Protecting French Guiana and its biodiversity

From ToxicLeaks

French Guiana and its resources[edit | edit source]

French Guiana is a small South American territory that, deep into the 21st century, remains an overseas department of the Government of France and the only remaining European “territory” in the Americas. Its history includes the tragic Atlantic slave trade and former use as a penal colony, but it also hosts a modern space center – another new rocket was launched in January 2019 – and uses Eurozone currency.

Its quarter-million residents, living between Brazil and Suriname on the Atlantic Coast, remain poor and lack basic infrastructure, with the space center accounting for about half of all economic clout. Yet the land contains vast resources and breathtaking biodiversity, including pristine swaths of climate-critical Amazon rainforest already threatened by timber harvests. Above all, France is aware of its extractive-industry potential: French Guiana is also the home of gold reserves eyed for foreign investment by Montagne d’Or, a joint venture between Nordgold and its Russian owner and Canada’s Columbus Gold.

Plans for Nordgold’s massive Montagne d’Or[edit | edit source]

Residents of French Guiana, including its indigenous peoples, have practiced small-scale artisanal gold mining for years, but the region has never seen full-scale corporate operations. The Russian and Canadian partners signed an MOU in November 2013 to launch the project, an open-pit gold mine in the  northwest rainforest interior on a site sandwiched between two protected conservation areas. By 2018 the feasibility and impact studies were completed, and pre-production is set to begin in 2019. Montagne d’Or expects to begin mining gold in 2022, with a lifespan of at least 12 years to yield 85 tons of gold.

Partner Nordgold says French Guiana’s gold is within a greenstone mineral deposit belt similar to that of West Africa, and it plans to bring its extensive experience in African mining to bear in its new project. Yet that alone may be reason for concern, given the damage gold mining has caused for West Africa.

The company insists it is a socially and environmentally partner in the development of French Guiana. They’ve held a number of consultations in Cayenne and Saint-Laurent du Maroni, promised responsible management of quarries and tailing ponds and post-mining remediation, and point to jobs and benefits for territory. That includes the indigenous Amerindian populations and the Bushinengue – the “people of the forest” -- in French Guiana and neighboring Suriname who are the descendants of African slaves. Yet ultimately, it is France and the supportive President Emmanual Macron who are calling the shots.

Opposition over environmental and health impacts[edit | edit source]

When it comes to Montagne d’Or, it’s also the French government that’s been hearing condemnation of the project for years. That opposition reached a fever pitch in 2018, as indigenous leaders and climate activists said they don’t want the damage to Amazon rainforest, the region’s unique biodiversity, and the fabric of community life and culture. They’re supported by World Wildlife Fund and other advocacy groups that warn of catastrophic impacts if the  massive Montagne d’Or mining project moves forward.

A 2017 report from WWF warned of an “economic mirage” that will never deliver on the Montagne d’Or promises. Instead, they say the company will clear 1,513 hectares, a third of them in primeval forest with significant climate value, and destroy the habitat of 127 protected species. In order to conduct the 12-year operations, Montagne d’Or will use 57,000 tons of explosives, 46,500 tons of cyanide and 195 million liters of fuel. The WWF also warns of tailing dam failures, which are the bane of Brazilian mines, and acid mine drainage – notably a water disaster for communites living near South African gold mines. Other risks include transport routes and the handling of hazardous materials, and geological instability. The gold mine also is expected to increased electrical energy demand by 20 percent of the entire country’s 2016 consumption, raising even more concern over the environmental and health impacts.

Pressure on the French government[edit | edit source]

A September 2018 letter to the journal Nature, signed by French scientist François Catzeflis and five others, echoed concern over the water pollution and other environmental impacts but stressed the dubious economic impact claims. “The consortium would earn more than €3 billion (US$3.5 billion) over 12 years, of which only 2 percent would go to French Guiana,” the letter said. “The taxes generated by the project would be outpaced by public subsidies, in exchange for just 750 local jobs.”

As for those jobs, they’re not universally welcomed. The WWF reported that despite the extensive 2018 consultations with the company, two-thirds of Guyanese people do not see the Montagne d’Or project as smart sustainable development.  “Participants in the debate have also denounced many times the low long-term benefits for the territory,” the WWF said. Seven out of of 10 people said the company had not convinced them to support the mine, and 81 percent said they think it is an environmental threat.

That resolve became even more galvanized after a January 2019 mining accident in Brazil that killed at least 80 people and left nearly 300 missing when a tailing-pond dam collapsed. "Since last August we have taken a stand against Montagne d'Or, no one is safe from the risks that this may entail,” said Sylvio Van Der Pelj, an indigenous leader and president of the local council in Saint-Laurent du Maroni where resistance to the project remains strong. “We have already taken a stand and we will not go back on it. The accident in Northeast Brazil two days ago confirms us.” Meanwhile, a United Nations committee in December 2018 called on the Macron government to suspend the plans for  Montagne d'Or to move ahead. “The realization of the mining project Montagne d’Or would infringe on the rights of indigenous peoples of French Guiana that are protected under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” said a committee representative attached to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Yet France has yet to act to prevent Montagne d’Or  from risks that ultimately will affect the entire planet.