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An in-depth report by our senior reporters and team of correspondents from around the world. Every Saturday at 8.40 pm Paris time.

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Latest update : 2012-09-07

Oyapock: the bridge to discord?

The Oyapock River divides the Brazilian state of Amapá from French Guiana. Until recently, it was possible to cross freely from one bank to the other. But now everything has changed. The construction of a bridge has brought permanent border controls. Far from bringing France and Brazil closer together, the bridge has become a symbol of mutual misunderstanding.

Since the 1997 meeting of presidents Chirac and Cardoso, France and Brazil have dreamed of a bridge spanning the two sides of their common natural border, the Oyapock River. An elegantly designed cable-stayed bridge now dominates Pointe Morne. 378 metres long, it unites French Guiana and Brazil, and symbolically links the European Union with South America.

Construction was completed in the summer of 2011, and yet the bridge has still not been officially inaugurated. The edifice has become a sore point, a subject of discord on both sides of the Oyapock.

Although the access road and infrastructure on the French Guiana side are finished, those on the opposite banks are far from complete. There is no border checkpoint, and there is little tarmac along the 250 kilometres of the BR-156 road leading to the regional state capital Macapa. Construction on this road first began in 1940, and 72 years later, it is still very much a dirt track.

An interminable project

Brazilian officials admit that the bridge should have spurred things on. “We are trying to complete this road as quickly as possible so that the bridge can be inaugurated,” says Antonio José Chaves, the project manager. “We are aiming to finish by the end of 2012, but I don’t know this region very well. I understand that there’s a lot of rain in the winter season.”

It seems more than Chaves’ goodwill will be needed to complete the project. Cutting the ribbon to open the bridge will require a decision at a much higher level. “The real decisions lie with the Brazilian authorities,” say French officials in Paris.

In the small town of Saint Georges de l’Oyapock in French Guiana, the inhabitants are not enthusiastic. They say they never asked for or wanted a bridge. Indeed, the river had never been considered a frontier, and people have for years crossed back and forth daily in their long-boats.

But Saint Georges has changed – for the worse - since the construction of a main road linking it to French Guiana’s capital Cayenne. Thefts, insecurity, and illegal immigration are today major issues. The town has become an entry point for Brazilian workers heading for French Guiana’s clandestine gold mines across the border.

French authorities have stepped up their surveillance, doubling their manpower. There are now some 60 border police patrolling the town and watching every boat that arrives from the Brazilian side. But despite their efforts, the number of illegal immigrants and gold workers has greatly increased.

On the opposite bank of the river, in the town of Oyapock, the bridge has actually raised expectations. This little town in the far north of Brazil feels abandoned by the central administration in Brasilia. The road’s completion and the opening of the bridge could well stimulate the economy.

A centre for illegal gold washing

But Oyapock has long served as a rear base for clandestine gold panners over in French Guiana. The issue of clandestine mining is a hot issue in the French territory. With the rising market price of gold, many Brazilians have joined the Eldorado trail into French Guiana. According to official statistics, there are over 5,000 clandestine gold diggers in the Guiana jungle, but the real figures are no doubt much higher.

The death back in June of two French soldiers, who were shot by clandestine gold washers during a raid on a gold mine in the jungle, has increased tension on the Oyapock border. It is an additional reason why French authorities are determined not to facilitate visa requirements for Brazilians wanting to enter French Guiana.

A bridge to nowhere

Amidst these seemingly eternal problems, the Oyapock Bridge – a 50-million-euro investment - stands elegantly above the waters of the Oyapock, a bridge that has still not been inaugurated and today leads nowhere.

But since our report was recorded, the long process of commissioning the Oyapock Bridge looks to have taken a step forward. On August 10, Amapa State Governor Camilo Capiberibe launched with great fanfare the work on the access zone and border post on the Brazilian side. This had been paralysed for months for obscure public procurement reasons. The work has now restarted and should be completed in three months’ time.

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