By Jean-Jacques Segalen (jjacques) December 30, 2012
French Guiana (Guyane Franšaise) is one of the four French over-sea departments scattered around the world together with Reunion Island (where I live) in the Indian Ocean, Martinique and Guadeloupe (both are also islands) in the West Indies. As I was given the chance to visit the place last month I thought you may want to join and discover this fascinating and poorly known part of the world.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 27, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but pleasebe aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Guiana is set in northern South America, between 2° and 5° of Northern latitude and between 51° and 54° of Western longitude. The name comes from an Amerindian language and means "land of abundant waters." Its neighbors are French Brazil with 580km of border to the East (the Oyapock river) and South (Amazonian forest), Surinam (former Dutch Guyana) to the West with some 520km of border materialized by the Maroni river, and it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean with some 320km of coast. The whole surface is 83534 square km (roughly 1% the size of Brazil or similar to Portugal), out of which 94% is covered with pristine forest, it is set on a plateau called ‘Guyane plateau' which holds several countries besides French Guyana: Brazil, Surinam, Guyana and Venezuela. The land is rather uniform in aspect though not flat, the highest point being the "Sommet Tabulaire" at 830m (2500 feet) high. The weather is of the humid equatorial type, there are globally two seasons; the dry one between July and December and the wet one from January to June. Relative humidity is permanent and quite high ranging between 70 and 95%; rains vary between 2.5 and 5 meters (8 and 16 feet) yearly, with more rains in the East than the West. Medium temperature is 27°C all year round. An important feature of Guiana is the extensive rivers netting. There are a great many creeks, streams, rivers, abundantly fed by the equatorial rains. Those rivers are of prime importance for people as they offer the easiest and fastest mean of communication inland, roads are scarce and tracks out of use during the rain season. There are some 225000 inhabitants (officially, in fact there are many illegal aliens all over) which gives some 2.7 people per square kilometer. Archeological works have shown that human occupation dates back as far as 5000 BC with Indians people from the Tupi-Guarani tribes. Various tribes have since then taken foot, some settling and some leaving the area, living the typical Amazonian tribes forest way of life. The first European to reach the coast of Guiana was by Christopher Columbus in 1498. As early as 1503 French people started setting on the land, soon followed by the British and Dutch. France really began a proper colonization around 1620 but the task was quite difficult because of a rather uncomfortable climate, many deadly diseases amongst which the yellow fever added to bad relationships with the native inhabitants and within the European settlers turned many people away. The French Revolution (1797) gave Guiane the legal status of department and started to set up penal colonies (‘le bagne', made famous by the movie Papillon), sending there political prisoners, then criminals, in order to try to make them stay once free again. This went on until 1946 when the bagne was abolished and most former inmates stayed as they could not buy the fare back home, an average of only 3% of prisoners have survived the bagne which gives some idea of what where the conditions...The General De Gaulle (French president at the time) decided to build a spatial facility in Kourou in 1964, it has nowadays greatly improved and is used by Europeans to launch space rockets and more recently also by Russia for the Soyouz, hence bringing in an important income. The people of Guiana come from many different places; the Creoles are the descendants of first European settlers who sometimes married with former slaves from Africa or Indians, they make up 40% of the inhabitants, Amerindians are about 6000 to 9000, from six different tribes, the ‘Bushinenges' are 4000, they are the grandchildren of African slaves who ran for freedom in the forest and went back to traditional forest life. The Hmongs are about 2000, they were brought from Cambodia right after the war and given land in order to grow vegetables and fruits, French people from France are about 12%, many are government employed such as teachers, police forces, researchers, doctors and so forth. The remaining people are from Brazil, West Indies, China, Indonesia, Lebanon, Haiti, and Java. There are an estimated 30000 to 60000 illegal aliens, mostly from Brazil who live in the forest and search for gold (garimpeiros). After this introductive article we will soon move to the forest and see what grows and lives there, be sure to follow us there, just do not forget solid hiking boots and a good machete!
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html