Gold mining operations in Guiana started in the mid-19th century, with the official discovery of gold in Guiana in 1855 at Aïcoupaïe Creek in the Approuague Basin (east of Cayenne). The second half of the 19th century was marked by a major phase of exploration in the interior of the country and by the discovery of large placer deposits: first east of Cayenne at Approuague, Sinnamary (Saint-Elie and Adieu Vat), Ouanary, Kourou, and then in the south of Guiana at the Haute-Mana sites and the Inini Basin.

Gold in French Guiana first discovered in 1855

The first gold mining companies arose in that era, along with the introduction of mechanized techniques such as monitoring, bucket dredges, and crushers boosting gold production, peaking in 1894 with 4,922 kilos of gold extracted.

But it was also an era that spawned illegal placer mining: miners illicitly panning and sluicing at mine company sites. An estimated 6,000 to 12,000 miners worked the deposits. Declared annual mining production was between three and four tonnes at the start of the 20th century, before collapsing during the First World War. Annual production between 1920 and 1940 was approximately 1.5 tonnes.

Lack of investment during the inter-war years and supply problems during the Second World War caused production to fall further still, to virtually nil in the early 1950s.

Gold production is hampered by gold/dollar convertibility

Despite a new technical revolution, with the introduction of machines (bulldozers, draglines, excavators, wash plants) and the first gravimetric concentrators, gold production remained relatively flat between 1950 and 1970, hampered by the gold/dollar parity which kept the yellow metal at its lowest-ever level. In 1964 and 1965, declared production was, officially, nil.

After the Second World War, French public authorities launched a major program to improve geological knowledge of the Guiana territory.

Geological mapping was carried out by ORSTOM (Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer) and prospecting by BRM (Bureau de Recherche Minière) and then BRGM (Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières). Between 1975 and 1995, the BRGM carried out an inventory of mining operations which identified 18 mining "subjects".

The abandonment of the gold/dollar parity in 1971 and the threat of inflation, a consequence of the first oil shock, gradually relaunched Guianese gold production. Some abandoned sites were reopened such as Paul Isnard and Boulanger. At the same time, new explorations were undertaken which discovered deposits, Délices in particular, west of Cayenne.

Towards new all-time record Guianese gold production

The surge in gold prices in the late 1970s caused a veritable gold rush in Brazil and Suriname which extended to Guiana with the introduction of "cheap" labour. The '80s and early '90s were thus marked by the proliferation of artisanal mining operations along Guiana's rivers (Maroni, Oyapock and Approuage) which became covered with suction dredges (barges sucking gravel from the riverbed).

Along with that, in the early '90s, big international mining companies relaunched new exploration programs. Most were crowned with success but the decline in the price of gold, which fell to US$255, its lowest level since May 1979, caused a halt to exploration programs that were no longer economically viable.

The surge in gold prices since 2003, a rise that has accelerated in recent months, has allowed Guianese gold production to resume with the levels reached at the start of the century (between 3 and 4 tonnes). But this production is currently mostly due to artisanal operations (sometimes illegal) and small industrial mines operated by SMEs, while the big international mining companies remain absent from French Guiana.

In 2007, in the wake of the presidential elections and the "Grenelle de l’Environnement" environment forum, the French government introduced a procedure for standardizing regulations throughout the entire Guianese gold mining industry. This new administrative and regulatory initiative resulted in freezing the issuance of all mining rights in the French département, and in particular halting the Camp Caiman project run by the Toronto-based company IamGold.

On his visit to French Guiana in February 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the introduction of a new long-term mining and industrial policy that would respect the environment. This new orientation would result, by mid-2009, in the introduction of a départemental mining strategy schema, consisting of superimposing the départemental map of mining resources on its biodiversity map. Along with this, in 2008 the French government launched the first large-scale operations against illegal placer mining, in the form of an exceptional plan to deploy 1,000 security agents equipped with new logistics.