Save the Cévennes!

Resistance is growing to a threat facing one of the most important expanses of forest in western Europe.

German energy firm E.ON has signed a 20-year contract with the French authorities to ravage the stunning countryside of the Cévennes in order to provide biomass for its newly-converted power station at Gardanne, near Marseille.

It has got its greedy eyes on between 800,000 and a million tonnes of wood a year to keep the turbines of private profit turning.

The fact that much of the targeted area in the south of France is in a national park is of little interest either to E.ON or to its governmental collaborators, who are subsiding the firm’s ecocidal profiteering to the tune of 1.4 billion euros.

Of course, the whole thing is being wrapped up in green tinsel and presented as some kind of “sustainable management” project, particularly of the extensive local chestnut forests.

But any comforting images of hardy lumberjacks patiently thinning out the trees on the verdant mountain slopes are very far from the mark.

Instead, E.ON’s collaborators will be launching a full-scale industrial attack on the forests, using massive machinery to clear-cut vast swathes of trees from what is currently a landscape of remarkable beauty.

The “innovative” means it has it mind to penetrate the often-inaccessible areas include giant forestry “spiders” and mobile bridges to get across inconveniently-placed mountain rivers.

The usual excuse of “creating employment” falls a little flat when it only takes a few people to operate these machines. Predictably, though, the workerist “left” in the form of the CGT union has decided to support the whole madness on the basis of protecting a few dozen jobs back at the power station – as ever, actual opposition to the industrial capitalist system is out of the question.

With most levels of authority, including the Cévennes National Park, having bought into the project, it has been left to locals and environmentalist campaigners to take up the struggle. 

The radical Cévennes newsletter Bogues reported that a resounding and unanimous “no” to E.ON’s disastrous plans has emerged from “all the different meetings attended by residents, elected representatives and forestry professionals which have been held on this subject in our valleys”.

E.ON itself has noted the “initial negative perception of our project” – arrogantly assuming with the use of the word “initial” that people will eventually swallow its greenwash propaganda.

While the third biggest energy supply firm in the world is trying to pass itself off as a supporter of “sustainable energy”, its past tells a different story. In 2008 the group was the second worst CO2 polluter in Europe. In 2009 it was also famously on the receiving end of the second biggest fine in the entire history of the EU (533 million euros) for illegally trying to stitch up the distribution of Russian gas in France and Germany with GDF.

E.ON is putting it about that it will be mainly using green waste and bits of wood that can’t be used elsewhere. But in truth, the trees it cuts down will account for 80% of the biomass that it consumes. (This process is itself wasteful – its 33% efficiency means two out of three trees will essentially be burnt to heat up the atmosphere rather than produce electricity).

To start with, half of the timber will come from abroad, where other forests will be rased to keep the money-making fires of Gardanne alight. The other half will come from the local regions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Rhône-Alpes and Languedoc-Roussillon.

By 2025, all of the wood is planned to be cut down from the forests of southern France, with E.ON particularly targeting areas of the Cévennes in the southern part of Lozère, to the north of Alès, and around Le Vigan, Quissac and Anduze.

There are countless environmental dangers involved in the scheme, of course – such as soil erosion in the newly clear-cut areas and chemical pollution of earth and water. With no replanting plans announced, spaces left by felled chestnut trees will naturally be refilled by maritime pines, the local pioneer species, leading to acidified soil and greater risks from forest fires.

Roads will have to be built and widened to take all the heavy traffic. And campaigners warn that in the wake of the industrial clearances will come monoculture plantations, genetically modified trees and increasing domination of forestry resources by big business, leaving little room for local initiatives.

There is more to a forest than a potential source of fuel. It is part of nature, part of the eco-system which keeps us alive and part of the culture of the area. If the profusion of chestnuts, “poor man’s bread”, in the forests of the Cévennes symbolises the enduring potential to survive outside the industrial civilisation, the intrusion here of capitalism’s war-machinery is symbolic of the scale of the threat facing our autonomy and our planet.

Pascal Menon, a local woodcutter opposing the scheme, told Nature et Progrès magazine that there was a deeper cause for the threat than simply financial gain. “There’s something more serious there, a notion of anti-nature which comes from the fact that we’ve cut ourselves off from our own so-called ‘wild’ feelings. We need to find a different basis for our relationship with the forest.”

Every battle like this, anywhere in the world, forms part of one big war – that of humanity, nature and life against capitalism, greed and death.

The people of the Cévennes have a long and proud history of standing up against injustice imposed from outside, whether in the form of the Camisard guerrillas who defied the French state and the Catholic Church 300 years ago, or the Maquisards who maintained armed resistance to fascism throughout the Vichy regime and German occupation.

We can be sure that they will put up a spirited fight on the ground against E.ON and its co-conspirators. With a little help from the outside, such as through a broader international campaign against the German energy firm, they might even hold them off, leaving open the possibility of an eventual victory in the bigger war for our collective future.

Bogues newsletter has a website at http://bogues.noblogs.org and can be contacted via bogues@riseup.net

The SOS Fôret Cévennes Collective (with its slogan “The forest is our future”) has a website at http://www.sosforetcevennes.org and can be contacted at contact@sosforetcevennes.org

There is an online petition at https://www.sauvonslaforet.org/petitions/959/e-on-veut-bruler-les-forets-francaises-a-gardanne