The rutted track slices for 30 miles like a red fissure through the thick Amazonian jungle. Only occasionally can one glimpse a clear view of the sky through the treetops.
Abruptly, the track emerges from the shadowy rain forest and enters a massive sunlit clearing that surrounds one of the most successful attempts at community resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the West.
To the outsider driving along this deserted trail, it comes as a jolt to encounter this piece of Asian tranquillity 10,000 miles from the turmoil of Indo-China. Only three years ago, this patch of South American jungle was an isolated airstrip. Now it is a thriving Laotian village called Cacao, surrounded by rice, soya, maize, banana, and coffee plantations.
Aided by relief agencies and the French government, some 100 industrious Hmong families who previously had been languishing in Thai refugee camps have shaped a new life in a country climatically similar to the one they left behind.
So successful has the Cacao project been that a second settlement with 63 families was established at the end of 1979 at Mana near the Surinam border, bringing the total number of Hmong in this French territory to nearly 1,000.
The first group of settlers came to Cacao, 50 miles south of Cayenne, in September 1977. "They worked for a month clearing the forest with the help of bulldozers," explains Ly Chao, the settlement's agricultural director. Several months later, with most of the houses completed, the settlers opened a barracks-style primary school.
Today Cacao is a hive of activity with a flourishing agricultural cooperative , Catholic and Protestant churches, a gendarmerie patriotically flying the tricolor, and several restaurants featuring Laotian cuisine and the sound of taped Indo-Chinese pop songs.
At the entrance of the sunbaked village, past duck ponds and pigsties along the edge of the forest, saronged women with wide-brimmed hats or black umbrellas sell fresh fruits and vegetables and traditional crafts in colorful roadside stalls.
Nearby stand Oriental-style raised platform houses, flanked by flower gardens and neatly planted papaya trees. Clan elders sit and talk in a cafe on stilts overlooking the main thoroughfare, which bustles with foraging chickens and turkeys.
The Guiana experiment was launched in 1976 when the French government decided to try to resettle an entire group of Laotians. France felt a particular obligation to the Hmong because of its past colonial relationship with Laos.
"As the Hmong remain strongly attached to their families, chiefs, and clans, we thought it would be better to try and resettle them as a group rather than scatter them around the world," says the Rev. Rene Charrier, a Roman Catholic priest who spent 24 years with the Montagnards in Laos and who is now director of the Cacao project.
French Guiana was the obvious answer. Only 60,000 people live in this country -- a territory one-fifth the size of France. "We have all the land we need for farming, and there is lots of room for more," Fr. Charrier says with a smile.
Aware of the serious and hardworking nature of the Hmong, the French government had another motive in relocating them here: opening the country's interior to development. For two decades, Guiana farmers have been fleeing the rural interior to more hospitable regions along the coast. Only 5,000 people now live in the interior.
Doubtful of ever being able to return to a communist-free Laos, the Hmong readily agreed to the idea. "There is no way for us to remain in Laos," says one clan leader. "It is finished. We cannot live under the communists. Here we can live in peace."
At first, the arrival of the Hmong aroused considerable jealousy and resentment among the majority Creoles (descendants of African slaves, often of mixed European, Chinese, and Indian blood).
"For years," adds a French water engineer, "they [Creoles] have cried out that nothing can be done with the jungle. Now the Hmong have shown them that it is possible."
The animosity toward the Hmong appears to have subsided. Creoles regularly come to the settlements at Cacao and Mana to buy Oriental food. (The Hmong brought fruit, vegetable, and herb seeds with them from Thailand.) They also like to look over the somewhat garish, geometrically patterned handicrafts. "Community relations still remain a politically delicate problem, but the Guianese have begun to get used to us," Ly Chao says.
The Hmong have cleared 2,000 acres of jungle, more than half by hand, for cultivation. Each family in Cacao works at least 12 acres, but more forested areas are being cleared.
The Hmong realize they must expand beyond subsistence farming. Their next two stages will concentrate on growing cash crops for export and finding work for those who do not want to farm. The prefecture in Cayenne says Cacao no longer receives government funds. "If the Hmong there want to buy a new tractor , they'll have to pay for it themselves," one official says. "It is encouraging to have reached this point."
Both the Hmong and relief officials are eager to see the resettlement program in French Guiana expanded. Some say the territory could easily absorb another 50,000 Hmong. "Bringing them here would not only allow the Hmong to retain their culture, but also allow them to pursue a life similar to the one they knew in past peaceful times," notes one relief official.
Others, such as Mana leader Peryves Bertrais, feel 5,000 settlers would be a more manageable number. Mr. Bertrais would also like to see a Hmong-language radio station set up. This might help boost morale at a time when some Hmong are talking of leaving.
The French government, however, maintains the experiment should end here, at least for the moment. "We would like to see how the two settlements develop before organizing a bigger program," says an Interior Ministry official in Paris.