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The earliest French settlement was in Cayenne in 1643, but tropical diseases and hostile local Amerindians limited plantation development. After various conflicts with the Dutch and British and an eight-year occupation by Brazil and Portugal, the French resumed control only to see slavery abolished (1848), and the few plantations almost collapsed.

About the same time, France decided that penal settlements in Guiana would reduce the cost of French prisons and contribute to colony development. The first convicts arrived in 1852. Those who survived their initial sentences had to remain there as exiles for an equal period of time, but 90% of them died of malaria or yellow fever, so this policy did little for the desired population growth. French Guiana became notorious for the brutality and corruption of its penal system. The last penal settlement closed in 1953.

Guyane became an overseas department of France in 1946, and in 1964 work began on the Centre Spatial Guyanais; this has brought an influx of scientists, engineers, technicians and service people from Europe and elsewhere, turning the city of Kourou into a sizable, modern town. The 1970s brought in Hmong from Laos, in hopes of promoting agriculture in the country; the refugees settled primarily in the towns of Cacao and Javouhey and still comprise the county’s primary agricultural populations.

French Guiana’s economy is still dependent on metropolitan France which, some locals claim, discourages business in an attempt to keep the colony under their firm grip. Successive French governments have provided state employment and billions of euros in subsidies, resulting in a near-European standard of living in urban areas. Rural villages are much poorer, and in the hinterland many Amerindians and Maroons still lead a subsistence lifestyle.

Historically the main export product has been rain-forest timber. Now the main industries are fishing (particularly shrimp), forestry and mining (particularly gold). The tourist industry is embryonic and receives little government interest. Agriculture consists of a few Hmong market gardens – the vast majority of food, consumer goods and energy are imported. The space center employs around 1350 people and accounts for about 15% of economic activity.