The rainforest of gold: Blessing or curse?

Mining in French Guiana may be either an end to villagers’ way of life, or an economic opportunity.

Saul, French Guiana – Accessible only by a small plane landing on a dirt strip, this tiny jungle village of 70 people is in a battle with a mining company – the outcome of which could have great significance for the future of the only part of the Amazon rainforest within European territory.

French Guiana, a little-known overseas department and region of France – and therefore considered a part of the European Union – is nestled above the northern frontier of Brazil, bordering the Atlantic. With a territory about the size of Austria, what French Guiana lacks in population (243,000), it makes up in rich biodiversity.

About 91 percent of French Guiana is covered by a thick, well-preserved Amazonian rainforest with thousands of exotic plants and animals. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that one hectare of forest in French Guiana has more animal and plant species than in all of Europe.

The serene village of Saul sits in the middle of the French Amazon National Park. Created only five years ago, the protected area is the largest national park in Europe.

Amazon way of life

The people of Saul are deeply connected to the Amazon way of life. “Here in the jungle we hunt and fish, it’s part of our culture,” said 24-year-old villager Cedric Benoit. “Without the forest, we have nothing here.”

The residents of Saul have flatly rejected any development that would disturb the area and are working to build the village as an eco-friendly tourist destination. It’s already a popular spot for scientists.  

On a recent overnight visit, hammocks hanging in the patios of wooden guesthouses sway gently in the breeze. A few tourists – on this day all French – take guided day walks under the jungle canopy, getting the rare chance to walk through virgin forest.

We're not against Rexma, we just want it to respect our wishes not to operate so close to the village and let us live with the forest like our parents did.

by Cedric Benoit, villager

Solar panels are the main source of electricity in the village. There are a few restaurants that serve simple, yet flavourful fare such as pumpkin porridge.

On a flyover of the area, the top of the jungle canopy stretches as far as the eye can see.

Discovery of gold

But there is something else in the jungle: Gold. And lots of it. By one estimate, 280 tonnes of gold are buried under the forest of French Guiana. In Saul, villagers say that, during heavy rainfall, flakes of gold can be seen flowing down the streets.

That is why recently, against the wishes of many of the villagers, Rexma, a French mining company, was granted a five-year license by the French ministry of industry and mining to explore an area which is less than five kilometres from the village of Saul. The license was granted despite a 2008 ruling by the village governing council which prohibited mining for gold less than 10km from the village.

“We’re not against Rexma, we just want it to respect our wishes not to operate so close to the village and let us live with the forest like our parents did,” said Benoit.

The opponents of the project said 80 percent of the villagers signed a petition against the Rexma gold mine. Rexma says it has a petition showing more than 50 percent of the population agrees with the project.

Rexma, with only a handful of employees, is tiny by mining industry standards. The company estimates there are eight tonnes of gold in the area along the Limonade river, the main waterway used by the people of Saul.

Many local residents, park officials and environmentalists argue that the project would badly pollute the river, the village groundwater and surrounding forest, and encourage an influx of outsiders to the village who would disrupt the eco-friendly nature of village life.

“Each time a mining company gets close to any village, it means the death of the village,” said Jean Paul Goudot, a local guesthouse owner who started a Facebook page to bring awareness to the issue. “Rexma is a threat to our peaceful way of life here, we would have to leave if Rexma comes here. If Rexma comes here, other mining companies that are waiting to see if Rexma gets final authorisation, will follow.”

Rogue miners

Many residents are particularly wary of mining, because between 2008 and 2010 the surrounding area was temporarily overrun by hundreds of illegal gold prospectors – called garimperos – who used mercury to pollute the water. As a result of the contamination, half the villagers of Saul were hospitalised with malaria, and many fish in the Limonade river died.

The garimperos were eventually kicked out by the French military, but a lasting impression was made with the villagers.

“When that illegal mining was close to our village, it brought a lot of malaria and dengue,” Benoit said, while sitting next to the river. “If Rexma comes here it will bring with it illegal activity of more rogue miners and that will be very bad for us.”

There are some people in the village who support the project, including Fred Mallet, a local businessman who owns a sawmill.

“I have bills to pay, and if Rexma comes here it will be good for my business,” Mallet said while taking shelter in the shade, away from the scorching heat. “I defend the interest of my business, like anybody else, so I support Rexma.”

This is the place where we found the gold - and it's very simple, gold is not like banana trees where you can plant it somewhere else.

by Jean-Pierre Casas, Rexma CEO

Environmental nightmare?

The Rexma project was given the go-ahead in October 2012, and the mining project looked imminent. But last month, when allegations surfaced that Rexma might have falsified environmental reports to government authorities to secure the license, the project was temporarily halted by a regional prosecutor pending an ongoing investigation.

The outcome of the inquiry is not expected to be completed for another couple of months and it might require officials to testify before a judge.

But Rexma’s CEO, Jean-Pierre Casas, in an interview with Al Jazeera from the capital, Cayenne, flatly rejected any wrong-doing and said the whole controversy has been blown out of proportion.

“The area we are going to explore is only 12 hectares. 12 hectares!” Casas said emphatically. “We are not going to destroy the world. These 12 hectares will give to the French Guiana people wealth and jobs.”

It’s true that 12 hectares is a tiny fraction of the roughly eight million hectares of forest in French Guiana. But villagers are most concerned with the proximity of the mining project to the town – only a few kilometres – but that’s something Casas said is out of his control.

“This is the place where we found the gold – and it’s very simple, gold is not like banana trees where you can plant it somewhere else,” Casas said. “The gold is near [the village], and we have to explore it because if we don’t, the illegal miners will.”

Florent Taberlet, who works for the WWF in Cayenne [Fr] , is against the Rexma project, but agrees that illegal, unregulated mining by groups of mostly Brazilian miners, poses a more immediate and significant threat to the environment than legal mining.

There are an estimated 550 people in French Guiana who work for legal mining companies, while the number of garimperos is estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000.

But in Saul, residents seem to be resigned to the fate of the forest being decided by powerful politicians and lawyers in Cayenne and Paris.

Depending on the outcome of the Rexma investigation, there is a chance that high ranking government officials in Paris could intervene in the case.

For Jose Antonio Lopes Dias, the local head of the Amazonian park base in Saul, whatever happens will have wide ranging practical and symbolic consequences.

“It takes millions of years to build a forest – but man can destroy it in a few seconds and can’t rebuild it in a few years,” he said. “If Europe, or a world power like France, can’t preserve a little piece of forest here, how can they have the moral authority to tell developing countries smaller than us to preserve their forests?”

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter: @ElizondoGabriel

With additional reporting by Jerome Vallette: @JeromeVallette

Click through our gallery for more scenes from Saul:

Source: Al Jazeera