD was denied a mining permit for the Camp Caiman concession, which borders a rainforest reserve and is near a Ramsar-listed wetland. One of the reasons cited for the proposal’s rejection was the propensity for heavy rains to jeopardize the safe disposal of cyanide. [3] IAMGOLD sued the French government for lost profits without success.

Not wanting to discourage investment, the French government approved the Schéma Départemental d’Orientation Minière (SDOM), legislation that elucidates exactly where mining is possible. [4]

to the mining industry on exactly where in the region responsible mineral exploration and development is possible,” (columbusgoldcorp.com).

which attempts to encourage the development of the mining industry while protecting the environment. According to the CEO of Columbus Gold, “the approval of this important legislation is a clear message… that French Guiana is now open for business…particularly gold mining. The

Since the 1990s, there has been contentious debate as to whether certain areas with gold reserves should be set aside for eco-tourism, (Encyclopedia of Nations).

Thus far only exploration has been carried out. The Canadian corporation IAMGOLD

[1] Despite the presence of rich mineral deposits, dense forest and the resulting dearth of infrastructure have discouraged large-scale mineral development. [2]


Columbus Gold Corp. of Vancouver possesses an exploration for the Paul Isnard and Montagne d’Or concessions. [4] The sharp rise in gold prices since 2003 has bolstered small-scale and often illegal mining, which may cause deforestation and mercury contamination.


Economic Context

French Guiana enjoys one of the higher standards of living in South America. [1] Under the contrat de plan État-Région, a six-year subsidy agreement, Paris and Brussels provide significant economic support. Gold mining is the leading economic activity, after the space industry. [2] In 2000, gold accounted for nearly half of exports. [3] The primary producers are small- and medium-scale placer operations, a number of which are illegal. [4] An estimated six of the ten tons of gold exported each year is mined illegally. [5] Few alternatives to mining exist – unemployment exceeds 20%.


Political Context

As a French département d’outre-mer (overseas department, or DOM), French Guiana is represented in the French National Assembly and Senate and is subject to French and European law. [1] In the 1990s, high levels of youth unemployment led to street violence and tension between French Guiana and Paris. Reliance on subsidies checks support for greater autonomy. [2] Unemployment remains above twenty percent. [3]

After WWII, French authorities launched a large geological survey of French Guiana, investing 42.7 million euros. The Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer (ORSTOM) conducted geological mapping; the Bureau de Recherche Minière, then the Bureau de Recherche Géologique et Minière (BRGM) led prospecting. An inventory of mines created by the BRGM between 1975 and 1995 identified 18 mining subjects. [4]

Sarkozy launched Operation Harpy in 2008 to combat garimpeiros (Portuguese for “prospectors”). In February 2010, Sarkozy announced Harpie Renforcée, a permanent, year-round operation. [5] On 23 Dec. 2008 Sarkozy and Brazilian President Lula signed an agreement that made it a criminal offense to trade unprocessed gold and transport or possess mercury without a permit, but neither country’s legislature has ratified the agreement, (Tabor).

Government attitude towards foreign mining companies:

Gold mining provides a crucial source of employment; the government has not been very receptive to those dissatisfied with the situation, (Encyclopedia of Nations).

The French government blocked approval of Camp Caiman (IAMGOLD) in 2008 based on an environmental assessment by the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development, (Butler).


Social Context

During the controversy over IamGold’s proposal to mine at Camp Caiman, thirty-three Guianese organizations formed a collective: 7 political parties, 2 unions, 17 civic organizations, 6 environmental groups and one socio-professional organization. “NON au project IamGold à Kaw” claimed public opinion was largely opposed to the project. [Urbino] A group of Amerindians, the Cayode, have protested mining-induced deforestation and mercury contamination. (Encyclopedia of Nations)

Fierce, often violent, conflicts between miners erupt over mineral-rich areas.



[1] Damon Tabor, “French Guiana’s Gold Rush: The Big Picture,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – Cayenne, French Guiana. 10 Mar. 2010. <http://pulitzercenter.org/blog/untold-stories/french-guianas-gold-rush-big-picture>.

[2] “Regions and Territories: French Guiana,” BBC. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/3516572.stm>.

[3] <auplata.fr.>

[] Camp Caiman Technical Report, Nov. 2005. <http://www.iamgold.com/Theme/IAmGold/files/operations/43-101%20Technical%20Report%20Camp%20Caiman%20Project,%20Cambior%20Nov%202004.pdf>. pp. 1.

Mining Characteristics:

[1] Mark Jacobson, “Guyana’s gold standard.” Natural History Magazine, Inc. FindArticles.com. Sept, 1998. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1134/is_n7_v107/ai_21084300/?tag=content;col1>.


[2] “Regions and Territories: French Guiana,” BBC. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/3516572.stm>.

[3] Rhett Butler, “France blocks controversial rainforest gold mine in French Guiana,” Mongabay.com. 6 Feb. 2008 <http://news.mongabay.com/2008/0205-french_guiana.html>.

[4] GSRL Technical Report 2004

[5] “French Antilles and French Guiana,” Encyclopedia of Nations. <http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Americas/French-Antilles-and-French-Guiana.html>.

[6] colombus


[1] “Regions and Territories: French Guiana,” BBC. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/3516572.stm>.

[2] Camp Caiman Tech Report

[3] Encyclopedia of Nations

[4] Camp Caiman Tech Report

[5] Tabor.


[1] Camp Caiman Tech Report

[2] “Regions and Territories: French Guiana,” BBC.

[3] “French Antilles and French Guiana,” Encyclopedia of Nations.

[4] auplata.fr.

[5] Tabor.