A walk through one of France’s land commons reveals that the right to self-govern ensures the responsible management of natural resources.
Gretchen Walters and Alain Levet
The Stevenson Trail, a meandering 220 km path across rural central France, passes through the forests of the Mercoire massif, in the department of Lozère. The Mercoire, which forms part of France’s Massif Central, covers an area of 10,000 ha around the summit of the Gardille (1,503 m). Some ancient beech forests belong to various villages, such as those within the Municipality of Luc: Chasseradès, Saint Frézal d’Albuges, Chaudeyrac, Saint Flour de Mercoire, and Cheylard-l’Evêque.
Here, the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, widely known for his book Treasure Island, trekked with his mule named Modestine in the fall of 1878. After a hard walk in rain and hail and a night camping under the stars, he arrived at the village of Cheylard-l’Evêque.
In his travel diary, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), Stevenson writes,
“I was on the skirts of a little wood of birch, sprinkled with a few beech trees; behind, it adjoined another wood of fir; and in front, it broke up and went down in open order into a shallow and meadowy dale. All around there were bare hilltops, some near, some far away, as the perspective closed or opened, but not apparently much higher than the rest. The wind huddled the trees. The golden specks of autumn in the birches tossed shiveringly.” (p. 35)
Today, many tourists each year take this trail through the beautiful countryside, inspired by Stevenson’s words, which have been translated repeatedly into French. But how many hikers know that they go through a landscape that has been managed by people for centuries? Not even Stevenson seemed to know as much, despite his observations of these people and their landscape.
The French countryside is dotted with thousands of land commons, many of which remain hidden from view — and from policy — yet contribute to livelihoods and healthy ecosystems. These land commons go by a variety of names: sections de commune, cayolar, consortage, marais, patus, pateq, and more. Sections de commune, the most frequent type of commons, number nearly 40,000 throughout France.
Most sections de commune are not allowed to have a governing body because, according to the law, they are too small. Only some of the largest sections de commune are empowered to self-govern through a Commission Syndicale, a governing body that gives local people some sway in decision making about their own lands and resources. Even once a section de commune has a governing body, retaining it is not automatic: the Commission Syndicale must reapply every six years within six months after the local elections. Denying a governing body is one way in which France’s state government kills these commons.
Indeed, going back to the French Revolution of 1789, and as recently as 2013, the state has regularly instated laws that reduce the capacity of commoners to govern their lands. The 2013 law placed most of these commons under the guardianship of local authorities, without consultation with the rights holders and precluding their right to self-govern. No governing body means few ways for rights holders to engage with one another, their lands, and their resources in a legally recognized way. Under those circumstances, as required by the law, many decisions must be made in collaboration with the local elected authorities, which often leads to conflict with those authorities.
For centuries, people here have been independently managing their resources. The forest has an intimate history, linked to autonomy and identity.
There may be only about twenty Commissions Syndicales left throughout France. Cheylard-l’Evêque, a small hamlet of about thirty people, is one of those few sections de commune in the entire country that have managed to retain a Commission Syndicale despite these repeated legal challenges over time. The hamlet has a long history, having been self-governing for generations. For centuries, people here have been independently managing their resources. The forest has an intimate history, linked to autonomy and identity. And it bridges the past and the future through those who use it.
In June 2022, we walked through the forest of Cheylard-l’Evêque with the president of the Commission Syndicale, Philippe Pin. As with any forest that has been managed for centuries, walking through this forest means walking through management history, plot by plot. At times, the forest is younger, or older, or with different species — not unlike what Stevenson observed here in 1878. One plot may contain wood that can be cut and sold. Another plot may be dedicated to the ancient practice of affouage (fuelwood harvesting by rights holders). Here, seventeen affouagistes obtain approximately ten cubic meters of wood for each household each year.
How regrettable it would be, in as long-lived a country as France, to forget several millennia of history, an extensive record of rural populations shaping the landscapes and transforming the original forests! Today, France recognizes the forests of the Mercoire as a Natural Zone of Ecological, Faunistic and Floristic Interest because of their biodiversity. Already back in 1724, however, Father L’Ouvreleul mentions those forests in his book Historical Notes of the Gévaudan and Its Eight Barons, in which he evokes “a very thick forest, made up of dense clumps of beech, providing wood to a part of the Haut-Gévaudan and populated by wild boars, deer, and pheasants [by which he meant the western capercaillie, Tetrao urogallus].” And to understand the origins of these forests we must go even further back in time.
The name “Mercoire” comes from a time when the Roman legions imposed on the region’s Gallic people names derived from their own religion. Thus Mercury, one of the most prominent gods in the Roman pantheon, was imposed in a place where Celtic deities were worshipped around forest springs, venerated by influential druids who were bearers of vast knowledge and holders of high moral authority. Spiritually significant trees dotted the forest, with roots dug deeply into the earth since the dawn of time and slender, rustling tops connecting the earth and the celestial universe, the living and the sacred.
