The revival of the forest commons in France

After three centuries of forest policy that put the interests of the state above locals, the French are realizing that a more inclusive policy is better for both people and forests.

Excerpted from Kieko Matteson:

(read the whole article here)

“It is all the more ironic, then, in light of its long history of legislative suppression of customary practices and peasants’ violent response, that in recent years the French government has begun actively encouraging the very practices it once reviled, arguing that they are vital to restoring biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and maintaining the forest’s abundant other contributions, both measurable and multitudinous. All over France and indeed all over Europe, traditional silvopastoralism, jardinage (selective system timber felling), and coppicing are being revived for their ecological value as well as their economic potential. In Britain and Switzerland, for example, coppicing for bird and butterfly conservation is expanding, limited only by the procedure’s intense labor demands and the variable market for smallwood.19-21

Likewise, in Besançon, capital of the department of the Doubs and the largest city in the Franche-Comté, goats have been employed in a concerted campaign of socio-ecological enhancement—maintaining and restoring open spaces for biodiversity and human enjoyment—since 2007. Once denounced as a “vagabond race [that] errs everywhere,” these famously voracious bleating beasts now enjoy the endorsement of state environmental agencies and official praise for their efficacy.22,23

Along with silvopastoralism, other traditional activities like charcoal and tar making have also been endorsed and revived. In 2008 the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forest in Europe identified these formerly disparaged practices as key strategies in the economic development and sustainable management of European forests in areas where “fully mechanized timber production” is not possible. In this way, goats, shepherds, coppicers, and charcoal burners have come to be rehabilitated both as indispensable agents of ecological repair and as vital contributors to the rural economy.

Interestingly, though based on a vastly different vision of the forest and its benefits, the impetus behind these recent, multi-usage eco-initiatives and the hortatory language used to present them is remarkably similar to the anxious, implicitly apocalyptic rationales of the 1669 ordinance and 1827 Code forestier. The most obvious recent example is the sweepingly ambitious policy project known as Grenelle Environment, a roundtable of state forestry agencies, national and regional environmental offices, nongovernmental environmental organizations, agricultural interests, municipal officials, and scientists commissioned in 2007. The title is a nod to France’s Grenelle meetings of 1968, which brought together workers and students and launched sweeping socioeconomic initiatives. Devoted to “improving” the nation’s environment as a whole, Grenelle Environment’s five-year plan and consequent legislation are focused, like France’s landmark forest laws, on assuring and enhancing the national interest through conservation. Rather than proscribing peasant practices and expanding state power over the unruly, however, the aims of the new legislation, in the words of its sloganeers, are “Forests for conservation, ligneous independence, and biodiversity” and “Produce more wood, while better preserving biodiversity!” In this conceptualization, protecting France’s forests is not only a way of achieving timber independence and weaning the nation off of ill-gotten tropical hardwoods (a goal Jean-Baptiste Colbert would have approved), but also a means of promoting sustainable rural economic development and creating carbon sinks to stave off climate change.

All of these efforts, presented as conservation and biodiversity strategies, economic advocacy, and cost-saving simplifications, emphasize, in the words of a 2009 European Union Green Infrastructure workshop, “the need for healthy ecosystems, not just to halt the loss of biodiversity but also to derive benefits from the valuable services that ecosystems can provide us.” At the same time, the advocates of the initiatives recognize that their implementation must be inclusive or face the same resistance and resentment that stymied earlier policies. As a member of France’s Ministry of Ecology noted, “At the local level the question will be how to integrate divergent interests in local land-use plans. . . . This is essential because the proposals have to be accepted by local partners if they are to stand any chance of success on the practical level.” Two and a half centuries ago, decision making regarding the forest was worked out at the level of the community, founded on custom and the recognition that communal engagement was imperative to effective enforcement. By underscoring the importance of such inclusivity today, the French state has, in essence, affirmed the virtues of custom, collectivity, and cooperation, values that for centuries sustained the viability of the countryside. Governments in other countries, as well as advocates of conservation and environmental protection elsewhere, would do well to consider France’s hard-won historical experience in this regard: after centuries of struggle, the merits of customary usage in maintaining healthy forests and communities are clear, as is the necessity of inclusivity in the exploitation and stewardship of common-pool resources.”

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