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From the Field

How Can Talking Save Trees?

In rural France, tree exchange systems seek to avoiding the felling that typically accompanies exchanges of parcels between farmers resulting from land-consolidation procedures. Leo Magnin’s analysis of how this system operates reveals a means of managing conflicts between environmental protection on the one hand and individual property rights on the other.

On Tuesday, February 6, 2018, the village of La Siouve [1]1 in the Auvergne region of central France wakes to negative temperatures. It’ is 9 o’clock in the morning. Fifteen or so livestock farmers and landowners gather under an oak tree at the edge of a crossroads blocked by road traffic. A figure wearing a black beret, orange glasses, rubber boots and a khaki jacket spotted with dried mud approaches: Stéphane Hékimian, 46, walks to meet them and shakes hands, accompanying each handshake with the same words: “Stéphane, from Mission Haies [2]2.” Latecomers arrive in droves, silently greeting their neighbors already present. Stéphane abruptly addresses his rural audience with an energetic: “Well, you know why we’re here? For a simplified tree exchange system.”

Trees: routine victims of land consolidation

This meeting comes at the end of the process known in France as remembrement (literally “regrouping” but better described as land consolidation), [3]3 an administrative operation that aims to group together parcels of farmland—in a context where farmers often own a number of noncontiguous parcels—in order to create larger areas that form contiguous blocks. Such “regroupings” are determined by municipalities and, since 2005, have been supervised by a higher tier of local government, the départements (similar to counties). Land consolidation has been one of the tools deployed by public authorities to make French agriculture more productive since the Second World War (Le Clézio 1977). However, the procedure remains highly divisive in rural communities. Its supporters—farmers and developers convinced of the productivist ideal—criticize the archaism of municipalities that have not yet undertaken land consolidation, while its detractors—“environmentalists” and unconventional farmers—see it as the Trojan horse of the industrialization of agriculture (Perichon 2004). Because it requires exchanges and compensation, because it symbolizes the modernization of farming, and because it affects a local way of life already riven with rivalries between farmers, residents and landowners, land consolidation inevitably triggers discontent and conflicts between these different actors. After all, it is one of the rare moments in social life when private property is redistributed by the community. [4]4 And La Siouve is no exception to the rule. In his reasoned conclusions, the investigating commissioner appointed by the local administrative tribunal (which organizes the compulsory public inquiry that accompanies every land-consolidation process) refers to a “noxious atmosphere, linked to local political problems.” [5]5

Related works, such as the widening of a lane or path, are an additional factor in clashes (Ministère de l’Agriculture 1970). The devastation such works cause to the environment is condemned. For example, cutting down a hedgerow at the entrance to a village can have a disfiguring effect, forever changing the place’s image; only when it is too late are embankments and trees bitterly regretted for their regulatory role in preventing or halting erosion; similarly, the draining of “wet meadows,” previously home to remarkable animal and plant diversity, is grieved only once the deed is done, and flora and fauna lost (Soltner 1973).

As these examples show, trees are the routine victims of land consolidation. It is no coincidence that the first scientific meetings devoted to bocage—areas of mixed woodland and pasture bounded by hedgerows—held in 1976 in the western city of Rennes, were organized out of a need to assess the environmental impacts of land consolidation (INRA 1976). The exchange of parcels between farmers is based on the agronomic rating attributed to each parcel. Once all lots in a particular area have been assigned a value, they can then be redistributed according to the principle of equivalence, so that there are no losers and no winners. However, the agronomic value does not take account of the historic inhabitants of each parcel: trees. The former owners of transferred parcels thus have a choice to make: do they bequeath their trees to the new owner of the land, or not? Once the procedure finally comes to an end, often marked by a build-up of resentment over the previous months and years, a curious transfer takes place: social annoyances are unleashed on oaks and ashes and, very often, the jealousy of neighbors finds no better outlet than the systematic felling of trees. Woods are cut down so as not to lose face.

A simplified tree exchange: how can talking save trees?

An effective, but optional, alternative to felling can be implemented at the request of the local municipality: a tree exchange system. The principle is simple: an outside organization, which acts as a neutral arbitrator, estimates the number of standing trees in each parcel in the company of a college of farmers and landowners. The aim is to calculate exactly what each farmer and landowner will gain or lose. Once the standing timber has been converted into steres, [6]6 it is possible to determine the quantity of wood contained in each parcel and identify, once all exchanges are taken into account, who ends up with a deficit or surfeit. The second step is then to establish pairs that cancel each other out. For example, a person who is to lose 50 steres will be paired with someone who has an excess of 50 steres. It is up to the person with a deficit to decide what form the compensation is to take: firewood, services, or money. The outside organization is there to ensure the equality and fairness of these exchanges.

