Illicit gold mining in French Guiana is a pressing national concern, presenting the authorities and the population with a complex and multifaceted challenge. This illicit activity not only undermines sovereignty but also serves as a catalyst for various illicit trafficking networks, exacerbating insecurity and disproportionately impacting the people of Guiana. The ongoing fight against this challenge, notably through Operation Harpie since 2008, has already resulted in the deaths of French soldiers, including two in 2023. Furthermore, repression ope-rations cost 70 million euros annually, while the plundering of Guyanese soil represents a major economic loss for the local economy and public finances, estimated at over 500 million euros per year.
Illegal gold mining goes with serious health and environmental consequences. Mercury contamination and soil pollution directly affect French Amerindian populations, especially pregnant women and their children. The degradation of watercourses and rampant deforestation, particularly within the Amazonian Park of French Guiana, harm a unique ecosystem – a source of biodiversity, and a carbon sink.
While these illicit activities in French Guiana are mainly carried out by illegal Brazilian gold miners, known as garimpeiros, they are made possible by Chinese actors, whose role is essential albeit indirect. The 120 Chinese shops established along the Surinamese bank of the Maroni River play a key role in the logistics of gold mining by supplying equipment and daily necessities to the work sites and facilitating their financing. The transnational networks that accompany them facilitate the concealment and laundering of nearly ten tons of illegally extracted gold each year and are involved in various aspects of environmental crime, including wildlife trafficking. Chinese shops and networks ultimately enable the resilience of illegal gold miners, which detrimentally affects the state’s action and goes against French interests.
The rise of these Chinese shops benefits from a favorable regional environment marked by shortcomings in the Surinamese state and increasing Chinese influence, with close ties established with certain Surinamese political elites and a monopoly in the trade sector of communities integrated into the economic fabric for decades.
The Guyanese case is part of a global phenomenon of resource predation by Chinese actors. In Ghana, Mali, Colombia, and Suriname, Chinese nationals are directly involved in illegal gold exploitation, sometimes encouraged or even supported by Chinese authorities. Beyond economic opportunism, Beijing seeks to increase its gold reserves to bolster the stability of the yuan and reduce its dependence on the dollar amid growing tensions with Washington.
It is necessary to improve understanding of both this phenomenon and its local consequences, and to better identify the role of these Chinese actors in illegal gold mining in French Guiana. This study represents a first step in this direction. It is based on observations and interviews conducted with all players involved in the fight against illegal gold mining during a field mission in French Guiana and Suriname in early 2023, as well as several months of research in open sources, including in the Chinese language.
The authors would like to thank all the actors of the state and civil society in French Guiana as well as the diplomatic post in Paramaribo. Their work is indispensable in combating the scourge of illegal gold mining on national territory.
Photo de couverture (© OAM – EMOPI 2020) : comptoir chinois implanté sur les berges surinamaises du fleuve Maroni, à la frontière avec la Guyane, qui fournit du matériel d’orpaillage.