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Space Center Carved Out of the Amazon Jungle : French Guiana: Of Indians and Rockets

August 24, 1986|STEVE HOLLAND | United Press International

KOUROU, French Guiana — It has clapboard houses and international hotels, crocodile hunting and fine French wines, barefoot Indians and space rockets, beachside baptisms and brand new BMWs.

French Guiana mixes some of the most primitive cultures left in the world and some of the most sophisticated.

The cultures meld on the Atlantic coast, where the capital, Cayenne, is located and at Kourou, home of the French National Center for Space Studies that launches Western Europe's Ariane rocket.

The space center was carved out of the Amazon jungle in a swampy area near the sea in the mid-1960s. Only a few miles west the jungle begins.

Snakes, Jaguars, Tigers

Snakes such as anacondas can grow to 18 feet. There are jaguars and tiger cats.

"When you are in the jungle there is a feeling of wildness and you feel very small among all this wilderness," said Jean-Philippe Zebus, a resident of Kourou.

"I enter by the river. I like a lot to go by boat because you are in the calm and the green. The major feeling is that you have entered another world, the world of animals," he said.

The Wayana Indians and members of the Boni and Bosch tribes, descendants of slaves who escaped from neighboring Suriname, live in huts deep in the jungle, working the rivers in canoes in search of food.

'It Makes a Lot of Noise'

What they think of the occasional blasting into the sky of the Ariane rocket is anyone's guess.

"I think they know about the rocket," said Zebus. "It makes a lot of noise. Maybe they think of it as something, but I don't know whether they consider it a demon or thunder god or anything like that."

The space center has brought new homes, hotels, cars and roads to the coast. The space engineer can enjoy the best of Paris--imported fine wines, cheeses, pate and fruit.

Trucks spray daily for mosquitoes. The malaria problem is believed beaten.

Four Channels, One Program

There is one television signal. Switch to channel 1, 3, 5 or 7 and it's always the same program.

"I said to my friends, 'Well, we watched channel 3 last night'," said an American engineer in Kourou on a recent visit. "'What about you?' 'Oh, we watched 7,' they'd say."

"Kourou was a small village with one street," said Zebus, "and afterward the space agency created a bigger city. But it has been done very, very fast.

"In a short time you have a lot of people from Europe. It has created some friction because the expansion was very fast."

1,000 Employees

The space center employs about 1,000 people, 500 of them chosen from the local population, the rest from Europe. Not many jobs for a population of 80,000.

"They have a bad feeling about it," said Zebus. "They feel that there are no benefits for Guiana from the space center."

Traditional habits continue side by side with space technology. As a sign of wealth, some Guianans keep a cow tied up in their yard, chewing her cud and swatting mosquitoes with her tail.

Sometimes the cows are sold or slaughtered, but most often they are left to graze.

Wild Animals Hunted

Hunters lug shotguns into the jungle in search of the crocodile-like caiman, wild boar, game birds and other animals that often end up on the tables of Guianan homes.

"And anything that happens to you is your fault because you have entered this world," Zebus said. "What can happen to people is to lose them. They don't know the forest, and sometimes we lose them."

Guianans seem indifferent to the progress they supposedly have made with the arrival of the space center. The day of a recent Ariane launch, a woman distractedly picked flowers on the side of a road near the launching pad.

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