GOLD MINE, STRUGGLE FOR IDENTITY AND FOR MOTHER EARTH: YOUNG WOMEN FROM FRENCH GUÏANA SPEAK
AGAINST THE GOLD COMPANY 'MONTAGNE D'OR', THE DENIAL OF THEIR IDENTITY, AND THE STRUGGLE FOR MOTHER EARTH: YOUNG WOMEN FROM FRENCH GUÏANA SPOKE, ON OCTOBER 13, 2018, DURING THE 'SOLIDARITY DAY' OF THE CSIA
Recorded on October 13th, 2018
Article and translation by Christine Prat
November 12th, 2018
The rainforest of "French" Guïana has been threatened for years by a huge gold mine project, by a mining company calling itself "Montagne d'Or", meaning "Gold Mountain". This company is a merger between the Canadian company Columbus Gold – could you think of a more colonialist name – and the Russian company NordGold, which has already devastated a lot of Indigenous lands in the world. NordGold has a majority in the Montagne d'Or merger. The Indigenous Peoples have opposed the project from the beginning. They have long suffered from illegal gold mining, namely from the garimpeiros from Brazil, which pollutes the rivers on which their lives depend. The rainforest of Guïana has more biodiversity than the whole of Europe. Some people there are willing to give it up with the excuse of 'creating jobs', the magical words that no magician would dare to use. The Indigenous Peoples, who mainly need clean water, and already felt the damages caused by gold mines, totally reject the project. Between the beginning of March 2018 and the beginning of July 2018, Public Hearings took place in Cayenne and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. Indigenous people had the feeling of not being heard. However, the conclusion of the public hearings was that the Montagne d'Or project could not be accepted as it is now. Since then, Montagne d'Or keeps going to Indigenous villages, trying to corrupt traditional leaders, but they don't give in. The present Director General of Montagne d'Or, Pierre Paris, has worked before for companies as Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, well-known names to Indigenous Peoples all over the world, who are fighting against desecration and pollution of their ancestral lands by mining companies.
As part of the 37th Day of Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples, organized by CSIA-nitassinan, a panel was composed of Félix Tiouka, member of the town council of Awala-Yalimapo, belonging to the first generation of Indigenous activists, and three young women from the Indigenous Youth of Guïana, JAG, Jeunesse Autochtone de Guyane.
As all Indigenous people who spoke during the meeting, the Indigenous people from Guïana spoke about the destruction of their identity and culture, but also about the problems they had with having to live as "so-called French citizens", in a Republic that discriminates them, impoverishes them, pollutes their land, while forcing them to submit to the western way of life. "Départementalisation" – meaning that Guïana and other French colonies were officially annexed to France and considered as French "départements" (equivalent to US counties) – was declared in 1945. The "Francization" Act was adopted in 1969. Officially, Indigenous Peoples of Guïana are supposed to be French citizens like all inhabitants of France…
The article below is mainly based on a transcription of speeches by three young women from Guïana, Vanessa Joseph, Nicole Chanel and Cindy van der Pijl, recorded by Pascal Grégis and Christine Prat, members of CSIA, on October 13, 2018.
Vanessa Joseph, vice-Chairperson of the Indigenous Youth of Guïana, already took part in the Solidarity Day of 2017, together with Yanuwana Tapoka. She first said how happy she was to take part in this meeting, "with Moëtai [from Tahiti], Yvannick [from Kanaky, "Nouvelle Calédonie] and my Uncle Félix [Félix Tiouka]." She thanked the CSIA for giving them an opportunity to speak, and also thanked all the people who had reacted to her appeal to donate books for schools inside the country. "We have used them well. Today, it has become a larger project, we are going to build libraries in remote places inside. All this thanks to you, I thank you again." [In Guïana, the 'inside' means the rainforest, where there are no roads, as opposed to the cities on the coast or along the River].
However, Vanessa also had to say that the opening of the school year went wrong. She reminded that "inside the country, there are only primary school, and not in every village." Students who have to go to secondary or grammar schools, must go to the nearest town which has one, but the 'nearest' town can be quite far away. The children then have to live with a foster family or in a boarding school. Last September, some children did not have a place in either a foster family or a boarding school. They went back to their villages, thus wasting a school year. Moreover, some parents don't want to send their children to families on the coast, as there have been some problems. The only solution proposed by the Administration, each year, is to more carefully select the families. Vanessa says that "children in Taluwen, a town on the Upper Maroni, asked that a secondary school be built, so that they could stay near their parents, which is normal for 12-years-olds"… "At the moment, it is still a project. They started building, then stopped, then started again… Let's hope that the secondary school will exist one day. They also started to build a boarding school in Maripasoula, again, we hope it will be completed without problems."
