One of the richest, but most impenetrable, countries of South America
French Guiana's hot and humid territory is largely flat. There are low mountains in the south along the border with Brazil, but most of the country is a vast plateau covered with dense tropical rainforest. The majority of people live along the swampy coastal plain or in the capital, Cayenne.
France used the territory as a penal colony until 1953—most notoriously Devil's Island. Even after they had served their sentences, it was difficult for prisoners to leave. Most of those who stayed succumbed to tropical diseases.
Today, most people are creole or black, but there is also a significant French population. The others include the original Amerindians in the jungles of the south; the Marons, who are descendants of prisoners who escaped to the interior; and immigrants from other French territories. There are even some people from the Hmong ethnic group from Laos.
The country benefits from generous aid from France, particularly since the establishment in 1968 at Kourou, 60 kilometres west of the capital, of the rocket-launching base now used by the French and European space agencies, as well as by a commercial company. There are around a dozen launches each year.
This and other government services employ not just French people but also many local workers. As a result, the average per capita income is one of the highest in South America, though this is distributed somewhat unequally between rocket scientists and Amerindian hunter-gatherers.
The other main economic activities are agriculture, fishing, and forestry. Most farms are small, growing subsistence crops, but there are also a few large commercial fruit plantations that export their produce to France. In addition, fishing for shrimp provides an important source of export income. Because of the European tastes of many inhabitants, the country remains highly dependent on imports from France of food and other goods.
As an overseas territory of France, the country elects two representatives to the French National Assembly and one to the Senate. Locally, there are also consultative general and regional councils.
In the 2004 elections to the General Council, the Socialist Party of Guiana took the most seats. Local people are in favour of greater autonomy but also want more aid; few want independence from France, which for many people could result in a catastrophic drop in income.
www.guyane.pref.gouv.fr/ Government - Prefecture, in French
www.blada.com/ Blada.com - Korou newspaper, in French
Land area:90,000 sq. km.
Capital city:Cayenne, 55,000
People:Black or mulatto 66%, white 12%, Amerindian 12%, other 10%
Government:Overseas collectivity of France
Life expectancy:77 years
GDP per capita:6,000
Major exports:Shellfish, gold, timber
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).