In the south of France, drought and rising seas threaten traditions

By Daniel Cole

October 31, 2022 GMT

SAINTES-MARIE DE LA MER, France (AP) — In a makeshift arena in the French coastal village of Aigues-Mortes, young men dressed in dazzling collared shirts come face to face with an enraged bull. Surrounded by the city’s medieval walls, men duck and dodge the animal’s charges as onlookers let out collective gasps. Both ritual and spectacle, the tradition is deeply rooted in the culture of the southern wetlands of the country, known as the Camargue.

For centuries, people from all over the region have watched the Camargue bull festivities in the Rhone Delta, where the Rhone and the Mediterranean Sea meet. But today, the tradition is threatened by rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts that are making the water sources salty and the land infertile. At the same time, authorities are working to preserve more land, leaving less for bulls to graze.

“Here in the Camargue, the bull is God, like a king,” said Aigues-Mortes resident Jean-Pierre Grimaldi, cheering him on from the private stands of the arena, where he has watched competitions for decades. . “We live to serve these animals…some of the brightest bulls have even built their own graves for them to be buried.”

Generations of “manadiers”, or breeders, like Frédéric Raynaud, have devoted their lives to raising the native bulls of the region. Wilder bulls that can win prestigious fights are the most prized.

Raynaud, a fifth-generation manadier, has bred many such bulls on his “manade” – a term for ranches in the area – just east of Aigues-Mortes. His ranch currently cares for around 250 Camargue bulls and 15 horses that graze in semi-wild pastures along the coast. He fears that soon his famous livestock will have no more land to feed on.

“Sea levels are rising on our coasts and taking more and more of our land,” Raynaud said.

A temporary dyke built by the local authorities to stop the growth of the sea has collapsed, the water crossing it from side to side into the pastures of the manade. The edge of the ranch slips into the sea. Land that has not been submerged becomes unusable as the encroaching waters make the wetlands increasingly salty. Heat waves and drought, exacerbated by climate change, are also depriving land of fresh water, giving way to sea water.

“Before, the salt was just rising on our land” closer to the coast, Raynaud said. “But now the salt is rising through the ground five or six kilometers (3 to 4 miles) beyond the shoreline where you can see the salt encrusting itself on the vegetation.”

Sea levels around the town of Saintes-Marie de la Mer in the Camargue have risen steadily by 3.7 millimeters (0.15 inches) per year from 2001 to 2019, nearly double the global average rise in sea ​​level measured throughout the 20th century, according to local research institute Tour du Valat. Warming, expanding oceans and melting land ice, both due to climate change, contribute to sea level rise.

The researchers added that the advance of salt into the soil would leave the land barren and uninhabitable long before the sea swallowed it up. Some affected pastures are already bare with little vegetation, and the abnormally high salt content poses health risks to organisms that cannot tolerate it.

Men have always been drawn to the Camargue because of the abundance of species and resources it holds despite the challenges of living between the ebb and flow of an ever-changing delta. Its nutrient-rich wetlands contain an enormous amount of biodiversity, making it one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

The Rhône has long been the lifeline of the Camargue, bringing fresh water from the Alps and alleviating salt levels in the Camargue. As rain and snowfall decrease, it is becoming a less reliable source of fresh water, with researchers estimating that the river’s flow has decreased by 30% over the past 50 years and is only expected to get worse.

“The glaciers that are melting at an incredibly high rate have already passed the point of no return, so probably in the coming years the 40% of river flow that arrives in the Camarague will be reduced to a much lower percentage. ,” said Jean Jalbert of the Tour du Valat.

During summers plagued by high temperatures and decreased rainfall, sea water can reach up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the Rhône. During a heat wave in August this year, the Raynaud family’s water pump in the Petite Rhône, an offshoot of the main river, started pumping salt water. They were forced to move the pump further up the river outside the perimeters of their own ranch to irrigate their land and feed their animals.

The Raynauds recently purchased 10 hectares (24 acres) of land to the north of their property to allow their bulls to graze.

“It’s not that much for 250 bulls, but if one day there is a disaster, it will be a setback if we ever have to start again somewhere,” Raynaud said.

Manadier Jean-Claude Groul already grazes his animals in separate pastures, taking advantage of the different conditions each offers his cattle.

At dawn, he hisses as he walks through an open field until a group of cotton-white Camargue horses hear his call and emerge from the fog. Groul loads his horses onto a truck and drives from one of his pastures to another he owns further down the road.

“One day, if things get worse, land will have to be found further north,” he said.

Less and less territory is being prioritized for ranching as authorities scramble to acquire land for preservation. Christine Aillet, mayor of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, said statewide conservation efforts put nature above its people.

“They tell you on TV that you have to return the Camargue to nature,” said Aillet, skeptical of plans to save the region by limiting global warming and reforesting the land.

“The Camargue will be dry without fresh water” if such preservation plans are decreed, she added.

Aillet favors measures such as increasing the number of tidal barriers along the coastline, which she says will help residents, but researchers say such ideas are only a temporary solution and will not hold up. to the effects of coastal erosion and a rapidly changing climate.

Scientists in the region say the Camarague risks losing both its economic and cultural value as well as its natural beauty if interventions are not taken to help curb climate change. Top climate experts around the world say sea levels will continue to rise and drastic action is needed to stop making the problem worse.

“For five generations, the Camarguaise has lived with the conviction that the balance of the Camargue is and will always be stable, but we are in a delta which is beginning to deal with climate change,” said Jalbert of the Tour du Valat. “This ecosystem, which we thought was stable, is starting to show cracks.”

For Frédéric Raynaud, the extent of these cracks will determine whether he will be able to maintain a ranch that has belonged to his family for more than a century.

“I’ve always been here, I grew up here, the animals have always been here,” he said. “Leaving this place would be awful, but if the sea ever comes here, you’ll have to go.


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