In La Siouve, Mission Haies was scheduled to organize a tree exchange system—but, according to the mayor, the municipal councilors opposed it. Moreover, while driving along the roads of the village, Stéphane spotted some recently cut tree stumps, despite an order prohibiting felling during the land-consolidation period. The mayor himself admits that the culprits are municipal councilors, the same people who, together with the département, initiated the ban. In an interview, he bitterly acknowledges that his advisers have not acted as role models: “If you’re an elected representative and you set a good example, there’s a chance others will do the same; if you set a bad example, though, others will break the rules too.”

Owing to delays at the estimation stage, parcel exchanges took place, preventing the set‑up of a tree exchange. By default, Mission Haies therefore offered a “simplified tree exchange system.”

In this case, the workload is reduced from two months to eight half-days. In this context, Mission Haies no longer has a prerogative to set up equal exchanges, and instead simply provides an information service. The aim is to draw the public’s attention to the possibility of exchanging trees, whatever the means, in order to limit felling. In short, the association intervenes, but without its usual powers. Is this perhaps because the effectiveness of the operation lies elsewhere? “It was suggested to us that the tree exchange was a good way of applying for grants left, right and center,” one local councilor told me. Stéphane, for his part, is somewhat ambivalent, split between the unpleasant feeling of playing a token ecological role on the one hand and, on the other, the more satisfying opportunity of doing work that is properly remunerated by the local council and which, even if it is subject to cutbacks, can still have positive consequences.

On this February morning in 2018, Stéphane Hékimian is trying to stop the felling epidemic by convincing farmers and landowners not to cut down trees and, potentially, to find a way to exchange them.

In the face of conventional farmers who, for the most part, do not hide their contempt for environmental measures, which they perceive as an administrative constraint imposed by “officials disconnected from reality,” the only tool he has to convince them otherwise is his words. How can talking save trees? This is the question I ask myself as an observer, during eight half-days of walking around the fields of La Siouve, following Stéphane and listening to him plead the cause of trees without ever giving a lesson in hedgerow ecology. [7]7 More surprisingly, words such as “landscape,” “biodiversity,” “ecology,” and “environment” are banned from his vocabulary. If he succeeds in making himself heard among his audience, it is because he translates environmental issues into the social and linguistic register of village and agricultural life. To do this, he makes use of three strategies in putting forward his arguments: (a) adopting a sympathetic approach; (b) passing on technical knowledge; and (c) regulatory bluffing.

Adopting the farmers’ point of view

To defuse any enmity, Stéphane points out that he is not part of the administration: “You’re probably saying to yourself, ‘Another civil servant here to bamboozle us with his schemes!’ But I’m not a civil servant, you know!” This initial caveat means he is able to explains the reasons for leaving trees standing from the farmers’ viewpoint. The first of these is time-related: in the middle of the calving season, the time that would usually be devoted to cutting wood is no longer available. [8]8 This is especially true in the case of a harsh winter, when the risk of injury—exacerbated by rushing—increases tenfold. Second, wood is worthless from an economic point of view. At €6 or €7 ($6.70–7.80) per stere of standing wood, the effort involved is not worth it, as “it is work and time that makes the price of wood,” however paltry that price might be. Finally, by playing on the opposition between the mountains and the plains, Stéphane implicitly invokes the landscape criterion by appealing to participants’ sense of geographical belonging: “If we cut down all the trees in La Siouve, you wouldn’t recognize your village any more. Do you want to live in [the treeless plains of the nearby area of] Limagne? You’re so used to trees that you don’t even notice them any more; you’re steeped in them.”

In addition to these negative arguments, Stéphane also highlights the agricultural advantages of trees and hedgerows. In order to give weight to this argument, he often puts the logic of his reasoning in the mouth of an imaginary livestock farmer: “Keeping this hedgerow here’s in my best interests, as it’s good for my animals,” sometimes backing up such assertions with agronomic studies that show that cows “produce better” when there are hedgerows, which provide shelter and act as a windbreak. Seamlessly, Stéphane uses this as an opportunity to define hedgerows as a form of agroforestry by “showing the contribution that trees and hedgerows make not just to farms’ ecological performance but also to their economic performance” (CGAAER 2015).

