Larzac, Forty or so Years on
A few days ago, I got my bi-monthly copy of Garderem Lo Larzac (Save the Larzac in Occitan), sent in the post, to my door, in paper. I live at the edge of the area called the Cevennes, part of the Massif Central, the huge area of hills and rivers and mountains in the Centre-South of France. The Cevennes is noted for its massive limestone plateaus and rivers, which have created pretty respectable canyons between the plateaus (causses) over the last few million years. People have been living in that area for longer than anyone has lived in the entire New World. I can ride my bike up to the Larzac in an hour. I could, if I were fit, ride to and from the main town there, in a morning. However, I don’t actually live in the “Larzac community”, although it has been an idle dream for years to build a smallish eco-house up on the plateau or “causse”. It is the only place in this area (other than Montpellier) where I could seriously want to live. But for various reasons, this will never happen, dreams don’t always get to the planning stage. Although these vast plateaus are a spectacular and special landscape, about 800-900 metres high, with substantial river valleys separating them, I am motivated by wanting to live in and understand better the community of people who live there, the Larzaciens. I don’t actually have a good pal who lives up there. Nor am I really a agricultural or outside work type person. They mostly like people up there who actually have good reason to live and work there (somewhat biased against second home owners, for example). Mind you, the entire population of the Larzac is only about 5,000, so we are not talking huge numbers of people.
José Bové, the French “farmer” (now Euro MP) who “dismantled” (with others) a MacDonalds, 15 years ago during the early years of the altermondialiste movement, is the most famous guy on the Larzac. He still lives there, a lovely new eco house in the same hamlet he and his former wife moved to forty years ago. There are about 4,999 other people also living on the Larzac, many recent “neo-ruraux” immigrants http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Néoruraux , others there for generations. The voices that genuinely inspire me and whom I would like to know are “the others”, although I do find myself often in agreement with José Bové and respect his life and work immensely. Some of the actual local paysans have been the core of the movements on the Larzac. I heard some of them in one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, “Tous au Larzac”. Should you ever find it showing anywhere, it is truly exceptional.
The “other” voices are what I call “street theorists”. Any person who lives anywhere can tell stories about their life and the lives of those about them. Some people respect this social, personal and particular kind of information. Most stories people tell are about “everyday life” in its detail. This gets more or less respect as social information and useful experience, depending on how someone might understand “idle chatter”, “gossip”, banalities, “going on about” and so forth. Everyone does it. In addition to the flow of banal events that make up the detail of the lives of everyone, there is also “reflection” on those events. Everyone reflects. Sometimes people have to go on holiday or have a death in the family or lose their job or get divorced to have the special space to sit back and reflect very much. But everyone has the capacity and does reflect from time to time. There are people who seem to ONLY talk banalities and gossip, and there are people who seem to reflect a lot. Usually the latter are trained-up intellectuals, who really can’t help thinking about things, and frequently being a bit “critical”. To the annoyance of many. Since I already know lots of trained-up intellectuals (and don’t like them that much as a class of people), the people that I am often attracted to are street theorists. The “people” of the Larzac have been deeply exposed to the finest hippy organic types, all sorts of leftists from big cities, other good folks from big cities come to support their activities, professionals who ordinarily would have little to do with a bunch of peasants living in the middle of nowhere, semi-religious, non-violent people of quality who were a very strong mix in the movement of resistance to the military. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lanza_del_Vasto In the documentary “Tous au Larzac” and in a couple of books I have bought recently, you get samples of the finest of street theory or deep reflection that you will ever find.
So what was of interest in this particular newsletter, although they are all quite interesting. They are short enough that I always get through one before the next arrives. I can’t say this for Decroissance and Silence, two other “alternative” periodicals I support by subscribing, if not always reading thoroughly. The big event was the extension of the deal that some Larzaciens have with the state concerning their land and buildings. I will be slightly vague about this, as I have not studied the matter in detail. Basically, in 1981 after a ten year struggle against the extension of the Military Base on the Larzac (you can look at Wiki for all this), Mitterrand said “no extension”. If you are new to this, please google things you don’t understand, like “Mitterrand”. From about 1984, the land that was NOT given to the military has been controlled by a legal structure run by the people who live on the land. In other words, THEY WON. Their deal was extended to 2083 a few weeks ago, which will be roughly ninety years after their first struggle began. I am quite certain that if a really good history of the “altermondialiste”, radical, rurally-based, eco, organic, democratic movements were written, the struggles and results up on the Larzac would be in the “top ten” of all global movements. This high ranking would be for symbolic and real successes, as well as for inspirational value. The Larzaciens also played a crucial role in the altermondialiste movement from its earliest days. The ancient movement intellectual that I am is almost a “fan” of the Larzac, and those who live there. This means that the land controlling group (Societe Civile des Terres du Larzac) can assure tenancy for a lifetime for new paysans coming to earn their living on the Larzac.
