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6.9. 2007

Excursion to the Plateau de Valensole, Lac de Sainte-Croix and Gorges du Verdon


Here is the photo gallery with a selection of photos taken by the participants.

Plateau de Valensole

Summary of Excursion to Plateau Valensole: 6th Sept 2007 (pdf)

The Plateau Valensole and surrounding hills are important agricultural areas in the Provence and, like many parts of the Alps, have a long cultural history. Agriculture has changed a great deal over time in the region, however, particularly on the plateau, a large flat piece of land in the middle of the French Alps. Today lavender, olives and truffles are the three main crops on the plateau. These are cash crops that bring good return for the farmers, particularly in combination with the tourism that they also attract.
This is in contrast with agriculture on the nearby slopes and valley, where agriculture is carried out at a much smaller scale and is more dependent on subsidies.
The participants and tutors from the ALTERnet summer school 2007 spent a morning on the plateau and heard about the challenges and opportunities facing farmers and land management in this region from two local people, one of which is a social scientist interested in natural resource management.

History of landscape and management

Before industrial times the valley adjacent to the Plateau Valensole was famous for plum trees; domestic-scale agriculture supported small communities despite the dry conditions. From 1850 onwards, there was a sudden and rapid decline in rural population with 30 out of 200 villages in the region being abandoned. Around the same time a major reforestation scheme was implemented by the French Forestry Commission. The reasons for this and its possible connection to the rural exodus is still controversial in the area. The farming community argue reforestation caused decline of farming in the valley but the Forestry commission argue it was carried out to reduce soil erosion for the good of agricultural sustainability. The planting of trees brought employment for local people initially but in the end reduced overall land availability for agriculture. There was not the infrastructure in the area to support a sustainable forestry industry.
Other changes also contributed to the rural to urban shift of the population in the region: development in the education sector attracted young people of the area to move to cities for schooling and for the oppportunities that were lacking in their home villages.
On the plateau, agriculture has been more stable. Almond production was the dominant form of agriculture from the 16th to 19th century but was grown in a mixed plantation with lime, oak and wheat. This quite closed and heterogeneous landscape changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century when lavender became the dominant crop. Today the lavender farms are 150- 200 hectares in size and owned by wealthy farmers who have significant political and social influence locally.

Agriculture can be described as favourable on the plateau. This is reflected in farmers’ risk-taking behaviour. They appear to be able to switch between non-subsidised crops such as olives and lavender and to make long-term investments in truffle-inoculated oak plantations. They do this by rotating lavender crops with cereals and herbs and some by combining agriculture with tourism. Tourists visit the area in relatively large numbers to see the lavender fields and processing plants, allowing farmers to add value to this crop. Most lavender grown is not made into the tourist products like soap etc. The hybrid lavendin variety grown by most farmers is mainly sold for use in detergents. This is a cultivar that is less susceptible to disease and drought and therefore a more reliable crop for farmers than the traditional ’Lavender officinalis.’ This is still grown at more domestic scales in the valley and can provide a decent income if sold directly to customers in farmers’ markets etc, where it can be sold for up to 500 euros a litre.

Growing of lavender requires a relatively low level of labour; it does not need many sprays (if any) and is rarely irrigated. Harvesting and processing the crop is an intensive period for the lavender farmers however as it is important to do this in a short time-frame when all the flowers are ready. The most modern and efficient method is called ’green’ distillation and involves the freshly-cut lavender being distilled in large industrial-sized tanks. Here the essential oil is extracted by a process that uses water vapour. Many of the farmers use the more traditional ’dry’ distillation process as tourists will pay a good price to see this so the farmers can get extra money by carrying out demonstrations of this. The plants are cut and left to dry in the field before being taken to a disitllery where the dry part of the plants is used to fuel a fire, which heats a large vessel containing water and the flowers. This activity allows farmers to make extra money and build up a client base of tourists who visit the area time and time again. Farmers can now apply for subsidies that allow them to delay harvest so they can run these kind of tourist demonstration events. Niche markets for the more wild lavender (Lavender officinialis) are also growing; for example organic and medicinal markets but this is being more difficult to make viable where large losses are increasingly suffered as a result of disease and also climate-change attributed drought.
To reduce the financial risks and increase soil fertility, lavender is grown in rotation with cereals and herbs such as sage, rosemary and thyme.

