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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - French Guiana : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - French Guiana : Overview, 2007, available at: [accessed 6 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


French Guiana is located on the northeastern coast of South America. It is bounded on the north by the Atlantic Ocean, on the east and south by Brazil, and on the west by Suriname. Tropical forests cover more than four-fifths of the country, which has a total area of 91,000 sq km.


Main languages: French, Creole

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic), African-derived and indigenous religions

Main minority groups: indigenous minorities totalling 4,000 (3.6%), Maroons (no data) Most of the residents of French Guiana are of African and mixed

Afro-European/indigenous descent (66%). Some indigenous people (12%) include Taino (Arawak), Galibi and Palikur on the coast, and Emerillon, Oyampi and Wayana in the remote interior (Source: CIA, 2000).

A considerable number of Maroons or 'Bush Negroes' (Saramancas, Boeschs, and Bonis) also live along the waterways in the interior. Maroons are descendants of African populations who escaped from slavery and retain an identity based on their West African origins. Historically international borders have meant little to Maroons who have always crossed regularly and maintained close contact with Maroon kinfolk in Suriname.

There is also a noticeable settlement of Vietnamese who migrated around the mid-twentieth century.


French Guiana is the oldest of France's overseas possessions and the only French territory on the South America mainland. French occupation of the area began in the early 1600s and after a brief period of prosperity due to the discovery of gold in the interior it declined in importance except as a penal colony (Devil's Island).

Large parts of the country are accessible only by river. Some plantations were established using African forced labour but these ventures were largely failures and following the abolition of slavery in 1848, most of the plantations closed.

In 1946 the country became a département d'outre mer (overseas department) of France. The 1970s were marked by increased tensions between the resident population and immigrant workers and growing demands for independence.

In 1986-7 French Guiana's relationship with neighbouring Suriname deteriorated as increasing numbers of Surinamese indigenous peoples and Maroons fled over the border to escape violence between rebel groups and Surinamese government forces. This placed a severe strain on the infrastructure of French Guiana. The French Government refused to recognize them as refugees but provided food and medical care.

Democratic parliamentary government in Suriname was restored at the beginning of 1988, and under the Portal Agreement refugees were guaranteed a safe return.

In April 1990 France and Suriname agreed to arrange for the repatriation of an estimated 10,000 mostly Maroon refugees to Suriname from French Guiana. Following several alleged attempts at forcible repatriation, by July 1992 about 6,000 officially registered refugees had accepted French Government incentives to return to Suriname.


As an overseas department of France, French Guiana is represented in both houses of the French National Assembly. Locally it is administered by a prefect, who is assisted by a 19-member general council and a 31-member regional council, each elected by universal adult suffrage.

Under the Inini Statute indigenous people could live as they liked, but in 1969 the statute was abolished, bringing them abruptly under French socio-cultural rule. Traditional indigenous land claims are not recognized and the indigenous population is under threat due to the increasing invasion of French colonists and Brazilian gold mining prospectors. The country is rich in rain-forests with potential for commercial exploitation; less than one per cent of the land is devoted to agriculture. A satellite-launching base established in 1968 by the European Space Agency at Kourou has played a significant role in helping to boost the area's economy.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Having been virtually untouched by colonial or globalizing influences, indigenous groups in the country's interior have retained their traditional way of life for several centuries but with the new relationships this situation is rapidly changing.

A proposal to create a national park in southern French Guiana has prompted an important debate about indigenous rights and land tenure.

French Guiana along with the French government signed a commitment during the 1992 Rio Summit to create a large protected forest area in the southern region of French Guiana. This is the traditional ancestral territory of the main indigenous groups.

Although generally supportive of the plan, the indigenous communities are concerned about insufficient regard for their presence and cultural identity in the proposals developed so far. Little attempt was made during initial stages to consult with them over traditional land use patterns or general needs. Indigenous people were finally included in the negotiations of 1997, which resulted in provisions for free circulation throughout the protected area and continued practice of traditional activities.

The 1997 proposal also prohibited mining activities in the biologically rich zones. However due to the high gold-bearing potential of the area, this version was rejected by the government of French Guiana, based on economic arguments.

Indigenous groups in the region see their cultural practices as being critical to the protection of the natural environment of the national park and want the proposal to reflect this. They are asking that their own traditional authorities be incorporated into the management of the protected area and legal recognition of this under the French constitution.

They would especially like to see the eradication of gold mining activities near indigenous people's lands especially because of the attendant problems. These include mercury pollution and social disruptions such as prostitution, alcoholism, violence and youth suicide. Instead they are arguing for the promotion of alternative economic activities such as tourism, agriculture and craft production, which are more in keeping with overall sustainability and their traditional culture and lifestyle. At the end of 2005 the issue was still under debate.

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