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IFGR’s 8th international session in French Guyana: fuelling a shared project for the River Maroni

IFGR held its 8th international session in mid-April in French Guyana, invited by the Pasteur Institute to discover the River Maroni from the perspective of health. Part of the history of this French overseas territory, the Maroni focuses a considerable number of topics related to water, namely its utilisation, quality, representations, management and so forth, without doubt more intensely than elsewhere. That is why this river is decisive for the future of this territory in terms of demographic and ecological transition, but it can also give us lessons of wisdom for use elsewhere, through better understanding of the interaction between human beings and water.


A basin of life and culture

Photo : Ronan Liétar

A basin of life and culture shared between Suriname and French Guyana, the river is everything except an administrative border. With the toing, froing and mixing of the populations between the two banks, and from inland to the coast, the Maroni is a source of identity for the many communities that live along it, and a source of wealth (fishing, gold, etc.) as well as disease and pollution; it forces us to think of another conception of our relationship with nature and others. Patrick Lecante, President of the Guyana Water and Biodiversity Committee and the Mayor of Montsinéry-Tonnégrande, summed up the situation when opening the session: “There is no border for wealth, nor is there any border for poverty, diseases, for the human misery represented by illegal gold prospection and forced prostitution. Nor is there any border when our rivers are polluted by cupidity and trafficking. No border when we have to save a wounded person on the other bank, because we are above all human beings. (…) In reality, the border is not an enclosure, it is an opening to the world, the other, and to difference. In no way should our borders be closed doors. Obviously, we have to protect ourselves. But we must also know each other better on both sides of the river. That’s the difficulty of maintaining balance on the Maroni that has to be solved”.

Photo : Ronan Liétar

By approaching the river through the prism of health, IFGR sheds new light on this complex reality, in which politics, economics, social issues and the environment are interwoven. If our rivers are threatened, it’s our identity that is denied, and our very lives that are called into question. As stated by Paul Brousse, the coordinating doctor of the Decentralised Prevention and Healthcare Centres of Cayenne Hospital, “the Maroni has been harmed but it is not yet sick, contrary to the populations of its banks who accumulate vulnerabilities that weaken them in an environment of social change and demographic transition. In order to help it defend itself and preserve the heritage that it represents, we have to act now and anticipate the upheavals that affect eco-systemic, environmental and sociocultural equilibriums”.

During these five days in Cayenne and Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, the fruitful interdisciplinary exchanges organised between IFGR’s experts and the local stakeholders allowed us to examine essential and universal issues:

  • Modernity and its disillusion, especially for the young, with the “twofold addiction” in Guyana of smuggling and subsidies. The following figures are striking: 22% of the population is unemployed, 46% of whom are under 25 years old; a third of the population lives below the poverty threshold, and from 13 to 20% of the population have no access to water or electricity.
  • Identity in a territory with more than 25 ethnic groups and which functions with numerous imported mindsets.
  • The combat against anthropogenic pollution that affect human health.
  • The decline of multilateralism.
  • Illegality, with the considerable growth of uncontrolled gold prospection, often carried out in the deepest forest regions. 300 illegal sites can produce 10 tonnes of gold versus 3 to 4 tonnes a year for official production; they also lead to the scourges of mercury pollution in rivers and epidemics.

Building a project for the river

Frédéric Bouteille, Erik Orsenna, Mirdad Kazanji / Photo : Ronan Liétar

When presenting our works at the Prefecture of Cayenne, Erik Orsenna defended the conviction shared by our members that a project for this river, currently exposed and fragmented, is necessary. Restoring contact with it is a prerequisite; Hamburg, Seattle, and Vancouver are examples of cities that have succeeded in weaving a skein of trust and ambition with their rivers and banks. It is then up to local politicians to imagine the project in order to:

  • Accommodate demographic growth (Saint-Laurent du Maroni will have a population of 135,000 people in 2030 vs 45,000 today);
  • Combat new beliefs in precarious communities (with a prevalence of suicides, metabolic diseases and collective hysteria);
  • Give youth perspectives for the future: what’s the point of extending life expectancy if it only offers a life without hope?
  • Free the population from the need for subsidies which cannot last forever;
  • Simply do what’s necessary to change a situation that cannot continue as it is.


The conditions for action

Photo : Ronan Liétar

The first condition is geographic: a river project means a watershed project that requires cooperation from both banks, for the well-being of the populations. In this respect, the River Senegal is exemplary since its governance gathers the countries it crosses and its different structures are owned in common. Setting up the OMVS was a solution for survival, imposed by the scarcity of the resource following the severe droughts of the 1970s. On the contrary, French Guyana is in a situation of abundance (sun, water, wood, fish resources) but which requires management. Cooperation is also needed from upstream to downstream, as in the case of France and Switzerland for the Rhone, where it obeys a rationale of unity and solidarity in order to manage the accumulation of pollution, develop safe navigation, provide access to prevention and care for all, etc.

The river is a living being, it cannot be divided.

The second condition entails governance: it is necessary to adapt the rules of the French Republic or Europe to this specific territory and associate the people. The gap between supranational standards and reality in the field is too large, between the doctrine and the perceptions of the population regarding water consumption and conservation. Adaptation has to be combined with experimentation and coordinated government action: the issue of drinking water cannot be separated from that of drainage.

Lastly, decentralisation has to be carried out on two levels to better manage the challenges specific to Guyana and its rivers: this entails increasing the autonomy of this territory in relation to France and the regions in relation to Cayenne.

There’s an emergency but solutions exist

Guyana is faced with an emergency but it has the considerable chance of being able to resort to numerous possibilities, by taking an experimental approach in partnerships that already exist between associations and research organisations.

Health can be improved, as has been demonstrated with the experimental MALAKIT project for self-diagnosis and curing malaria among gold prospectors, in association with innovative methods for making the latter aware and implementing the system.

Another mine might be opened since it is unthinkable to ignore Guyana’s fabulous mineral wealth (tin, lithium, cobalt, gold, etc.), but not at the expense of its environment. Clean mines exist in Finland and Norway. Achieving this will require the development of strategic technologies that provide new methods for extracting and processing mineral ore while complying with satisfactory environmental regulations, with governmental control.

Another kind of agriculture has to be invented since the soil in Guyana is naturally rich in mercury and thus fragile. All human interventions have to be carried out in such a way as to avoid transforming the mercury into methylmercury that contaminates the water and fish.

To conclude, Erik Orsenna said it was necessary to define the ambition desired and the resources that we are ready to implement:

The people say they are of the river but which river do they mean? A memory of an old river or the ambition for a river of the future? All heritages have to be built. Exploitation without input is lethal.

The media talk about the session

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