French Guyana: From a Hinterland, Hmong Forge a Home

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Dec 22 19:50:51 UTC 2008

December 22, 2008
Cacao Journal

>>From a Hinterland, Hmong Forge a Home


CACAO, French Guiana — Ly Dao Ly gazed at the jungle beyond his groves
of tropical fruit trees, rambutan and cupuaçu, on a recent afternoon.
Under the equatorial sun, his thoughts drifted to the setting for the
secret war in Southeast Asia that forced him to flee to this remote
French outpost decades ago."Sometimes I imagine that I am seeing the
mountains of Laos in those green hills," said Mr. Ly, 50, a farmer and
baker who was born into the Hmong, the mountain tribe that waged a
C.I.A.-backed guerrilla war against the Communist Pathet Lao in Laos
in the 1960s and 1970s. Made into cold-war castoffs when the
Communists won that proxy war in 1975, more than 100,000 Hmong
(pronounced MONG) refugees were resettled around the world in places
like St. Paul; Fresno, Calif.; Thailand; France; Australia; and —
quietly, but successfully — this former prison colony on South
America's northeastern hump.

Since arriving more than 30 years ago, the Hmong, who account for only
about 1.5 percent of French Guiana's 210,000 people, have thrived.
Once penniless, the refugees and their families produce up to 80
percent of the fruit and vegetables sold in this overseas French
department, which must import other food at a high cost from mainland
France or Brazil. "If it were not for the Hmong, we joke that we would
starve in this strange place," said Mariangela Bragance, a former
municipal council member for Kourou, a nearby city kept afloat by the
satellite-launching activities at the Guiana Space Center.

Long viewed as outcasts in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia, the
Hmong here are known for their success, on display in their large
homes with new Peugeot and Toyota pickup trucks parked outside. Their
nearly homogenous enclaves in Cacao and two other villages, Javouhey
and Régina, are unlike anywhere else on this continent. Walking
Cacao's dirt roads one hears mostly Hmong, interspersed with a bit of
French. Some women wear sarongs. Merchants sell tapestries depicting
the saga that led them to this jungle, after treks in the mid-1970s to
Thai refugee camps from their mountain homeland in Laos, a former
French colony.

"Our philosophy was to use our human capacity to support ourselves,"
said Ly Chao, 62, a Hmong agronomist who was one of the founders of
the settlements here in the 1970s. France gambled that the Hmong
refugees, some of whom were living in French cities, could
successfully develop a hinterland that had repelled earlier
colonization efforts. "The gamble worked because after all the years
of war we were ready to do something else," said Mr. Ly, the
agronomist. "We were even ready to work the soil." The first Hmong
arrived from France in 1977 and were greeted with protests from the
Creoles, an ethnic group descended from African slaves, who chafed at
what was viewed as preferential treatment for a new ethnic group in an
impoverished area. French authorities initially gave each Hmong a few
dozen francs a day on which to survive.

The settlers pooled those payments to buy fertilizer and tractors.
Slowly, after years of labor, the Hmong became self-sufficient. They
now grow large quantities of previously scarce vegetables, like
lettuce, and tropical varieties of fruit like cupuaçu, which is
oblong, has a white pulp and is found in the Amazon basin. Eventually,
the tensions subsided. "The Hmong largely kept to themselves and were
allowed to acculturate on their own terms," said Patrick Clarkin, an
anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies
the Hmong of French Guiana.

While the Hmong maintain ties with relatives abroad, they emphasize
their own place in the diaspora. For instance, they refer to Hmong in
the United States as Vang Pao Hmong, a nod to the influence wielded
there by Vang Pao, 79, the exiled general in California who is facing
charges in the United States of plotting to overthrow the Laotian
government. And academic studies have shown the Hmong here to have
more robust physical health and less pessimism about their
circumstances than their brethren in the United States, where some
Hmong communities have had difficulty adapting to cities or suburbs
and have been plagued by suicides and health problems.

"We miss Laos, of course, and I have a brother who says it is pleasant
to live in Omaha," said Ly May Ha, 50, Ly Dao Ly's wife. Together they
bake croissants and baguettes for sale in Cacao as the sun rises over
the village each day. Later, they tend their orchards and pens filled
with peccaries, a wild pig-like animal that is a delicacy here.

"Our life is in this place," she said, "where we are free to be ourselves."

The rhythms of existence here seem far removed from the cities where
many Hmong have settled in the United States or France. On the
weekends, young Hmong play pétanque, a game that, like bocce, consists
of pitching metal balls at a target. Older men, sipping bottles of
Heineken, boast of jungle hunts for peccaries and tapirs.

As in any small village, some younger Hmong complain of boredom and
isolation. Hmong Lee, 40, who moved to mainland France for 10 years
before returning, decided to settle for something between the farm
founded by his parents and the bustle of a European city. He now works
at a furniture store in the capital, Cayenne.

"This isn't Paris," he said, speaking about this obscure corner of
South America. "But then again, who wants Paris when the sun shines
here and we're free to be Hmong?"
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