This is a story that takes place in the French Alps and highlights the ties that have woven forests and humans for a century, along with the many services provided by forests.
One century ago, in a desolate landscape…
After the French Revolution, farming and industrialization led to massive deforestation in mountain areas. The Alps were not spared. Without the forest, the mountains lost their character. In a bare state of existence, they presented a real risk to people: falling rocks, avalanches, landslides… Moreover, without forests, the benefits of water filtration, a supply for timber production and viable conditions for the region’s unique biodiversity were no longer available.
The reforestation campaign led by the French State
In the early 20th century, faced with the dramatic consequences of deforestation, the Administration of Water and Forests decided to launch a reforestation campaign. The whole population was put to use: farmers, workers, members of the working class, engineers. The salaries for each personnel were provided for by the state. The hands of these many labourers rebirthed life in these mountains. The great French writer Jean Giono paid tribute to these men through the character Elzéard Bouffier in the famed book The Man Who Planted Trees.
And then there was the War…
As the years passed, the trees grew, and the forests recovered their original vitality. Once again, the Alps forest systems could protect communities from natural disasters, (avalanches, mudslides from soil erosion and falling rocks) and provide resources for timber production and for purifying drinking water.
Suddenly, a turn of events led the Alps to assume an unexpected role…
France surrendered to Germany in the early years of World War II. Despite the capitulation, some men and women rose up against the course of history, and resisted the German occupiers. Many of the insurgents lived in montane areas: they were called the maquisards. The mountains and its forests provided strategic locations for refuge and observation of the enemy. In addition, collapsed boulders halted by the trees sometimes formed caves that made for excellent hiding spots.
The trees were big enough to hide the insurgents, and small enough to discretely hide them in the crown of the trees:
“Look, the maquis slide under the dwarf oaks, such that the Gestapo will never find them because it believes only in tall trees.” – André Malraux, speaking to the famous French guerrilla, Jean Moulin
Whether it was the guerrillas or civilians who replanted forests, they all maintained a special relationship with these woody ecosystems. For some, the trees were guarantors of immediate protection, while for others the trees represented a secure future.
What does the relationship between people and forests look like now?
Harmony seems to have been found between people and forests. Agriculture and forestry coexist in the mountains. In the mountains in Ceuse, for example, farmers manage silvopastoral systems in larch and black pine forests to take care of hundreds of cows.
Forests, now well matured, provide local timber in the region. While promoting the local economy, these bio-resources are sustainable and have a wide variety of uses. Some uses consist of sourcing materials for construction, for heating and for artisanal work.
In addition, forests are places of leisure (climbing, hiking, horseback riding) and calming places in the contemplation of the trees, silent beings.
Moreover, many humans work in contact with the forest and live on its resources, as shown in the following video, Forests and Humans (French Language).
This story of decline and resurgence in the ecological health of a landscape is a testament to the benefits that healthy ecosystems bring to local communities. The comeback of the forests, as a result of the impetus of the French government and the hard work of French civilians, brought about a secure future that we saw benefit people through times of conflict and peace.
In terms of the Sustainable Development Goals, the vigor of the forests continues to provide resources essential to the livelihoods of local people: pasture for livestock, moisture and clean soils for the filtration of water, access to wood for energy and timber and revenue through agriculture and scenic tourist attractions. It has become a place where human activities are combined with the preservation of forests and landscapes. This agreement of humans and nature must become the rule in the whole world, and not the exception.
Olivier Rousselle is a French student, specializing in the study of landscapes (forest, agriculture) with a social approach (the relations between humans and ecosystems, environmental education). He has worked for the French Forest Office and for national parks. Moreover, he’s passionate about the involvement of youth in landscapes and climate problems, and he’s organizing the Conference of Youth in Paris on climate change issues.
The color photographs were taken by the author.
Read more on the Olivier’s blog Des Forêts et des Hommes.