Unique blend of land and sea, man and nature, is threatened

Hauntingly beautiful, if man-made, the last great 'wilderness' of the north-west Mediterranean could soon disappear, reports John Lichfield from Les Saintes Maries de la Mer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the Camargue, as in many flat landscapes, everything seems clear and simple, but everything is elusive and shifts with changes of the light.

In the Camargue, as in many flat landscapes, everything seems clear and simple, but everything is elusive and shifts with changes of the light.

If you stand in the heart of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, beside the mouth of the Petit Rhône, you could be in any small, seaside town: a world of cheap hotels, yachts, restaurants, trinkets, cowboy hats and postcards.

But if you walk eastwards, on the sweeping, silver-grey beach, for an hour or more, passing the last of the Swiss and Dutch campervans, you reach, eventually, the Camargue of legend - the "timeless" Camargue of pink flamingos and white egrets pecking in shallow lagoons, of black cattle grazing on the salt marshes, of white horses splashing through the surf at the Mediterranean's edge.

The Camargue - according to its own PR - is the last great "wilderness" of the north-west Mediterranean littoral; a place of sanctuary for countless varieties of migratory and resident birds; home of a fascinating and "eternal" relationship between river and sea, animals, birds and men.

But since the mid-19th century, the Camargue has been torn, and shaped, by battles between local interests, and struggles to resist outside interference, as ferocious as the endless battles between the Mediterranean and the Rhône for control of the delta.

Now, another battle is raging - a political, judicial, constitutional battle - which raises awkward questions about the future of the Camargue.

The protected status of the Camargue as a "regional natural" park may begin to disappear into legal and political quicksands, just when the delta faces new menaces from the sea, from the river and from the decline of two of its industries.

Unless an agreement is reached by tomorrow - and agreement looks impossible - legal steps will begin to wind up the Camargue regional park, the Parc Naturel Regional de la Camargue, and lay off its 37 employees. The body that has managed the landscape of the Camargue for 34 years, its defences against the river and the sea, its intricate mingling of fresh and salt water, its funds from regional and national government and the EU, will vanish into a legal void.

Although the battle is in many respects absurd, and fiercely local, even viciously personal, it raises wider issues. What is nature? What is natural? How should we manage magical and fragile places such as the Camargue, in all, 400 square miles of fields, marshes, lagoons, dunes, beaches and wetlands that have been declared a site of global and biological importance by Unesco and the EU? Should the future of the Camargue be mostly an issue for the 8,000 Camarguais; for the big local landowners who have called the shots until now; for regional government, for national government; or even for Europe?

Hauntingly beautiful though it is in places, crushingly dull in others, the Camargue is not truly a wilderness. Its landscape and waterscape have been shaped largely by man. Its "timeless" culture, based glamorously on those black bulls, white horses and pink flamingos - and less glamorously on industrial salt extraction, rice farming and tourism - has been invented in the past 150 years.

Example one. The great, dilute salt lake at the centre of the Camargue, the Etang de Vaccares, home to tens of thousands of birds, is not "natural" but the product of the combined run-off of hundreds of millions of gallons of river water pumped into the rice paddy fields and surplus brine from sea sluice gates controlled by the salt extraction industries.

Example two. The "traditional" uniforms worn by the horseback "cowboys", the Gardians who help give the Camargue its Texas-sur-Mer image, were invented in the first years of the 20th century. The Gardian's hat looks like a cowboy hat because it is a cowboy hat. It was almost certainly copied from French Western movies (baguetti Westerns?) made in the earliest days of the film industry, filmed in the wet, flat Camargue, which looked, in grainy monochrome, like the dry, Great Plains of America.

But from tomorrow, the Rhône delta appears destined to become just another part of a French Mediterranean coast, thick with marinas, villas and blocks of flats for 300 miles - apart from the Camargue.

The immediate arguments that have led to the likely demise of the park appear trivial. From the outside, the competing groups and individuals look like children on a beach, kicking down one another's sand castles, even though they all agree that sand castles are a wonderful thing.

For 30 years, the regional park was run by a private foundation, mostly controlled by the big landowners, the rice growers and the salt extraction companies (not as iniquitous as it may sound, because these are the groups that essentially shaped and protected the Camargue as it is today).

In 2001, the centre-left government decided that, under French law, and EU law, the public funds entrusted to the park should no longer be managed by a private foundation. (There was also a small matter of €600,000 (£416,000) inexplicably missing from the foundation's accounts.) Control of the park was transferred in 2003 to a new public body, with a governing council consisting of representatives from all layers of society in the Camargue, from the biggest landowners to ordinary residents.

The salt companies and the landowners protested that this was a Soviet-style "nationalisation" to impose "state control" on the Camargue. They brought a legal action before the French state watchdog, the Conseil d'Etat, complaining that the park's charter and title had been granted to the private foundation until 2008. They could not simply be handed to another body.

In June this year, the Conseil d'Etat upheld the landowners' complaint. Since then, efforts have been made to create a third management structure for the park, based on a union of all the local councils: the Camargue's two communes, the Bouches-du-Rhône département (county) and the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region. This is the system used for all other regional parks in France. Negotiations are still going on. Supporters of the ancien régime are refusing to release the park's charter and title unless the foundation is restored as the de facto controlling body for the Camargue. The park will disappear on 22 December unless agreement is reached. Under French law, the first moves to wind up the park and lay off its employees must begin two months earlier, in other words on Friday.