The option of growing the more resistant hybrid lavender and this range of other crops as well as the fragile Lavender officialanis allows lavender farmers to make a good living so they are not too concerned about the threat posed by disease and climate change. Beekeepers in the area are more concerned because they are more reliant on the lavender for their lavender honey, a product that the plateau Valensole is also famous for.
Sheep farming is also carried out in the mountains around the plateau and is a form of agriculture that has perhaps the longest association with the Alps. Extensive forms of sheep-grazing traditionally maintained the cultural landscape in the Alps but today it is causing degradation and soil erosion and is increasingly unviable for farmers. The same number of sheep are kept as they were in the 1800s but there are fewer shepherds so grazing is carried out more intensively in smaller patches. This has not only resulted in land degradation but also reforestation and loss of the habitat diversity important for Alpine biodiversity. There have been some Government re-opening programmes but not enough to reduce the environmental damage caused by modern grazing regimes. Sheep farmers are suffering financially due to competition from meat imports and often have to rely on subsidies to survive. They therefore don’t have the money to cut down scrub or improve land management and have little influence in town councils and local farmers’ unions due to their low financial stake. The sheep herd is grazed on mountain grasslands for spring and summer and is brought down to the plateau in October every year for the winter. Their wool is not sold as it does not reach high enough prices; instead they are kept for their meat.

Truffle production is becoming an increasingly popular long-term investment among some of the wealthier farmers on the plateau as truffles reach a high price and are also a way of attracting tourist trade to the area. Recent advances in agricultural research mean that now oak seedlings are bought in and have already been inoculated with the black truffle spores, giving a more reliable crop. They are planted in mixed plantations of white oak, green oak and hazelnut but truffles do not appear until 15 years later when dogs or pigs are used to hunt for them. The truffle market is a relatively stable one so this is a good long-term investment for farmers who have the means to buy into it, as is olive-growing. The Plateau Valensole is fairly unusual in this way as agricultural incomes are far more secure than in most other regions of the Alps, where vulnerability is high due to climate change, demographic changes and market forces.

Penny Fletcher

Les Salles-sur-Verdon

Excursion: Land-use change in the Provence - Thursday, 6 September 2007 (pdf)

Les Salles-sur-Verdon was a village that had to be transferred to a new area due to the building of a dam in the 1970s at the former place. This dam, Barrage de Sainte-Croix, nowadays constitutes an artificial lake that is an important destiny for many tourists, due to its proximity to the French Riviera and the Gorges du Verdon, canyon considered one of the most beautiful in Europe, formed by the Verdon river, that flows to this dam. Furthermore, this dam is the main source of water supply, together with 5 other dams, to around 2 million people in Provence, including Marseille. The lake is 85 meters depth and 14 km wide and stores 88 million cubic meters when full and 55 million meters at dry season. The history of this village, regarding land use change, is therefore highly connected to the building of the dam and is marked by 3 main periods.

I. Before 1973

Les Salles-sur-Verdon is a very old village that dates back to the Romans (Salles from Latin, meaning big farm). In the 19th century, the village had around 300 people living there. By this time the economy of the village depended mainly on agriculture and livestock: lavender, vines (grapes and wine), olive trees. The village and farmlands were located near the entrance to the canyon Gorge du Verdon and an open agricultural landscape has been symbolic to the region. Inhabitants were strongly connected to the region and landscape, as well as to several architecture features of the village (like the central fountain and the centenary church).

II. 1971-1974

During this period the demolition of Les Salles-sur-Verdon took place in parallel with the construction of the new village and of the dam wall. In the new village people were only given the foundations, so the old village was “moved” by its inhabitants: They moved their furniture, their roofs and dismantled and rebuilt their stone-made houses. They also moved olive trees and lavender plants, and the central fountain of the former village.
Many inhabitants remained living in the village while the region was being flooded and witnessed the submerging of the village and landscape. The last inhabitants leaving the village were taken out by force by the police. This took place in the winter of 1973, when they had the village thrown down to ensure it would be empty when it was finally flooded. The house remains were burned before flooding. The church was the last building to be demolished and the only one with use of dynamite and special attention was given by the media to the dynamiting of the centenary church. Both media and graffiti evidenced the disapproval of many inhabitants. Many people migrated to neighbouring villages, using the received compensation to settle in new homes. The Mayor’s house and a new school and church were the first buildings in the new village. Many roads leading to the old village were flooded during this period and some villages, formerly at 10 minutes distance, are now 30 minutes distance, which changed the habits in the village and the relation to other villages, closer and with higher exchanges before.