That seems to me something to be proud of. There are actually lots of young people, French and other, who want to work on the land, revitalise the countryside. They want to work in such trades or vocations beekeeper, shepherd (sheep – milking and eating), veg grower, blacksmith or growing special plants of this or that kind. They want to work and live and raise kids in the countryside. It is really quite a popular life choice, but the young people who want to do it are usually too poor to buy or rent any land. The Larzac Community (the SCTL) can make any arrangement they want for the use of land and buildings they control, and will control until 2083. They are expressly interested in young and family minded people whose work is appropriate to the Larzac. They have the experience about grants, agricultures, building in that area, they can help anyone new. So the problem of the cost of land is solved, more or less.
I should add that during this last forty years, in addition to “active politics”, the “struggles” they initiate or support, the Larzaciens have constructed a whole range of institutions that serve their daily needs. They have created a new wood industry that never seriously existed before. For example, making granules to sell for wood fired heating. Long ago they created institutions which would allow them to make the “added value” from making cheese and other milk products, instead of selling the raw milk to Roquefort cheese makers. The Larzac is part of the strictly defined area where one can milk sheep and make Roquefort in the nearby town of the same name. Previous paysans never thought of doing that, nor did they have the support to do it. The newcomers were the core of this new practice, although they make other kinds of cheese, not Roquefort. The sheep Co-op (Les Bergers du Larzac) employs 27 people and 21 farms belong to it. Nearly half the farms are organic now. The farmers have got together with three vets to create an animal care system, based on both preventive and curative care. There are 150-160 farmers and 60,000 animals under this system. Fixed price, once paid, any care is covered, at any farm. There is plenty of training and re-training of farmers. There are now weekly markets in more than one location, which are almost parties, but where local stuff is sold. These new Larzac markets, although I have never been to one, provide not just a place to sell, but like all small markets, a place to catch up, meet up and cement a community. Frequently over the years, the Larzaciens have created links with other struggles of an agricultural nature. Senegal has a constant relation with Larzac. Recently links have been made with Notre Dame des Landes, where there are efforts to use the experience and imagination of the Larzac to create “another space”, where once there might have been an new airport. Farmers in the Larzac also played a crucial role in the founding of the Confederation Paysanne, a kind of radical, small farm-oriented, alternative to the dominant large industrial farm union, the FNSEA. http://www.confederationpaysanne.fr/ There are other projects that have been created within this atmosphere of struggle and protest over the years, but I should write about each of them separately. In fact, I should write something about the history, which I have rather compressed. Still anyone can type a word into a search engine.
Oh yes. While most of the residents of the Larzac were happy to have the Secretary of State for Agriculture come for the day and sign the new deal with the Society Civile des Terres du Larzac, there were some protesters who were doing what they should be doing. It would be a minor tragedy if no one at all objected and protested, even though the vast majority were well happy with this deal. It is hard to tell from the article exactly what the exact objections were, but probably along the line of we should not trust nor deal with these state representatives of the market worshipping capitalists. The protesters had an excellent point. Although inviting the government guy to turn up and sign, and then blocking his way was a little bit, well, Larzacien. The protesters might well claim that the people who work the land should own it, full stop. People who live in a house should own or control it. Maybe through a locally organised system which does not allow accumulation and absentee owners profiting, but plenty of security. Obviously this is never going to happen without a revolution in our lives. But I was kind of pleased the protesters got an article in the bulletin, and a fair one at that. The Larzac is huge, the parcel owned or controlled by the SCTL is only 6,3000 hectares (16,000 acres). The area of the Causse de Larzac is about 1,000 square kilometres or 386 square miles. Greater London is 671 square miles. The Isle of Wight is 128 square miles. If I started at the bottom of the causse nearest to me (twenty minutes) and began driving, I can climb up to it, then drive across it and descend into the first of many massive valleys that separate the causses. That 73k drive would take me an hour and seven minutes. About the same time it took me to drive from my country town to Manchester in England. A long and gorgeous drive on one of the finest motorways in the world, the A75.
I am re-mentioning the Larzac because I got my newsletter, bought those two books, and thought it would be good to urge you to investigate this intriguing place, whether on the computer (plenty of stuff), booking a holiday for a few days (there are some really nice B and Bs (another part of the new economic order), or just taking that A75 motorway through it. It would be better to stop for a night anyway, and drive on some the little roads, or walk even. Interesting place. More than interesting. If one day we have a system which is more like what I would like, their place in that story would be exceedingly important. For example, my “non-violent collective” is full of people connected to the story of La Borie Noble, Lanzo del Vasta, and when we recently need a kind of trained up and sympa person to train us to make better meetings, we hired a woman who lives up there and who has spent some years doing this kind of work.
Hope you are inclined to read more, but that’s the blog for today anyway. Must read those books. Sadly for you, most books on the Larzac are in French. Oops, this is a bit long, and even then barely touches the surface.