Development Business / September 16, 1997
By Larry Luxner
CAYENNE, French Guiana -- It's the only place in South America under the European Community flag. It's also the continent's only political jurisdiction whose currency, the franc, is readily accepted around the world.
Technical considerations aside, French Guiana -- wedged along the remote, northeastern shoulder of South America between Suriname and Brazil -- is today a relatively prosperous land, thanks to its status as an overseas department of France.
In the last seven years, the department's population has mushroomed from 118,000 to nearly 150,000. Its inhabitants represent perhaps the most ethnically diverse group of people anywhere in South America, from Creole-speaking Haitians to Portuguese-speaking Brazilians to Buddhist Hmong refugees from Laos.
Over a third of French Guiana's population comes from somewhere else, and nearly all have stumbled onto this lonely jungle land for one reason: jobs generated by the European Space Agency's sprawling complex at Kourou. Michel Mignot, director of the Guianese Space Center, says the satellite-launching business now accounts for 50% of French Guiana's production, 30% of its direct and indirect jobs and 50% of its tax revenue.
"Our activity is like an engine for the economy of French Guiana," says Jean-Marie Luton, CEO of Arianespace -- the world's largest commercial satellite launching entity. "Without the last 30 years of activity, Guiana would not be what it is today."
In fact, compared to Dutch-speaking Suriname and English-speaking Guyana -- both impoverished after centuries of European colonial rule and a few decades of independence -- French Guiana isn't suffering. It has good roads, decent health care and a generous social-security system, thanks to $500 million a year in assistance from Paris.
Geography, political stability and inter-European cooperation have all played a part in the success of French Guiana, which was settled by French explorers in 1598 and became an overseas department in 1946. French Guiana was chosen for the space center in 1964 (over Madagascar, Australia, Reunion Island and other sites), following a visit by French premier Charles de Gaulle to Kourou two years earlier.
Located only 5 degrees north of the Equator, where the Earth's rotation is fastest, a launcher sent toward the east benefits from a "slingshot effect." By comparison, it would take about 15% more fuel to place a satellite into orbit if launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Kourou's location also makes it possible to launch satellites directly into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), an equatorial orbit that satellites must enter before they can move into a final geostationary orbit -- the ideal for communication satellites, since they appear to remain in a fixed position relative to the Earth.
French Guiana's relative isolation, far from major shipping and air traffic lanes, also makes Kourou an ideal launching site. Surrounded by ocean to the north and east, it can send launchers in either direction without passing over populated regions. Its political stability is assured by French Guiana's status as an overseas department, and finally, the Guiana Space Center is located in an area of South America that's free from earthquakes and hurricanes.
Since 1979, when the Ariane program was inaugurated, 98 rockets have been launched from Kourou.
The most recent mission was Aug. 8, when an Ariane 44P rocket blasted off from Kourou, carrying into orbit PanAmSat's PAS-6 satellite -- the centerpiece of a four-way venture involving Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and two of Latin America's biggest media conglomerates. The satellite, manufactured by Space Systems/Loral, will soon bring direct-to-home satellite TV to millions of viewers south of the Rio Grande (see sidebar).
Currently, satellites launched from Kourou are sent into space atop the Ariane-4 launcher. Available in six different configurations, the booster can put satellites weighing up to 4.5 tons into orbit. Between 80% and 90% of the payloads launched from Kourou are telecommunications satellites.
The Guiana Space Center employs around 1,400 people, most of them scientists and technicians from France and other European countries who receive a hardship bonus for living in French Guiana. Many locals work in menial jobs around the huge complex, but few have management positions.
Despite the prosperity created by the presence of such a high-tech launch complex, the 35,000-square-mile territory does have economic and social problems. Officially, French Guiana's unemployment exceeds 25%; some observers say the true number approaches 35%. That has made some people question the department's political status.
"Here we are in South America, but we're a part of France," says David Donzenac, owner of a construction firm in Cayenne. "It's ridiculous. More than 70% of our trade is with France, and the French decide everything. We don't want a bad relationship [with Paris], but we don't want them to tell us what's good for us."
In early August, violence erupted in Cayenne when police and demonstrators clashed after a pro-independence leader was placed in pre-trial detention. According to Reuters, the protesters had attempted to set fire to Cayenne's central police station, prompting paramilitary riot police to use tear gas to disperse hundreds of people who were camped out in front of the central courthouse.
In April, a similar pro-independence disturbance left nine policemen injured, eight of them by gunfire. Those riots were triggered by the arrest of 10 other independence supporters accused of attacking the residence of French Guiana's state prosecutor in November 1996 after protests over deteriorating secondary-school conditions. At the time, the riots were condemned in Paris; Jean-Jacques de Peretti, France's minister for overseas territories, blamed the unrest on "vandals who have nothing to do with the problems of educating the young."
Donzenac, who directs regional cooperation efforts at the French Guiana Chamber of Commerce and attends the Caribbean Basin Initiative conference in Miami every year, says France has quietly discouraged its overseas department from developing trade ties with nearby countries like Suriname, Brazil and Guyana. He says French Guiana's political representation in Paris is symbolic and somewhat meaningless to most locals; during elections for president of France, voter turnout rarely exceeds 30%.
"In general, we support the movement for a change in political status -- not for independence, but for a status like Puerto Rico," says Donzenac, adding that "the space program is totally outside the Cayenne economy. In reality, the rocket base doesn't participate fully in the development of French Guiana."
Adds Maurice Pindard, secretary-general of MDES, French Guiana's pro-independence party: "France doesn't want to develop this country. The only thing that's important for them is the space center. The government wants social peace, but you can't have social peace without jobs."
Nevertheless, France -- which has invested billions of dollars in the Kourou space center -- is unlikely to give up its slice of South America anytime soon. Guarded by 800 troops of the French Foreign Legion, the center generates nearly $1 billion a year for the French government agency CNES, which leases its facilities to Arianespace.
Mignot, director of the space center, says one of his goals is "helping to create new local production networks in which our trained staff could invest themselves, thus creating jobs for young Guianese," and "helping French Guiana extend its influence in the region and in South America, and become the French and European showcase for a developing continent."