Oyapock River Bridge: Road Intended to Unite France and Brazil Creates Division Instead

By Nick Wiltgen
Published: August 6, 2014

It was a project meant to bring nations together. But for more than a decade, the idea of building a bridge from France to Brazil has been tearing the countries apart.

The notion of a bridge linking South America’s largest country with one of Western Europe’s most popular destinations may sound crazy – unless you know that not all of France’s territory is in Europe.

French Guiana, one of five overseas departments of France, is located on the Atlantic coast of northeastern South America. Much of the population lives near the coast, while the interior is dominated by rainforest, much of it unspoiled.

Currently, there is no way to drive directly from French Guiana into either of its neighbors, Suriname and Brazil.

A paved road links French Guiana’s capital of Cayenne and the Surinamese border, but a ferry or boat crossing is required to reach Suriname.

Until now, the same has been the case at the Brazilian border, marked by the Oyapock River. In 1997, then French president Jacques Chirac and his Brazilian counterpart Fernando Cardoso proposed building a bridge over the Oyapock in order to link their two countries. But at the time, there were no roads from that area either to Cayenne or, for that matter, to the rest of Brazil.

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A Slow Road to the Fast Lane

In 2004, a paved road was completed linking Cayenne with the border village of Saint-Georges, on the French side of the river. The next year, France and Brazil signed a treaty authorizing and financing the construction of the bridge.

Work started in 2008, and by August 2011, the bridge linking South America’s largest country with one of Europe’s richest nations was finally finished. But after 14 years of dreaming, planning, and building, there was at least one more hurdle still to overcome.

While the paved RN-2 national road from the border to the Guianese capital had long been completed, the BR-156 federal road from the town of Oiapoque, on the Brazilian side of the bridge, to Macapá, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amapá, had still not been fully paved. And it still isn’t.

Online travel guides indicate that about 75 miles of the route are still a dirt road with numerous wooden bridges. In the rainy season, generally the first half of the calendar year, the route becomes a trough of mud; between the mud and the occasional wood bridge failures, roadblocks lasting 24 hours or longer still occur.

A YouTube video from June 2011 shows an attempt to free an intercity bus stuck in a quagmire of deep mud along a stretch of the Brazilian roadway. Two years later, similar scenes played out along a stretch of the same road.

Indeed, just last week Brazilian officials announced that the federal government would soon begin the bidding process to finish paving the road. “We hope that, in a year and a half, the [roadway] will be finished,” said Amapá governor Camilo Capiberibe.

The abysmal conditions on the BR-156 road, and the long delays in completing customs buildings on the Brazilian side, are sometimes blamed for the failure to open the bridge. But the bridge is as much a political project as an infrastructure project, and many people who live near the bridge would just as soon keep it closed.

Bridge Over Troubled Water?

For hundreds of years, since long before the international border was set at the Oyapock River, residents of this once-remote river valley have been crossing the river more or less freely on pirogues and other small boats.

Now, the ease of simply walking or driving across a modern bridge threatens to put the operators of those boats out of business for good.

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The construction of the bridge brought with it a formal border patrol and customs presence, at least on the French side. As the bridge was built, stricter enforcement of border-crossing laws whipped up consternation on both sides of the river.

French officers began rigidly applying a controversial law requiring Brazilians to obtain a visa before crossing into French Guyana, even though such a visa is not required for Brazilians visiting the French mainland in Europe.

To obtain the visa, residents had to travel over 350 miles down that same partially-complete, partially-treacherous stretch of the BR-156 to get to the state capital, Macapa.

The restrictions further angered the 150-or-so piroguiers, those boat operators already anxious about the bridge’s impact on their livelihood ferrying people across the river. They went on strike briefly at the beginning of 2012, to no avail.

Raimundo Aguinaldo, the mayor of Oiapoque, told Paris Match in 2012 that his constituents were often being humiliated and sometimes thrown in prison for crossing into Guiana without a visa.

“What we want is that the French authorities recognize Oiapoque citizens’ right to free movement – one we’ve always had in order to freely buy a bottle of wine or a little cheese in Saint-Georges, to visit our friends and our parents,” he said. “What I want to avoid is an anti-French feeling developing. It’s not a bridge anymore – it’s a wall they’ve erected.

Fabienne Mathurin-Brouard, mayor of Saint-Georges, said the tension between local residents and the national authorities was enormous. “This bridge, we didn’t want it, but we have to make do with it. … Our neighbors in Oiapoque would benefit from a cross-border card to come freely to Saint-Georges, like they’ve been accustomed to doing for centuries.”

After a long wait, the French interior minister finally issued a decree in November 2013 authorizing the creation of a cross-border card, allowing the Brazilian residents in Oiapoque to cross over to Saint-Georges on the French side for up to 72 hours.

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Meanwhile, the opening of the bridge – repeatedly announced and repeatedly postponed – appears to be more probable than ever. In March 2014, the French and Brazilian foreign ministers signed an agreement said to include provisions that “open the path” to the opening of the bridge.

According to brasilyane.org, approval from the National Congress of Brazil is the only thing still needed to allow the bridge to open. Brazilian inspectors have approved the passage of vehicles over the bridge, and the long-delayed customs facilities have been completed and approved.

But given that the actual text of the March 2014 binational agreement remains a mystery, and given the long history of delays, it’s still anyone’s guess as to when people will finally be able to drive from France to Brazil.

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