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to be CONFINED in the confines of the republic

May 5, 2020


Damien Davy, an anthropologist with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientific (CNRS) based in French Guiana



Just like the rest of the French Republic, French Guiana [1] was put in "confinement" as soon as March 17.


The few 300 000 inhabitants, of which 90 % live on a 50 km strip along the coastline, had to comply and follow the national measures that were decided on 7 000 km from there. To be sure, it seems prudent to apply a thoughtful policy decided on at the national level inasmuch as the crisis seems to have caught everybody off-guard...But the manner in which things played out have yet again shown how French governance applied to its overseas departments is based on decisions taken from afar, far from the real context in which they are being applied. Based on witness accounts and information coming from villages in southern Guiana, I will discuss here this unique situation from the indigenous populations' position who are, as all French citizens, confined in the confines of the Republic.

Protest of French Guiana's coastline indigenous people in support of those inland
Protest of French Guiana's coastline indigenous people in support of those inland

Some 3 500 indigenous people [2] live in southern French Guiana in the municipalities of Camopi along the Oyapock river bordering with Brazil, and Maripasoula bordering the Maroni that runs along the Surinam border. Three indigenous populations, the Teko, the Wayana and the Wayãpi live in approximately 80 villages spread along those two big rivers and a few tributaries. Though their society has been significantly disrupted for more than a century, they still use their native language and maintain a way of life mostly based on slash-and-burn nomatic agriculture, fishing and hunting. For sure their relationship with the world, their lifestyle has been impacted by the introduction of money and, for the Wayana, by a strong incursion of evangelical churches...nevertheless, they continue to live in small villages organized around their own social and family rules.


These villages are isolated. From the coast, it takes 3 h to travel to the first village on the Maroni, 4 h in a dugout canoe to reach Camopi from Saint-Georges and even more than 2 days to get to the Trois Sauts villages - more if the water level is low. The inhabitants of these fringes today find themselves cut off from the rest of the department, having very few stores [3]. All the children in middle and high school along the coast and in Maripasoula were sent back to their families in a few days.


Epidemics have left a painful mark on the history of the ethnic groups living in the Americas before the western conquest. Contact with Europeans led to a huge microbial impact, sometimes decimating up to 90 % of the population in a few decades [4]. Specialists estimate that the pre-columbian population in the Americas was between 43 and 65 million, of which approximately 5 million in the Amazon reduced to 100 000 in 1900...Even if these numbers are still debated and could be underestimated, we know that a large part of this depopulation is due to imported diseases from Europe and Africa. To be sure, colonial violence hugely contributed to this slaughter, for we know that an epidemic could hit harder those populations that are destructured, exposed to a lot of violence...


The indigenous people of southern Guiana have known deadly epidemics up through the 1970s, as was the case for the Wayãpi of Trois Sauts in 1971 (measles) and 1975 (flu)...Traumatized, they stayed in their hammock waiting for death...


And today? How are they living with this new epidemic and its confinement measures?

Drinking manioc beer (cachiri) together creates a strong social bond for Guiana's inland indigenous communities
Drinking manioc beer (cachiri) together creates a strong social bond for Guiana's inland indigenous communities

In the Haut-Maroni region, though the old-timers shared their worry about this epidemic that reminds them of bad times, the younger ones are not really feeling concerned. So the traditional chiefs quickly reached out to the authorities of Guiana to attract their attention to....the resurgence of illegal gold mining around their Haut-Maroni villages [5]. Needless to say that in the past few years, because of the high price of gold, there are still a significant number of placers. In 2018, 132 sites were thus inventoried in Guiana Amazonian Park's perimeter. It is obvious that the waters of the Maroni river, between the Wayanan villages and the center of Maripasoula, have been a red color for the past several years. The turbidity of the river and its numerous alluvial mined tributaries has a powerful impact on the life of these populations, besides the insecurity caused by this activity...


The government responded to the traditional chiefs' appeal by putting in place at the beginning of April an "operational military base" in Taluen, a village situated on the French side, and open 24x7. This base has the double duty of controlling the flow of dugout canoes linked to gold mining and stop the arrival of people downstream, thus preventing the spread of Covid-19 in these isolated villages [6]. As a matter of fact, there was one case of contamination in the centerof Maripasoula and about twenty cases much more downstream in the Grand Santi commune....yet the dugout canoes bringing provisions all come from downstream.


In the Oyapock region, people in the town of Camopi and the surrounding villages have, for the most part, left their village to go to their slash-and-burn plots in order to take shelter from the potential arrival of the virus. This strategy of voluntary isolation, the scattering of living quarters, brings to mind historic strategies put in place to run from the colonial tension...It is also an opportunity to reaffirm their right to a large part of the historic territory as we had noticed in the past ten years. Unfortunately, they have to regularly go to Vila Brasil (a village on the Brazilian side of the river bank) in order to get gas for their dugout canoes, a necessary step to be able to get to their plots and on their hunting and fishing grounds.


However we've learned that for the past several days the Brazilian Oiapoque municipality has several dozen cases of Covid-19 and there are already several cases in Saint-Georges. Even if the French-Brazilian border is theoretically closed, it will be difficult for the few border control officers to watch the river banks' approximately 300 km...


In the hamlets situated around Trois Sauts, the most isolated populated region of Guiana, life goes on. The two police officers in charge somehow attempt to enforce the measures prohibiting gatherings, but the task is rather difficult in these villages where people live outdoors, where all their activities are done outside and where congregating around manioc beer provides social bonding...


"This situation brings to mind the colonial wound we have inherited and puts us face to face with the collective trauma left by the epidemics that have decimated our ancestors" said the Grand Customary Council of Amerindian and Bushinenge Populations (GCCPAB) last week [7]. Indeed, the first and only death that occured in Guiana for Covid reasons is an Arawak indigenous person from a coastal village. In fact, in the Oiapoque municipality, the first victim is also an indigenous woman...This a really made an impression and raised awareness among the indigenous militants, reviving a pan-american indigenous solidarity. Face with an epidemic threat that is only too well know, Guiana's southern communities understand that being confined within the confines of the Republic is not, in and of itself, a token of protection.

[1] French Guiana is a territorial collectivity (one of France's overseas departments) located in South America.

[2] Today, French Guiana’s 6 indigenous populations is estimated at 14 000 people (a compilation of village inhabitants). Of note that it is illegal in France to gather ethnic-based statistics.

[3] The CTG (Territorial Collectivity of Guiana) and the authorities organized food provisions by helicopter and dugout canoes.

[4] For further information on this topic 

[5] Identical testimonies were gathered among the indigenous people of Roraima and Amazonas.

[6] On the coastline as well, more and more villages of the Arawak and Palikur populations established a control point at the entrance of their village, blocking entry to non-healthcare people not belonging to the village and regulating the comings and goings of the residents. All these measures were put in place by the traditional chiefs.

[7] Le Grand Conseil Coutumier face au Covid-19 (article in French)

Damien Davy is a CNRS anthropologist of the University of French Guiana (UMR LEEISA). He is the Project Manager of the Oyapock Human-Environment Observatory