Poverty in French Guiana
French Guiana, the small South American overseas region of France, is home to a uniquely intricate story. Tales of its former penal colonies and its more recent prominence as a European rocket-launching site often capture the imagination. Initially explored by the Spanish in the 1500s, it became a part of France in 1667.

Inhabitants of French Guiana are citizens of France, and administration of the area is governed by the French Constitution.

Although French Guiana recently voted against increased autonomy from France, frustration with the French administration has often resulted from longstanding struggles with unemployment and the area’s unbalanced trade. Over the years, this frustration has led to widespread protests and demonstrations throughout the country.

France supports French Guiana’s developing economy by sending aid and technical assistance. The country suffers from unfavorable balances in their trading activities, with their exports significantly less valuable than their imports.

The resulting issues are compounded by high rates of unemployment and inflation, insufficient infrastructure (for example, only two-fifths of roads are paved), and the territory’s need to import fossil fuels for all electricity needs.

The majority of the territory’s population is employed in services and industry, with those in agriculture primarily subsistence farmers who do not contribute largely to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The country’s GDP per capita is $8,300, but assessing what proportion of the population this places below the poverty line is made difficult by the lack of economic information available about the territory.

Its small size and population often mean it is not included in other aggregate poverty assessments. This lack of information makes poverty-related issues difficult to identify in French Guiana.

While the issues associated with poverty in French Guiana are not always clear, it is evident that they do exist. In 2009, reported sufferings due to low wages elucidated threats of revolt. However, those threats were not acted upon until 2010, when approximately 70 percent of the population voted against increased autonomy in administration.

These tensions were felt in a variety of French territories in 2009 and are often the result of disproportionate success and living conditions between these territories and the French mainland. It is not uncommon for GDP per capita in purchasing power parity in French Guiana to be significantly lower than that in France, with the former enjoying only one-third the per capita rate as the latter in recent decades.

This disparity places French Guiana and other French territories in an unusual position. Their poverty is acute compared with rates experienced on the mainland, but it is less severe than rates often seen in developing nations not tied to the power and aid of a country like France.

In addition, the cycle of wealthy inhabitants in French Guiana purchasing primarily imported goods has done more good than harm to the local economy.

In coping with poverty in French Guiana, universally free education is beneficial, as is free health care for the poorest segments of society. However, French Guiana’s noted lack of certain forms of infrastructure affects health care in rural areas, where full-service hospitals are frequently inaccessible.

As French Guiana continues to develop, poverty and unemployment rates represent a large source of social discontentment and everyday hardship. While poverty remains acute, the rates experienced in the territory are less extreme than those experienced in some other developing countries.

Charlotte Bellomy

Photo: BBC