Vanessa added that they are still trying to achieve projects in order to improve the people's daily life, inside the country. When they succeed, it is thanks to a lot of support, like that of the CSIA.
Vanessa summed up what had happened about the gold mine project, since her last visit. Public hearings have been organized in Cayenne and in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, from the beginning of March to the beginning of July 2018.
"The representatives of the Indigenous Peoples have been kind of ignored, for what they had to say. At first, they listened to all questions, but then they started to select them, probably because there were disturbing questions." …"a public hearing was planned in a village, west of the country, but they [from the company] did not show up." Thus, the hearings were not very satisfying. However, "the public hearing decided: the project cannot be started as it is. It is not possible to propose such a large project to a population, with so few explanations and so unclear explanations. Thus, the project has to be amended."
"Meanwhile, Vanessa adds, Montagne d'Or has stared to establish itself in the villages, demanding to meet the traditional leaders to offer them money or positions… It was a bit shocking, thus they all said 'no', except for one." Currently, the Montagne d'Or company keeps trying to convince people, with some modifications of their project, and most of all by modifications of their explanations and communication. But for Indigenous people, it remains 'no'.
Vanessa thanks the audience, "it is really a great pleasure to see you all again."
Next speaker is Nicole Chanel, from Camopi. She joined the Indigenous Youth recently.
She explains that she is Teko, a People formerly called 'Emérillon' by French explorers, at the time of colonization. 'Emérillons' means people who live on fishing. "We demanded to be called Teko's, which means 'Indian Warriors'. We, Teko's, come mainly from the banks of the Oyapock River, which is the border between Brazil and 'France'. In our village, there were two nations, the Teko's and the Wayãpi, but now we are mixed. We descend from the Tupi-Guarani, Indians who live in the Amazonian rainforest. Nowadays, the Tupi-Guarani live in Brazil. Some had to run away from wars, this is how we arrived in Camopi."
In the past, an authorization from the 'préfecture' [representation of the French government in regions and counties] was needed to travel to our region. The reason given is that our people were still 'savages'. Nicole says "we have never been savages. We always warmly welcomed the French people." But now, it is open to anyone, which is not always an improvement. Nicole says "It takes 4 to 5 hours on a canoe to go to our region, because there are no roads, only the river. Everything is done by the river. Garimpeiros, gold seekers [from Brazil], come and dirty our water. The water we used to drink, that we used to wash ourselves in, that we used for everything. There are no customs, thus anybody can come. So, now, the garimpeiros come without problems, to seek gold. As they cannot do it where they live, they come to 'French territory'. Then Nicole tells how she noticed that the water was polluted: "I grew up in Indian boarding schools from the age of 4 to 16. An Indian Boarding school is a place where they enlist Native American children who want to 'become civilized'. They call it to get in line, to learn French, to learn to write, to count, etc. I came back home only in the summers, in July and August. So, in the course of time, when I came back home, I saw the color of the water changing. And I remembered that, as a small child, I used to wash myself in that water. I saw it become yellowish. At the point where it met the water dirtied by the garimpeiros, it formed a kind of white coffee. It looked disgusting."
Nicole has been living in France for 15 years. She is astounded to see that the French State does nothing for Camopi. In July 2018, the Administration sent Mr. Jérôme Cahuzac, an ex-Minister now convicted to a jail sentence, to work at Camopi Health Center. Nicole says "he has nothing to do with Camopi" …"he is not a doctor". As matter of fact, Mr. Cahuzac is a doctor, but a plastic surgeon. Nicole was shocked to see that media rushed to see Cahuzac while they showed no interest for the local population. Indigenous people resent it as despise. Of course, the media were interested in Cahuzac for his criminal record, not for political reasons.
Nicole closes her speech saying "In spite of this all, we fight, we shall fight, we Tekos, the Indigenous Youth, we shall fight to let people know, to let the world know, that we exist, that we are there. We are 'French', they put a label on us saying 'French nationality', thus we are part of France, thus look at us, look at our people! Thank you."
