A ZAD in the French Amazon

They and they call it the first ZAD Kali’na, the first Native Zone to be defended from the Kali’na people. We are on the northeast coast of South America, in French Guiana, a former slave colony and then a penitentiary, which smells of the Far West. Since November 9, Native Americans have occupied a construction site in the middle of the forest.

On the one hand, indigenous nations who have been claiming land for decades and as the first people to continue to preserve their way of life, their identity, their culture, their spirituality. On the other, Europeans who take over these same lands in record time to build their project there at 170 million euros (166 million francs). Clearly, a textbook case around land grabbing and above all a conflict whose outcome will influence the future of all the Amerindian nations of this French region at the end of the world.

The Méridiam investment fund, the main shareholder, swears it: it will be “the largest power plant project in the world storing intermittent renewable energies thanks to hydrogen”. It is therefore not surprising that in November 2019, the French authorities gave the green light to the construction of CEOG, the future power plant in western French Guiana.

With its fleet of solar panels, it will produce electricity which will be converted into hydrogen and stored in the form of compressed gas in large bottles. When the panels are not working, the CEOG will be able to generate electricity from hydrogen using a large fuel cell. “It will provide year-round, uninterrupted electricity supply to the equivalent of 10,000 homes in western French Guiana. And this, without generating greenhouse gases, fine particles, noise or smoke,” savors Méridiam.

Protected species sacrificed

It is therefore fifteen kilometers from Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, a town of 50,000 inhabitants, bordering Suriname, that the plant will be built. An area of ​​75 hectares will be sacrificed in the middle of a tropical forest, within a natural area of ​​ecological, faunal and floristic interest (ZNIEFF) and the Regional Natural Park of Guyana.

Forty-one protected species, including around thirty birds, will be directly impacted. This is the case of the Zigzag Bittern, the green ibis, the forked-tailed kite, the tyrant eagle, the white buzzard… A species of mammal, the aquatic opossum or yapock, is also concerned. This did not prevent the company from obtaining an environmental authorization without even requesting a derogation from the strict protection of these species, which is compulsory under French law in such a case.

Several organizations, including Maiouri Nature Guyane, Village Prospérité, Kulalasi and the Association for the Protection of Wild Animals, took legal action on May 14 by filing an appeal for annulment against the authorization to operate. The decision fell in July. The judges rejected their request on the grounds that the two-month appeal period had largely exceeded.

Native American place of life

In addition to the fauna and flora, the 280 inhabitants of the Prospérité village, mostly from the Kali’na nation, are also on the front line. Their first homes will be less than a kilometer from the future power plant. “Since 2018, we have not stopped asking for the project to be carried out elsewhere than in our living, hunting and transmission space. The life of our village is organized around the forest. We want it to continue like this. We know the consequences when our villages turn exclusively to the city: loss of knowledge and landmarks, drug trafficking, precariousness… We are aware that administratively, the company has a definitive prefectural authorization to bring down trees, even the most sacred. My people are strong and proud! He is determined to oppose the establishment of this plant in our living space. Guyana is large, so we invite, one last time, to definitively move this project, the usefulness of which we do not dispute, but its location. No compensatory measure will make us change our minds”, comments Roland Sjabère, the village chief.

“My people are determined to oppose the establishment of this plant in our living space” Roland Sjabère

Since work began in September 2021, residents have regularly blocked the roads, reversing construction machinery and challenging workers. But on October 24, fifteen vans, or about sixty mobile gendarmes, shields and truncheons in hand, landed in the village of Prospérité. They arrest, handcuff and board four residents suspected of “destruction of property of others committed in a meeting” or “breaking and entering a dwelling or a place of warehouse”.

Among those arrested is chef Roland Sjabère. This arrest (unheard of) is very badly perceived by Native Americans. And even if all are released after twenty-four hours in police custody, the indigenous peoples are stepping up. In a joint statement, they say they are “ready to fight to uphold their millennial rights and the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest”. And ask to “immediately suspend the work”.

Site stopped

On November 7, CEOG officials (who declined to respond to the Mail) counter-attack “following erroneous information disseminated by opponents”. They affirm that the project was made “in consultation with the authorities and local actors”, that it “respects the hunting and feeding areas of the Prospérité village and its inhabitants”. That the village chief and the customary authorities were consulted from the start and never objected. And to finish by hammering that “to move the project is to cancel it”. And to brandish the threat of a “generalized blackout in western Guyana in 2025” if the plant is not built.

In the local press, chef Roland Sjabere, who acknowledges having signed a pre-agreement with the project leaders, believes he has been “abused” and admits not “mastering all the parameters in French”. He was convinced that even by signing, he could go back, without knowing that he had a maximum period of three months to retract…

On November 9, six Amerindian peoples gathered to occupy the site area, where 15 hectares of forest have already been felled. And create the first ZAD in Guyana. “It’s historic, this gathering brought together the chieftaincy of the largest customary council in Guyana. Between 250 and 300 people were present, which on the scale of this region is a success. We are witnessing a Native American awakening,” exults a protester. The construction site is stopped. Without violence. Machines and construction huts were removed from the site by the companies. Support pours in from France: Thomas Brail, founder and co-president of the National Tree Monitoring Group, or Pierrot Pantel, ecological engineer at the National Association for Biodiversity, who has seen the pollution caused by clearing. “We are going to file a criminal complaint for ‘alteration of the habitat of a protected species’, in this case the aquatic opossum, and for ‘pollution by the discharge into a watercourse of a substance harmful to wildlife ‘”.

Time is now on the side of Native Americans. “The most important thing was to block the machines. It is done. Now we will be able to structure the fight,” concludes a resident.

Macron’s boys in ambush

The CEOG project is supported, financed (60%) and managed by the Méridiam investment fund, which specializes in setting up, financing and managing projects focused on energy transition, the environment and mobility. Thierry Déau, who founded it in 2005, is also CEOG’s big boss. He is also close to the French president.

The two met at Bercy in 2014, when Emmanuel Macron was Minister of the Economy under the presidency of François Hollande. Thierry Déau was thus one of the great hosts of the London dinners which made it possible to attract donations to finance the campaign of En Marche and its candidate for the French presidential elections of 2017. The boss of Méridiam also accompanied in March 2019 the Head of State in Africa, where the investment fund has subsequently developed numerous projects, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Togo, Senegal, Burkina Faso…

Exchange of good practices or complete chance, but at least three Macron Boys have been relocated within this investment fund: Jimmy Brun, now in post at the Senegalese office of Méridiam, takes care of the development of projects in the field transports. Between 2017 and 2020 he was an adviser to the offices of President Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. There is also Xavier Ploquin, now director of the cabinet of Thierry Déau and who was previously, between 2017 and 2019, energy, industry and innovation adviser to two ministers for the ecological transition. As for Olivier Noblecourt, in 2020 he left his role as interministerial delegate for the prevention and fight against child and youth poverty to become director of sustainable local investment at Méridiam. EDL

A ZAD in the French Amazon – The Courier