III. 1975-2007

Since 1975, the economy of the village shifted completely from agriculture to tourism: swimming, aquatic sports and hiking were then the dominant sources of income. Tourism, however, is only seasonal and the number of tourists at the lake is relatively small to sustain the annual income of the local population. There are now 180 habitants during winter and 5000 in summer. Most tourists are German, Dutch, and Italian or from other places from Europe, and are looking for cheaper holiday alternatives than the coastline. A second source of income for the new village inhabitants is the growing of oak trees, for production of truffles. Water of this lake, beside leisure and tourism, serve irrigation downstream, human consumption and electricity production. No motorboats are allowed in the lake, except aid and urgency services, to ensure the maintenance of the excellent water quality of the lake. The dam electricity exploitation is assigned to the French Electric Company EDF for more thirty years. Most water stored in the lake is supplied by melting of ice during spring, but it also results from precipitation and permanent springs.

Carla Gonzalez

Gorges du Verdon

Summary (pdf, with a map)

After visiting the Plateau de Valensole and les Salles-sur-Verdon with the Lac de Sainte-Croix our last stop took us to the most important and known attraction of the region, the Gorges du Verdon or the Grand Canyon of Europe. The gorge with a maximum depth of 700 m represents the heart of the Verdon regional natural park (Fig. 2), which was created in 1997 and comprises over 180000 ha (COMITÉ REGIONAL DE TOURISME - PACA 2007). To learn more about the park, the gorge and difficulties the park has to face we met with Ilias Zinsstag, an employee of the park, who gave us some insights and accompanied us during our walk in the gorge and through a series of dark tunnels.

In general regional natural parks in France were established to protect the natural and cultural heritage of a region but also to implement economic and social development in a sustainable way by allowing various business activities (FEDERATION OF THE REGIONAL NATURE PARKS OF FRANCE 2005). But compared to national parks this kind of park has no legislative power and cannot declare any restrictions.
The parks work with a charter, which consolidates the intended protection and development drawn up for the region. The communities that sign this charter are committed for ten years. Regarding the Verdon natural park 45 communities are now committed to the charter for the next twelve years.

The main reason to create the Verdon Natural Park was the huge interest of tourists in the gorge and the Lac de Sainte-Croix, what began in the 80’s. Today the tourism is the most important source of income (80 %) for the region and the park, whereby there is a large concentration of tourists in summer. There are a lot of activities offered to tourists like rafting, sailing, paragliding, mountain biking, hiking and climbing. The communities gain by offering accommodations, shops and guides. Furthermore the wildlife, for example the Griffon vulture, reintroduced to the region in 1990, attracts tourists as well.
But there are often contradicting interests between protecting wildlife and tourism. There are two examples to mention: The region attracts a lot of climbers, but they disturb breeding places very often. This led to a ban of climbing on cliffs owned by the French national forest office. The park now tries to find a solution for both parties by finding adequate climbing places somewhere else or by educating climbers more. Other disturbances are caused by getting in and out of the rafting boats. The people damage breeding places for fishes and move rocks. Therefore the park wants to establish defined places for these actions.
In general water and water management play an important role in the park and when asked about concerns for the future local people always mention the amount of water in the lake. If there is not enough water to fill the lake in winter and spring than this will affect tourism very strongly. Furthermore the Verdon with its five reservoir lakes provides drinking water for the bigger cities in the region (Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Marseilles, Nice), what means that it is a very important objective for the park to maintain the very good water quality. This sometimes leads to conflicts with farmers on the Plateau de Valensole, who intensify agriculture by using chemicals and pesticides. Very often these farmers are reluctant to except guidelines from the park although there are already programs to receive money (this year from the EU) when the farming is conducted in a sustainable way.
In addition the strict water management also affects the environment. First of all due to the damming most of the Verdon is not a natural river anymore. The amount of water running down the river is strictly controlled. Normally 500 l/s of water come down the river. During the summer on two days/month 20000 l/s water are let down to give the opportunity for rafting. At the time of our visit 30000 l/s ran down because two of the five reservoir lakes had to be emptied to repair the concrete dam. These changing water levels indicate a severe impact on the ecosystem of the river and indeed there are only a few fishes left, what leads to conflicts with fishers. At the moment studies are under way to make clear which kind of activities are especially damaging to the environment.

Ilias Zinsstag told us these details and highlighted the important role of the park as a moderator between nature conservation and economic development. The communication to local communities and local stakeholders is not always successful as seen in June of this year when four communities left the charter. They argued that the focus is too much on environmental issues although economic development is more important. Nevertheless the close work with the communities is important because they have the legislative power to speak out restrictions and they can provide money for environmental projects aimed to protect biodiversity.

Steffi Heinrichs

  • ALPES DE HAUTE-PROVENCE (2007): verdon.jpg
  • FEDERATION OF THE REGIONAL NATURE PARKS OF FRANCE (2005): http://www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.
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