Then, Cindy Van der Pijl talked. Cindy still lives in Guïana and specially flew to Paris for the Solidarity Day. She is Arawak/Lokono.
"I joined the Indigenous Youth in February of this year." "I have always been claiming my culture ever since I was a small child. I was looking for an opening, a way to show my non-French identity. Because, back home, they teach us things, we learn all the time, but we are never taught who we are. In between, we are kind of lost in that French culture, in that westernized culture. Where do we stand, what should we do? Am I allowed to wear my traditional clothes, am I allowed to show my feathers without being arrested on the ground that they come from 'protected species'?"
"Our Peoples have been tormented too long, so many tears have been shed, too many souls have been tortured, while the Earth is subjected to human selfishness and suffers even more than we do. They talk about Guïana, that 'island', but they never know where it is." …"a lot of blood has been shed, and more will probably be shed, because of those 'good ideas' of the dominating powers." Cindy wonders why, on the 'united' territory of the Republic, "where they tell us 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity', they teach us to forget ourselves, to forget who we are. All our knowledge, our colors, our identity are trampled and shattered. Nicole's story, she lived it, my mum lived it too. Indian Boarding Schools are not a myth, it really happened. There, French education is instilled, religion is instilled, it is part of a process of removing someone's identity. It is as if we were made of clay that they can mold and shape as they want it to be. In Guïana, western culture, western people take and never give back."
For Cindy, all that is left to Indigenous Peoples is the struggle. "The first Nation is reduced to the fight for its identity, to get its place in French society. For me, the word 'Indigenous' is equal to the word 'struggle'… Is it normal that Indigenous people have to struggle to get their place and to be recognized? I don't think so.
"Nowadays, we talk of looting. It is unfortunately not to be taken lightly. Apart from the crime of looting our identity, there is also the looting of She who gives us life, She who wakes up to remind the human being how small he is. We don't always understand earthquakes, but they do happen. What if it were our Mother Earth being angry at us? At all we do to Her? She is the one who feeds us, She is our Mother Earth. Our ancestors bequeathed their struggle to us. Today, we, the youth, are trying to take over that struggle. But rather than being victims of this system, although we are, we are warriors. And with this, I join with all my Indigenous Brothers. My Kanak brothers, going through a difficult situation, and all our other Indigenous brothers. We are all warriors and I am happy about that, otherwise we would not be here today. We would be good little French people who believe in Jesus."
Then, Cindy talked about Montagne d'Or. "Why won't we give in to Montagne d'Or? The answer is simple and logical: we are fighting for the Earth, we are fighting for life." As human beings, what we need most is drinking water, eating, walking… All this is given by the Earth.
"For those who don't know, Montagne d'Or is a huge project that tries to establish itself in Guïana. It is a Russian-Canadian merger now called Montagne d'Or, Pierre Paris being the new director. Montagne d'Or means 80,000 tons of waste a day, 10 tons of cyanide a day, 10 tons of explosives, about 125,000 gallons of water PER HOUR, when the population is doing badly. Montagne d'Or would be an open site, in a tropical zone where it often rains. Thus, when they tell us there won't be any accident, it's difficult to believe."
"I took part in the public hearings, in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni and in Cayenne. You can't believe how those people make you feel small. How tough you must be to tell them 'no'. Seeing Pierre Paris stand up and say 'I am Pierre Paris and I am proud to be the director of Montagne d'Or', ideas of murder can cross your mind… But we stood our ground, we showed our colors, we showed that we were there. The youth was there, the Elders were there, as well as people from all cultures of Guïana who stood with us…" "Those cultures understood that it is a human struggle, a struggle for life, we are going to fight it, to fight to the end. I also would like people to realize what our societies are doing to us, with that capitalist culture. Shall we ever be able to see money for what it truly is, a piece of paper? Shall we ever be able to see gold for what it really is, a piece of stone? It is those things that the world is fighting for, that people kill each other for. It's because of them that blood is shed, again and again."
"Finally, I would like to thank you for listening to me, I am very happy to be here. I thank the CSIA for inviting us, and allowing us to speak on this French land. Tomorrow, I shall fly back home. My fight goes on and I really wish that the youth, of whatever culture, ally with us against this project. The problem of our identity, as Indigenous, is our history. We shall fight Montagne d'Or too, with the same virulence. I thank you for listening to me."
French version with photos: (not copy protected, just right click on photos to copy)