For Christophe Yanuwana Pierre, France must “recognise the distinctive nature of the indigenous peoples of French Guiana”

For Christophe Yanuwana Pierre, France must “recognise the distinctive nature of the indigenous peoples of French Guiana”

Christophe Yanuwana Pierre, an activist from the Jeunesse autochtone de Guyane (Native Youth of Guiana), here in 2018 in the village of Balaté, close to the city of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni.

(Cindy Biswane)

Christophe Pierre is a Frenchman deeply attached to the memory of his ancestors. Not the Gauls, but the people of the Kali’nas, the Amerindians of south America. “His people,” as he says. Twenty-five-year-old Christophe is one of the most media savvy and charismatic figures of the indigenous movement of French Guiana, one of France’s overseas department. Like him, thousands of indigenous people live on this territory on the Caribbean coast, between Suriname (in the west) and Brazil (in the south), controlled by France since its colonisation in the 17th century. Creoles, Bushinangés, metropolitans, Cambodians and other communities complete this human mosaic that shook the central power of Paris during an historic strike and blockade in the spring of 2017. For nearly a month, French Guiana was paralysed as protestors questioned the state and denounced its neglect of public services and infrastructure in the region.

As founder and spokesperson of the Native Youth of Guiana (JAG), founded in 2017, mainly active in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, west of the department, Christophe Pierre and his companions took part in the protest movement. As well as joining other communities in their global struggles, the young man also has his own battle to fight: for the recognition of his people. Amerindians represent less than 5 per cent (between 6,000 and 10,000 people) of the population of French Guiana. Constantly active, the JAG is currently challenging the Russo-Canadian consortium Nordgold-Columbus (two multinational mining companies) which plans to mine the land where Native American people live. In January, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on France to withhold the project while the consent of the indigenous people was collected “in accordance with their own institutions and decision-making processes.”

What is JAG and what are its aims?

It is a movement. The aim is the recognition and respect for the rights of the native peoples. We have summed it up in three points: learn, share, protect. All our action must meet this criteria. We are a young organisation and we must learn from our elders. It even means re-learning, because colonialism has crushed our cultural identity, just as the western capitalist system and its consumption model have destroyed our spirituality. The national education system (the school curricula) and the Church have also had their role to play in wiping out our identity. We have to relearn our history and our people’s values, we must reclaim them.

Sharing is important too, because we are already isolated, both among the different nations in French Guiana, but also from other countries of South America, and even beyond the continent. We want to share with the other people who make up Guianese society, because we have a lot to learn from each other. Ignorance breeds contempt. Our movement, although very active in the west, is present throughout the region. At first, we travelled all over French Guiana to contact all Native American communities. At first we did this as a think tank. Now we have thought enough and it is time to act. All this took a long time before we became operational. We must protect our people and our lands.

What are your demands?

We have a platform of demands for the native peoples. It is not sectoral. It’s not just about issues that affect education, safety, health or culture. Many in French Guiana claim that we, the Amerindians, are ‘exclusive’. But the problem is that no one has defended us in the past, today it is only us who can put forward our message. No one but us can represent us. One of our demands is the restitution of 400,000 hectares of land, plundered by colonisation. The principle of Terra nullius was applied at the time, that is to say a “vacant land without an owner”.

Because we were not considered human beings, the indigenous peoples were not taken into account when France declared itself master of this territory. But it’s just theft. These surrendered lands must be under indigenous sovereignty. It’s complicated because in French law we are not recognised as a people. According to the French Constitution, there is only one people: the French people. Another demand is the ratification by France of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 169 which recognises the distinct nature of indigenous peoples, the preservation of their identity and their institutions. The National Consultative Commission for Human Rights has rightly argued in favour by stating in a report that this convention is not necessarily anti-constitutional. It depends on how it is applied. After all, in New Caledonia, the Kanak people are recognised. And that is in France.

How does the Amerindian identity fit into the national framework of the French State? Which authority do you address your claims to?

We address all authorities, all decision-making powers. Both the decentralised powers and the central authority. Our recognition and the ratification of Convention 169 can only be negotiated with Paris, with the President of the Republic. But the building of a school, for example, concerns Guyana’s Territorial Collective (CTG). Of course, as a French citizen, and Guianese, the CTG represents me through its president. But as an indigenous person, as a young Kali’na, the head of my village represents me. Only the customary authorities and our chosen representative body can represent us. This is established by international law and in the countries that have ratified the convention. I am Guianese, but it is one part of my identity.

My people are the Kali’na people who live at the mouth of the Maroni River and in the savannahs. When I go on the High Maroni, I’m still in French Guiana, but I’m in Wayana territory, it’s not my home there. It is here, in the west of Guiana that I am at home. I’m 25, I have not been in this territory for a long time, but as Kali’na, we’ve been here for thousands of years, my ancestors, therefore my roots are here. Non-natives do not have the same spiritual connection that binds us to this land, the forest, the river. We did not come from slavery, even though we also lived it, because we have the same coloniser. On the other hand, I would never say that we are the real Guianese, not at all. It is not the question of who is a ‘real’ Guianese or not.

The 2017 strike, in which the JAG and other Amerindian communities participated, demanded, among other things, greater investment by the French state in the territory. Isn’t it a contradiction to turn to a "colonising power" to demand better treatment while also seeking emancipation from it?

There are urgent matters to be dealt with here. As Native Americans, we are doubly sanctioned. On the one hand, we are not recognised as indigenous peoples. On the other hand, although we are French, our rights as citizens are not respected. Our rights of access to education, health, etc. On these matters, we are with the rest of Guyana. But in any case, there is a duty to make reparation. The history of French Guiana begins with that of our near extinction. We Amerindians are already in a post-apocalyptic world. Who recognises our contribution as an indigenous people? Guianese cuisine, chocolate, peppers, tobacco, that comes from us.

The researchers drew on our knowledge to learn about the medicines that come from the Amazon. This territory makes up 50 per cent of French biodiversity. This rich heritage is the result of 15,000 years of respectful management of the forest by our ancestors. It is all this that must be recognised. We agree with having more schools and teachers, but what kind of history will they teach? Hitler and Napoleon, okay. But the massacres and wars of resistance in Guiana are important too.

JAG is one of the organisations opposed to the so-called "Gold Mountain" mining project, which is an 82 km² open-cast mine project. Why?

In less than 100 years of departmentalisation of this territory, we have seen what this so-called modern society has done to our territory. How many species are endangered? How many thousands of kilometres of rivers are polluted? How many ravaged sites? That’s uncivilised. I know you do not make omelettes without breaking eggs, but why ransack the whole hen house? We condemn this excess. It is our children, not other people’s, who are now eating fish with mercury and who will continue to suffer the consequences of this exploitation. What is the point of destroying the ecosystem here to take gold, which will then remain locked in coffers in Europe? In our philosophy, to be respectful of the earth is to leave without trace. But this western society is obsessed with the idea of making its mark on the Earth, of being eternal.

This story has been translated from French.