Recréer une forêt primaire en Europe de l’Ouest, un rêve fou qui questionne les politiques publiques

Recreating a primary forest in Western Europe, a crazy dream that questions public policies

Daniel Behar , University Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) and Alexandra Locquet , University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

The question of a radical reversal of our relationship with nature, centered more on rewilding than on exploitation, is on the agenda – illustrated in particular by the lively debates around the return of wild populations within territories.

Conceived as an alternative to current policies, this concept mobilizes primarily among think tanks and civil society actors.

Relevant to this civic dynamic, the project carried out by the Francis Hallé Association for the Primary Forest , directly challenges public policies regarding their capacity to integrate this perspective of rewilding .

This association wishes to create favorable conditions for the development of a primary (plain) forest of 70,000 hectares in a cross-border area in Western Europe.

Above all citizen initiatives

Since the end of the 2000s, initiatives in favor of wild nature have emerged in Europe . Due to the absence of a common strategy and the diversity of cultural and socio-ecological contexts, different concepts are developed across Europe: rewilding , wild land or even free evolution .

These approaches appear to be new approaches in the field of conservation to contribute to the fight against climate change and the erosion of biodiversity. And they come in several ways: ranging from projects encouraging the reintroduction of natural dynamics via the return of so-called “keystone” species (in Europe, especially large herbivores ), to the principles of non-intervention aimed at “letting it happen nature " .

Unlike interventionist nature management practices, these initiatives intend to develop spontaneous processes in ecosystems. The objective here is to find a higher level of naturalness, understood as the quality of an ecosystem, characterized by the degree of ecological integrity varying according to the intensity of anthropogenic interference.

Primary forest in Colombia. Nolwenn Jaumouille

In France, free evolution is booming

In France, it is above all the concept of free evolution, attached to forest environments , which is mobilized. Without ignoring the impact of past human activities, free evolution encourages the return of dynamics in environments that have suffered anthropogenic disturbances.

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Free evolution is integrated into multidisciplinary reflections and provokes debates of an ethical, cultural , political and scientific nature, and is gaining more and more momentum in the world of nature conservation in France.

Rewilding strategies in Europe arouse the interest of various stakeholders (scientists, environmental managers, civil society), as shown by the multiplicity of initiatives developed. These projects are mainly carried out by associations or private actors, whatever the scale considered (European, national, local).

Another governance of nature?

In the absence of specific strategies and tools to promote wilderness areas, stakeholders deploy their own approaches. We can distinguish those aiming to define and promote concepts and those using a diversity of “management” devices in a given space (contract systems, conventions, land control).

For example, in the French context of the logic of free evolution, it is possible to differentiate the organizations working on the definition and promotion of the concept ( IUCN France , CLE ); and those developing projects in given spaces – mainly on small, very localized areas – ( ASPAS , CEN ( PRELE , SYLVAE ), FRENE network).

The support of these initiatives by non-institutional actors contributes to rethinking modes of governance of nature by decentralizing decision-making and distributing responsibilities. Wilderness then becomes the object of alternative citizen initiatives, outside the framework and standards induced by public policies.

A crazy project

At first glance, the project for the rebirth of a primary forest in Western Europe, as supported by Francis Hallé and the eponymous association, is part of a similar perspective, both in substance – free evolution – and in form, an initiative emanating from civil society.

But its territorial scale ( at least 70,000 hectares of protected area, in a cross-border area) changes its nature. The realization of such a project requires the agreement and intervention of public authorities at all levels, from local to Europe: land, regulations, various compensations, etc.

From this arises a question as to the meaning of this project. Two readings are possible. It is in fact a utopia, a “crazy dream” whose social and political function is above all mobilizing.

Reviving a primary forest in Europe, a utopian project (Credits: TEDx Talks, August 18, 2022).

The evocative power of this project allows us to create a double awareness, on the one hand that of a break with our predatory attitude towards nature, on the other hand that of an imperative reinscription of our choices societal, over the long term, in this case that of the seven centuries necessary for the rebirth of a primary forest in our latitudes.

Rethinking nature protection

But we can also consider that it is a project capable of registering on the register of public policies and embodying their necessary transformation. The realization of this project could in fact trigger at least four bifurcation dynamics.

The first relates to the model that has governed our so-called nature protection policies for more than half a century. The latter differentiates between what concerns protection itself (national parks in particular) and what concerns more responsible development (regional natural parks).

This distinction has less and less meaning . Categories and modes of action blur around a transversal question: living with nature. By its scale, this is the question that the primary forest project raises: extending and intensifying protection while integrating the free evolution of environments into our life in society.

Impossible planning

With the imperative of environmental transition, planning is back. The Thirty Glorious Years have accustomed us to consider it as an exercise in multi-year programming of collective investments, in the mode of retro-planning, from the objective to be achieved to its phasing over time.

The ecological transition requires us to reverse the perspective: we must initiate bifurcations with absolute uncertainty as to the induced effects and their interactions in time and space. The primary forest project radically embodies this reversal of perspective.

None of us will be around to see the reality of achieving the objective in five centuries and it will take at least two generations to establish the conditions for this bifurcation. In a certain way, the dynamic involved – free evolution on a large scale – prevails over the expected result, the rebirth of a primary forest.

Getting territories to cooperate

Despite the success of Bruno Latour's work and his warnings, emphasizing how much we are today closer to what we depend on than to what surrounds us , the time has come for the triumph of localism and the apology proximity.

Faced with a deregulated world whose functioning escapes us, the local constitutes both a refuge and a potential space for alternatives. Here again, the primary forest project contradicts this attitude. This is neither a local project nor a supranational project, but rather a multi-scalar approach.

To initiate a process of free evolution on a large scale, we must consider the complementarity of resources and functions between territories and organize on this basis transactions and compensations of all kinds capable of regulating them. A shift from localism to the management of cooperative interterritorial systems is at stake.

Another territorial development

It is thus our conception of territorial development, indexed to growth (population, jobs, etc.) which is called into question. Can we imagine that the free evolution of the forest constitutes a driving resource for development based more on innovation than on growth? The Francis Hallé Association's project for primary forests could, for example, generate the creation of a research center on new silvicultural practices. A high-quality forestry production sector could also be created.

With the project for the rebirth of a primary forest in Western Europe, Francis Hallé and the association which was deployed around this project have put into the public arena a proposal that only a citizen initiative was able to carry forward. .

In doing so, they open up a space capable of radically transforming a vast field of public policies and accelerating their transition, on condition of inventing a mode of collective construction, far from the current forms of public decision-making. The Conversation

Daniel Behar , Geographer, University Professor, University of Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) and Alexandra Locquet , Researcher in geography, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article .

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