Passing on practical knowledge about trees and hedgerows

To ensure he is listened to, Stéphane once again makes use of a system based on interaction, which grants him a quasi-professorial status owing to his teaching of the “logger’s cross,” a technique he uses to estimate the height of a tree. He picks two twigs of the same length from the first hazel tree he comes across and then explains the technique. It is important not to raise or lower one’s head, otherwise the measurement will be wrong; Stéphane lets the learners make mistakes so that they understand the technique better, before asking them to recall some childhood memories: “At school, you were no doubt taught Thales’ intercept theorem: the height is equal to the distance.”

Figure 1. The logger’s cross
Source: Léo Magnin.

Estimating the amount of wood in a tree presents an opportunity for the group to move on to a practical activity. As a result, those present can hardly complain that the approach adopted is too theoretical or detached from reality, a criticism frequently leveled at “civil servants.” Stéphane’s approach involves bringing a technical dimension to trees and hedgerows, which are such everyday components of the landscape that they can end up seeming insignificant (Kalaora 2016). Here, the farmers are confronted with their own lack of knowledge. In his discussions with them, Stéphane leads them to admit that most of the time—and as surprising as this may seem—no one really knows who owns the hedgerows. The old boundary markers, made from split stones, have disappeared and only the oldest residents of the village still know if a given hedge is part of this field or that field.

Regulatory bluff

Finally, Stéphane explains that felling trees presents a dual risk in regulatory terms. First, any farmers who remove hedgerows are breaking a national regulation [9]9 and are liable to a penalty on their European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) direct-aid payments, which make up the bulk of these mountain farmers’ income. Second, if too many trees are felled, the regional council and the European Union can withdraw subsidies granted for related works, and the costs will fall instead to the taxpayers of the municipality.

However, Stéphane acknowledges that he sometimes acts and argues in “total freestyle” by using bluffing tactics: the administrative sanction mechanisms he mentions have a somewhat virtual existence and effectiveness that he strives to embody by indirectly threatening them, as in cartoons where a little mouse scares a cat because a bear is growling behind his back. “Careful! Behind these sanctions are the EU and the DREAL, [10]10 and that can hurt!”

The complexity of agri-environmental regulations is a lever he uses to serve the cause of trees. Nine times out of ten, these rules are not disputed. Sometimes, however, FNSEA trade unionists [11]11 in his audience are very well informed about the subtleties of agricultural policy terminology and are in direct contact with state bodies. In this type of situation, the “regulatory bluff” strategy is a last resort to break the deadlock by taking advantage of the uncertainty of the rules, as at the end of a tense interaction where Stéphane exclaims, provocatively: “OK, we’ll call the DDT. [12]12 In the meantime, go ahead! Cut them all down! Let’s see what happens! Cut them all down, I want to see what happens on the ground!” Here, regulatory bluff thus becomes a preventive practice.

Talking for the environment

As an aside, Stéphane Hékimian told me that he had once considered going back to school to become a mediator in conflict management. In the end, he decided not to go down this route, as his work at Mission Haies provides him with similar kinds of intense negotiation situations. His interactive inventiveness and taste for conflict are tools he uses to argue the cause of trees; moreover, they offer a glimpse into the social power relations at play that drive not just questions of land consolidation but environmental issues more generally. In particular, observation of Stéphane’s work provides insight on how to defuse the sorts of tensions between private ownership and the common good that hinder the emergence of public debate on environmental policies beyond the agricultural and rural spheres. Against all expectations, speaking up for the environment actually means not speaking from an environmentalist standpoint, but instead highlighting the social, professional and technical “handles” (Chateauraynaud 2015) that a particular type of audience can grab onto in order to transform the remote concept of “environment” in public policy into a tangible and immediate reality. Talking about the environment is therefore not just a matter of talking about something, but is also, and above all, about talking to somebody. Stéphane’s work demonstrates this: talking and presenting concepts as he does is not only about political education; it is also about identifying convergence between different points of view.


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To cite this article:

Léo Magnin & translated by Oliver Waine, “How Can Talking Save Trees?”, Metropolitics, 12 July 2019. URL :

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