Behind this seemingly absurd quarrel, there lie personal, party political and ancestral quarrels. Most of the Camargue lies within the commune of the town of Arles, which is outside the Camargue. (The combined commune is by far the largest in France.) This is resented by the other Camargue commune, surrounding Les Saintes Maries de La Mer, whose territory is inside the delta.

The present mayor of Les Saintes Maries is Rolland Chassain, a centre-right politician of President Chirac's party, the UMP. He detests the Socialist former mayor of Arles, Michel Vauzelle, who is now president of the entire Provence-Cote d'Azur region. M. Chassain, a fierce supporter of the old foundation, is also the local deputé or MP. He captured the seat at the last election in 2002 by defeating M. Vauzelle, who is a fierce advocate of the need for a broader, more public and "democratic" structure for managing the Camargue park.

Behind the personal and municipal jealousies and hatreds, there lies a more elemental quarrel about who should control the area. The local, rice-growing landowners and the salt extraction industries, both of which are in economic difficulties? Or regional politicians? Faced with these issues, the French state has played a feeble role, shilly-shallying between the points of view.

Two moderate defenders of the two positions, speaking to The Independent, marked out paths through the treacherous marshes of Camargue politics.

Alain Dervieux, 57, an ecologist, Arles councillor and former administrator of the private foundation, is a supporter of a new status for the park. He is one of the people taking part in the stalled negotiations.

"Everyone involved says that they want the park to survive and that the park is essential to manage the problems, even threats, which the Camargue faces," he said. "Such as the fact that the sea level is rising by 2mm a year, while the delta is sinking; such as the danger from the river which increasingly threatens, in flood, to overflow its dykes, such as the fact that rice farming is now hopelessly uneconomic here but vital to the landscape of the Camargue, that the salt industries are also losing money.

"Everyone agrees that the park is needed but no one can agree about the terms on which it should survive. In the end, however, it comes down to the fact that the groups which have been used to having their own way in the Camargue - the Salins [salt extraction industry], the big landowners, the rice farmers - know that they are losing control because their activities are failing. The more they lose real power, the more they are desperate to cling to the symbols of power."

Bertrand Mazel, 47, belongs to a land-owning and rice-growing family from the south-western corner of the Camargue, close to the smaller of the two branches of the Rhône. He is a councillor in the Saintes-Maries commune and a defender of the old private foundation's right to manage the park, possibly in vague conjunction with the local councils.

He said: "The Camargue is an island, and like all islands, Corsica, Ireland, Britain, it resents interference from the outside. We are told that the new body would be more democratic because local people would be consulted, or rather told what is happening, once a month. In truth, the new body is a hypocritical trap, a vehicle for control of the Camargue by the region, or by Paris ... Why should we believe that people in Marseilles or Paris know better than local people do what's best for the Camargue?

"The Camargue was made, and protected, by the Camarguais, long before there was a park. I think that the park is important but it's better that it should disappear than that we should be forced to accept a system of management which could be disastrous for the future of the Camargue."

Less subtle advocates for the opposing camps offer doomsday arguments on what defeat or victory would mean. The more extreme ecologists say that the salt company has secret plans to turn the Camargue into a giant marina.

Some pro-foundation supporters accuse M. Vauzelle and "regional interests" of wanting to swamp the Camargue with mass-market tourism. Others argue - conversely - that the whole debate is the prelude to a "fundamentalist ecologist" take-over, which would dismantle the sea and river defences, drive out people and return the Camargue to a primeval swamp.

The best living writer on the Camargue is not a naturalist, nor a historian, nor even a poet, although he is a little of all of those things.

Bernard Picon, 60, is a sociologist. His book L' Espace et le Temps en Camargue (Actes Sud) is the best account of the area's confusing history and disputed present.

M. Picon said: "People come to the Camargue and they see a landscape of biblical simplicity. Fields, lagoons, marshes and sea. Full stop, that's all. They don't understand how complex the history and the economy and the ecology is. They might say good riddance to the rice farming but, if the rice goes, who would pay for the pumping of the water from the Rhône that goes on to fill the Etang de Vaccares?"

M. Picon says that the Camargue has only survived as a great area of "natural" beauty because of a deadlock between the rice interests and the salt interests. The old foundation, which represented those interests, might have been adequate in its day. Now the Camargue has become, with the influx of hotels, restaurants, pony trekking, local commuters and second homes, more complex. The threats, from sea, river and mass tourism, have become more acute. International interest in the unique ecology of the Camargue has grown.

The old local power-brokers, however benign, can no longer expect to harvest subsidies from Brussels and Paris and the region and then run things entirely in their own way.

M. Picon suggests a solution may have to be imposed from the outside, a "national", rather than regional park, or maybe a much larger, regional park, taking in not just the Camargue but the "Petite Camargue" to the west and the similar marshlands, much scarred by industry and port developments, towards Marseilles to the east.

Plenty more sand castles may be knocked over in pique before that happens. Meanwhile, the sea of physical and economic dangers facing the Camargue continues to rise.