Fold mountains

Poisoning of Guyana and the French Amazon


The IUCN World Conservation Congress, which is taking place this week in Marseille, in the south of France, underlines the urgent need to act to protect the planet’s biodiversity and natural habitats. RFI speaks with Claudette Labonté, activist for the rights of the indigenous people of French Guiana on the Covid, the illegal exploitation of gold and the poisoning of the rivers of the French Amazon.

The world environmental conference being held in Marseille, after a year of delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic, began last weekend with a lot of pageantry by President Emmanuel Macron, with panels from opening starring such figures as ECB President Christine Lagarde and film-legend-turned-activist Harrison Ford.

France has positioned itself at the forefront in the fight against global warming, following the Paris COP21 climate agreement signed in 2015. However, since then, the French government has been found guilty of not having reduced carbon emissions in accordance with its own targets.

Although the French state was only given a symbolic € 1 fine, it has become clear that France has a lot of work to do to convince the world that its heart is still in the fight to keep global warming below + 1.5 ° Celsius that it negotiated and signed. -up to six years ago.

In a recent article published in the French Left Daily, Release, Claudette Labont̩, president of the Palikur Federation of Guyana Рan indigenous rights organization and member of the COICA coordination group that represents the indigenous people of 9 South American nations Рclaimed that France was destroying the Amazon and its biodiversity with the help of European subsidies.

Although people are more aware of the rhetoric of the populist President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his contempt for the rights of indigenous Brazilians, Labonté pointed to the failures of the Paris government towards indigenous Guyanese in the French Amazon.

Claudette Labonté, indigenous rights activist and president of the Palikur Federation of Guyana pictured (left) at IUCN, Marseille, September 2021 © Agisilaos Koulouris for the World Alliance of Local Authorities

French administration and indigenous peoples

But can we really compare the policies of Paris and Brasilia in the same context in terms of indigenous rights?

Yes and no, Labonté told RFI: “The French government has supported, through emergency funds, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. So Paris helped us and COICA, which represents nine countries including French Guyana.

“But what happened – and no one knows – is that the French government has always asked the indigenous peoples of French Guiana to withdraw from the country.

“So we could not benefit from these funds and we needed them in French Guiana, because the illegal gold mining increased enormously with the Covid-19. It was absolutely necessary to supply the villages. care for villages which were very isolated.

“And that was not the case. The French government took it from us and Paris knows it.

“The illegal exploitation of gold is devastating all the rivers that border French Guyana. So if we look at the level of [support for] French Guiana, there is a lot of work to be done. Before going to help the indigenous peoples of Brazil or other countries, the French government must first recognize its responsibility towards the indigenous peoples. [under French juristiction] who turn against her. “

Covid-19 and Amazonian lifestyles

The impact of Covid-19 on indigenous peoples has been enormous, especially when it comes to communicating the health protocols needed to fight the pandemic in local languages. Traditional ways of life have been turned upside down – it is extremely difficult to isolate yourself when you live in a remote and indigenous Amazon community.

Labonté explains: “When the first villages were affected by the Covid, we could predict that it was something that was going to hit us hard. We have our culture, our knowledge … then the masks arrived, the etiquette of hands arrived … and we got scared.

“In the first village that was affected, it created a cluster. Then it happened in a second village, then a third village, despite the warnings in our mother tongues.

“But in practical life, we envisioned a complete change of lifestyle. It was insisted that the information on the management of the disease be given by indigenous people who work directly in health, who work in the villages, in order to be able to communicate and warn people of what is going to happen.

“It was not done at the beginning, so many villages were contaminated.

“At that time, people were calling for help from the Indigenous Council and Indigenous leaders so that we could get the message out properly.

“We did the job because it was our people who were affected. But we have reached a point of no return. Who can indigenous people turn to when they need help?

“We are never consulted, we are just listened to, but never heard,” adds Labonté.

The scourge of illegal gold mining in French Guiana

French Guiana has been a black spot for illegal gold panning for decades, which has led to mercury poisonings among the indigenous population and contaminated rivers.

Labont̩ points out that scientists have been asked to raise the issue of the scourge with the French state Рas France has done the research Рbut the indigenous communities have never had a return.

According to the activist, with this research, indigenous peoples could have made a difference or made a formal complaint: “We are dealing here with basic human rights,” she said.

With the arrival of the Covid, illegal gold mining tripled in the French Amazon: “It tripled in Guyana and some villagers were even going to take up arms to fight against the scourge. But the government got hold of the matter, with Operation Harpie, “she said.

“We get a lot of feedback from families who are forced to drink completely white or green water and become sick because they have no choice.

“They eat fish that are completely contaminated with mercury or drink untreated water. It’s reality. And on top of that, care and help is not reaching all the villages, ”she adds.

Participants stand next to a banner with the slogan "Or question!" which is a French word game using the word "Where" (or) instead of the word "except" (pronounced the same but meaning without / out of) as they participate in the International Day of the Indigenous Peoples of Guyana on August 9, 2018 in Cayenne, French Guiana.
Participants stand next to a banner with the slogan “Or question! which is a French pun using the word “or” (or) in place of the word “hors” (similarly pronounced but meaning sans / hors de) as they participate in the International Day of the Indigenous Peoples of Guyana in August 9 September 2018 in Cayenne, French Guiana. AFP – JODY AMIET

Marseille’s expectations

There is some hope on the horizon, however, that Indigenous voices will be heard. At the World Conservation Congress in Marseille this week, representatives of indigenous peoples gathered for the first time armed with voting rights. And it is hoped that the indigenous participants will leave France this weekend with something tangible in hand for the protection of biodiversity and the future of the inhabitants of the Amazon.

So, what does Claudette Labonté expect to leave this conference with once it is over?

“Through COICA,” she explains, “Guyana is represented at the international level, so this gives us a platform to denounce what is happening in our country.

“We strongly support COICA because the problems we have in Guyana are the same as in the other eight countries of the organization. But they have it much worse, because their leaders – the people who protect this forest – are being killed.

“This is why we have proposed a motion – ‘Motion 80×25’ to protect the Amazon before 2025. Why are we doing this? Because it is now that it is most threatened, not yesterday ”, underlines Labonté.

The Amazon has been under threat for decades and its indigenous inhabitants cannot wait until 2030 for concrete action to be taken.

“We hope we have something concrete to work with – a plan with a program – to start REAL work.

Labonté reckons that the participants receive a lot of feedback, using nice words, but nothing concrete.

“We also hope that the European Union will resume the fight, because this also affects human rights. This is therefore the objective”, concludes Labonté.

The closing ceremony of the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille takes place this Friday evening.