Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The French Guiana-Suriname Boundary Dispute at the Itany-Marouini Triangle

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The French Guiana-Suriname Boundary Dispute at the Itany-Marouini Triangle

Article excerpt

The colonial legacy in Latin America and the Caribbean has fostered many enduring boundary conflicts, but none has persisted longer than the Itany-Marouini Triangle dispute in the South American Guianas.1 Possession of these lands, which consists of about 5,000 square miles in the southernmost region between Suriname and French Guiana, has been in dispute for over 300 years. Suriname maintains a de jure claim, asserting that the land was included in the earliest documents defining the boundaries of its predecessor, Dutch Guiana, and that people under its governance have lived there continuously. France maintains a de facto claim, asserting that it has actually administered and governed the territory as part of French Guiana from the time that the colony was delineated.

While disputes over other territories in the region began long ago, most have either been subsequently resolved or international efforts to resolve them have advanced considerably after prolonged and intense negotiations.2 However, the dispute over the Itany-Marouini Triangle persists and there has been no indication of movement toward resolution. Neither Suriname nor French Guiana has pursued its claim vigorously for the past century, and the efforts of both governments to establish predominance during that time have been little more than perfunctory. Suriname has maintained virtually no governmental presence and France, through its French Overseas Department, has devoted minimal resources and administration to the area. It appears that neither side wants to expend the considerable sums and effort required to resolve the issue and develop the region's infrastructure.

Despite the fact that the land may contain economically viable natural resources, including deposits of gold, diamonds and bauxite, as well as the potential for hydroelectric production, it remains undeveloped and relatively inaccessible. Roads and airfields are rare and almost all travel takes place on canoes and small boats on the myriad rivers that consist largely of white-water rapids. Only a few thousand Amerindian ("native") peoples live in the region and most of them identify themselves with their ethnic groups rather than any national government.3 The Amerindians themselves are immigrants to the region, arriving long after European colonization began.4

As globalization and local economic forces encroach on this once-isolated region it seems inevitable that more serious efforts to resolve the dispute must eventually take place. Whether the eventual resolution occurs through bilateral negotiations between Suriname and France or through international arbitration remains to be seen. What is certain is that postponing efforts to reach a settlement can only make it more difficult and costly to achieve. The legal issues will grow more complex as economic and social development takes place in the area. What is also becoming more likely is that the dispute resolution process will necessarily follow established legal procedures and the final decision will adhere to established international norms.

If an international tribunal reviewed the historical roots of the dispute, the different claims over time, and the legal precedents to support such claims, its ruling-would more likely favour the claims of French Guiana. To achieve such a ruling France would have to argue that its Overseas Department has maintained effective occupation of the disputed area for the past 200 years without interruption. France could also demonstrate to the tribunal that it trained, armed and provisioned a police force in the area for most of this time. The mission of the French force was to maintain its laws and civil order within the territory, and even to defend the land from invasions by the Surinamese and their predecessors. France might further argue that Suriname (as well as its predecessor colony, once known as Dutch Guiana) depended on the French officials in the area to fortify its own south-eastern border. …

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