At that time, Gallic people respected the forest and lived in harmony with it, while practicing small-scale subsistence. By contrast, the Roman colonizers used the forest for their profit, drawing from it without restraint, extracting wood for construction, furniture, tools, and trade with Mediterranean shipyards, until the resources were exhausted.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and several barbarian invasions, the new colonizers brought with them a feudal system that enslaved the countryside; they took the land and its forests for themselves. Peasants became the lord’s subjects, forced to relinquish part of their meager harvest of cereals, poultry, and cheese in exchange for fuelwood and construction wood. The right to collect forest resources was so crucial that peasants sought to have these rights written down and validated by notaries on behalf of their communities. Such documents, found in archives, have become the basis for the rights to forest resources today.
The right to collect forest resources was so crucial that peasants sought to have these rights written down and validated by notaries on behalf of their communities.
Cheylard-l’Evêque was acquired in the fourteenth century by the lord bishop of Mende. The bishopry, however, lost control over the village in the late 1700s during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries destroyed the large, fortified tower that stored the produce taken as taxes (hence the village’s name, Cheylard, meaning “castle” in the Occitan language). It was the most densely populated village in the area, and after the Revolution, the rights of affouage and the access to agricultural fields and pastures were the objects of a bitter struggle between the big landowners and the poorest (and most numerous) families. In 1857, the Sectional Forest of Cheylard-l’Evêque was created through an imperial decree and subjected to the Forestry Regime. The Sectional Forest grew over time, and in 1976 several areas were added, resulting in the current area of 292 ha.
Cheylard-l’Evêque’s Commission Syndicale has always made decisions about agricultural or forestry use. Today, with the National Forestry Office, it participates as a landowner in the choice of the forest species to be planted and gives or withholds consent to management methods and proposed harvests. The forest is certified by the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. As Philippe Pin, president of the Commission Syndicale, puts it, when he was the village’s mayor, having a commission manage the forest in partnership with the town hall gave him “one less thing to attend to,” and removed the burden of forest management from a small municipality.
For people who live in Cheylard today, says Christian Mourges, a member of the Commission Syndicale, the section de commune “allows us to balance nature, because we participate in the management of a territory on the one hand, and on the other we handle the economic side, which is not nonnegligible, since it allows us . . . to participate in the small-scale agricultural production of the village and help with public works.”
Today, the forests are seen by the people of Cheylard as both spaces that harbor biodiversity and sources of fuelwood to get through the harsh winters. With the increase in fuel prices and the desire to have more local sources of fuelwood, people look closer to home, including to the ancient practice of affouage. As demonstrated by the Stevenson Trail that traverses these collective lands, the forests have also become important tourism destinations. Above all, these forests have a deep meaning for local people, giving them a sense of place.
These forests have a deep meaning for local people, giving them a sense of place.
For co-author Alain Levet, the forest and pastures of the section de commune are an extension of the village space, where one does not feel like a stranger. When walking around, one is not “at someone’s house” but rather “at home.” For him, the people of Cheylard feel concern for everything that happens there and do not hesitate to express their feelings to the representatives of the Commission Syndicale. Even cutting firewood for the community is done knowing that others will have an eye on the work.
In 2019, members of the French Senate proposed a law to land grab the remaining sections de commune, abolishing them, removing community rights, and placing the land under municipal control. Once again, such a law was put forth with little consideration for the contribution commons have made over time to creating and maintaining biodiversity, or little regard for the multi-functionality of the forests. Luckily, the proposed law failed in late 2022.
Nonetheless, the contributions of these commons go unrecognized despite the numerous cases in which, as a study by France’s National Botanical Conservatories demonstrated in 2022, land commons harbor high and unusual biodiversity, thus linking common land management to biodiverse habitats. Another study, also released in 2022 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s French National Committee, focused specifically on Cheylard-l’Evêque, clearly showed that when commons have the right to self-govern, they can effectively manage their resources and conserve biodiversity.
Rights holders, decision makers, and researchers are increasingly working together to bring to light the many values of these land commons and to change the law so that it will recognize and protect these commons. Only by retaining the management rights of these commons all over France can we preserve our biocultural heritage.
When commons have the right to self-govern, they can effectively manage their resources and conserve biodiversity.
Not so long ago, the Celtic druids of these forests sought to protect people from the greed that incites them to destroy nature. Now, such ancestral notions are beginning to gain a foothold again. At the end of our walk through the forest, we thanked the old beech trees for this journey through the land of the ancestors. The trees answered with the creaking of their ancient roots.
Read the French translation of this story.
Gretchen Walters is an anthropologist and botanist at the University of Lausanne who has worked on nature conservation and commons in Central Africa and Western Europe for the past two decades. She is a rights holder in a section de commune in the Ain Department of France and a member of Force de Défense des Droit et Biens des Communautés Villageoises et des Membres de Sections de Commune (AFASC).
Alain Levet is a retired forester with France’s National Forestry Office. He worked with sectional forests in the Morvan (Burgundy region), the Alps of Haute-Provence, and the Lozère, where he has been a member of AFASC for twenty years. He is also a member of the Commission Syndicale of the section de commune of Cheylard-l’Evêque.