The curse of fossil fuel is hanging over French Guiana. Tullow Oil, the London-based exploration company, has struck oil with its first well sunk in a new exploration block offshore. Commentators speculate that this could be the biggest new oil discovery of the year.
This small French ex-penal colony has a population of 200,000 and relies on income from an incongruous mix of its forestry industry and launching communication satellites for the European Space Agency. Agriculture is mainly along the coastal area including rice and manioc and further inland a small amount of marijuana mainly for local consumption. This beacon of stability in South America is about to be undermined in anticipation of the windfall profits from becoming an oil-exporting nation.
I lived in another outpost of Central America, Belize, for 6 months in the 1980s near a town called Punta Gorda. On first sight these were poor people but after a few months you began to realise that these were happy people with a wealth of natural resources, fruit from the jungle and fish from the sea. A Western eye could be fooled into believing that they need development but it is too hasty to jump to this conclusion.
A number of outsiders had moved into this part of Southern Belize to ‘get away from it all’. What they were actually about they were reluctant to say but it was a reasonable assumption that their business was growing marijuana for export to markets further north. In a sleepy town with ample remote jungle and good coastal access to export the drug, this was an ideal location. At the same time there was the first murder in living memory in this little town. The influx of money was starting to corrupt and undermine a way of life.
Oil production and growing marijuana are not the same; one is legal the other is not. Where they are the same is that they both bring monetary wealth, and with wealth comes the prospect of greed and corruption.
The people of French Guiana may find that oil is not the salvation it appears to be as the black gold starts to flow ashore and the discussions over money gather pace. Norway has shown how oil wealth can be used to improve the life of its people and secure long-term security. The Middle East has shown how oil wealth can corrupt and undermine society. French Guiana needs, as a matter of priority, good governance and long-term sustainable plans to ensure that the curse of oil does not strike down this South American colony.