French Guiana is a French overseas department and the smallest country in mainland South America. The coastal plain is swampy in places, but dry areas are cultivated, particularly near the capital Cayenne. The River Maroni forms the border with Suriname, and the River Oyapock its E border with Brazil. Inland lies a plateau, with the low Tumuchumac Mountains in the south. Most of the rivers run N towards the Atlantic Ocean.
Rainforest covers approximately 90% of the land and contains valuable hardwood species. Mangrove swamps line parts of the coast; other areas are covered by tropical savanna.
French Guiana has a hot equatorial climate with high temperatures throughout the year. Rainfall is heavy, especially between December and June, but it is dry between August and October. NE trade winds blow across the country constantly.
The original inhabitants of the area were Native Americans, but today only a few remain in the interior. Europeans first explored the coast in 1500, and they were followed by adventurers seeking El Dorado. The French were the first settlers (1604), and French merchants founded Cayenne in 1637. It became a French colony in the late 17th century, with a plantation economy dependent on African slaves. It remained French except for a brief period in the early 19th century. Slavery was abolished in 1848, and Asian labourers were introduced to work the land. From the time of the French Revolution, France used the colony as a penal settlement, and between 1852 and 1945 the country was notorious for the harsh treatment of prisoners. Alfred Dreyfus was imprisoned on Île du Diable.
In 1946, French Guiana became an overseas department of France, and in 1974 it also became an administrative region. An independence movement developed in the 1980s, but most of the people want to retain links with France and continue to obtain financial aid to develop their territory.
Although it has rich forest and mineral resources, such as bauxite (aluminium ore), French Guiana is a developing country with high unemployment. It depends greatly on France for money to run its services and the government is the country's biggest employer. Since 1975, Kourou has been the European Space Agency's rocket-launching site and has earned money for France by sending communications satellites into space.
The main industries are fishing, forestry, gold mining and agriculture. Crops include bananas, cassava, rice and sugar cane. French Guiana exports shrimps, timber, and rosewood essence.
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