A fully-fledged corner of the European Union in South America, French Guiana has a very special feature: it has vast resources of gold. Of course, the territory is well known for other reasons too: the French used to deport prisoners here to forced labour camps (remember Papillon?) and it’s also home to the European Space Agency’s launch site. However, it’s the gold that continues to attract interest and controversy.
Although the level of deforestation is still low (and incomparable with that of nearby Brazil), in the Amazon area as whole, the majority of damage caused by gold mining (over 40%) occurs right in French Guiana. Not only by illegal gold prospectors, who cross the border clandestinely and use the dangerous metal mercury to recover the gold, but also those who hold legal concessions (there are around 30 in the entire country). All though are devastating the local area by digging along rivers, cutting down trees and ruining the ecosystem. The gold here is extracted through a form of open-pit mining, churning through the mud along the watercourses that run to the Atlantic and then sifting through to find the gold.
The law here in French Guiana obliges the businesses involved to reforest 30% of the terrain that they ruin, but this is not enough. Without intervention the ground consequently dries out and loses its fertility. Solicaz, a small company specialized in regenerative techniques for the soil, is trying to solve this problem by returning the land to its correct chemical balance thanks to the planting of diverse species of vegetation. The project is a pilot scheme and today involves 18 hectares of land, but the results are surprising and have already piqued the interest of the big financiers. “For our future these plants that grow back are worth more than the gold in the mines,” explains one of the ecologists from Solicaz.