Gold, Guns and Garimpeiros

As jittery investors have sought safe-haven investments in gold during the recession, the metal's price has soared on world markets. Meanwhile, some 30,000 illegal miners from Brazil are building clandestine mines throughout the jungles of French Guiana, an overseas department administered by France, the current home of the EU's spaceport, and home to a section of the world's largest protected tropical rainforest. Called garimpeiros, they clear-cut trees, gouge massive pits in the forest floor, dump approximately 30 tons of mercury into waterways each year, and also set up Wild West-style camps rife with prostitution, guns, drugs, and malaria. Robbery and gunfights are common, and landowners often enforce exorbitant fees with armed mercenaries.

In 2008 French president Nicolas Sarkozy launched a massive, ongoing military operation to combat the miners. New helicopters, hundreds of gendarmes and soldiers, and even an elite commando unit were dedicated to setting up checkpoints, patrolling the rivers, and launching raids on illegal jungle encampments. The effort has been somewhat successful and French forces have confiscated weapons, gold, and black-market mercury, destroyed illegal camps, and deported thousands of illegal miners to Brazil. But some experts believe clandestine mining will increase in direct correlation with the price of gold and that an overarching legal framework from both France and Brazil is necessary to deal effectively with the problem. In December, gold hit an all-time record $1,217 an ounce, an upward trend that many market watchers predict will continue.

French Guiana: Welcome to the Jungle

If people know anything about this place--and not many do--it's because of Steve McQueen. In 1973, McQueen starred in Papillon, a movie based on the book of the same name by Henri Charrière, a hustler in the French underground and accused pimp-murderer sentenced to a life in prison on French Guiana's infamous Devil's Island penal colony.

French Guiana's Gold Rush: The Big Picture

During a bad recession, the price of gold lifts astonishingly high as the market drops precipitously low—a pecuniary pas de deux with ripple-out effects around the world but in no stranger place than French Guiana, home of the infamous Devil's Island penal colony, the rocket-launching Centre Spatial Guyanais, and the European Union's largest rainforest.