At a time when France vows to champion the fight against imported deforestation and climate change, Montagne d’Or, a massive project in French Guyana has become a pebble in the shoe of the environment minister, raising concerns in French environmental groups and the French judiciary.
In February, an administrative judge found in favour of Maiouri Nature Guyane and Association Guyane Nature Environnement, in their challenge to the authorisation for alluvial gold mining known as “Boeuf Mort” in the mining concession of Montagne d’Or. The ruling found that the company had violated the provisions of the French environment code, which transposes obligations of EU Directives 2001/42/EC and 9011/92/EU, by failing to include the impacts of the open-air industrial mega-mine project. This illegal practice of separating elements of an environmental impact assessment (saucissonnage: “making sausages”) is a violation of the EU obligation to provide comprehensive information on overall impacts on a project site. Failure to represent the project accurately impedes the assessment, for instance, of how human health is affected, as well as biodiversity protected under the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives.
Launched in 2017, Montagne d'Or mine, one of the largest gold mine projects in French Guyana, and the world, will create an open pit gold mine of eight km², starting in 2022, south of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, in Guyana’s tropical forest. The French government and the project promoters, Russian multinational Nordgold and Canada’s Columbus Gold, presented the plans as socially and environmentally responsible, and a chance for local development and job creation in the crisis/recession stricken overseas department.
However, Amerindian organisations in Guyana and environmental groups such as Or de Question and WWF France raised alarms about the negative impact of clearing more than 1,000 hectares of forests including primary forests. The risks would be considerable while the economic benefits for local people would be insignificant.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also reacted to reports from local NGOs about the lack of free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous populations, including the failure to consider threats to archaeological sites, deforestation or ecosystems. They have asked France to provide information on measures put in place to ensure the rights of indigenous people through a social and environmental impact study, with their effective participation.
These developments underline the major role played by civil society in asking EU governments to be held to their commitments to end deforestation linked to large-scale agriculture development, resource extraction or illegal logging. Halting deforestation is key to combatting climate change and preserving local livelihoods in tropical forested countries.
According to Sami Asali, Climate Coordinator at Coordination SUD, the French Development NGO platform, France needs to walk the talk when it comes to showing leadership on these issues, especially in the Amazon Basin which is threatened by rapid deforestation. As an advocate of EU broad strategies to halt deforestation and self-proclaimed leader of the fight against climate change globally, the French government has an obligation to do the right thing at home if it wants to be heard abroad.
While EU directives and jurisprudence have already proven instrumental in slowing the progress of this colossal project – at least for now – another question that merits investigation would be how France has thus far failed to include this stronghold of tropical biodiversity in the Natura 2000 network.