France’s last wilderness

It has always been a symbol of transience, but now the Camargue faces radical change

by Stephen Mansfield

“No one is born in the Camargue, and no one dies in the Camargue.”
— Rhone Delta saying

The flooded paddies, I soon discovered, gingerly following the mud embankments that divided each field, were home not only to edible frogs and exotic snakes with yellow and emerald patterns on their backs, but to a thirsty swarm of mosquitoes. The windows of the modest, squat houses in the nearest village, I noted, were sensibly covered in wire mesh. What with the mosquitoes, the tangle of creepers burying a fragment of ancient wall and the humid, salt-impregnated air, this landscape and its insect and reptilian life could well have been those of an agricultural coastal hamlet on the South China Sea, were it not for the abandoned cemetery that came into view. Among the mottled slabs and time-worn crosses lay the remains of a Crusader effigy, its stone depiction of chain-mail and sword still visible under the grass.

The Camargue, France’s vast flatland of marsh, rice fields, crumbling Crusader ports, Christian pilgrimage sites, migrant gypsies and vestiges of medieval superstition, seems somehow out of place, less easily packaged than the tidy lavender fields of the Vaucluse or the carefully plotted Cezanne and Van Gogh walking courses of nearby Aix-en-Provence or Arles.

The Camargue came into being as sediment deposited from the Rhone River formed the eerie delta of inland lakes, shallow salt marshes and pools that greets today’s visitor. Storms and sea currents have eroded the coastline but, on balance, the delta has until recently continued to expand, pressing into the Mediterranean and leaving once well-supported seaside resorts stranded and distressed-looking among brackish inland lagoons, sand dunes and weeds.

Yet despite the rank salt waters that seep into its creeks, and the pestilential mosquitoes that can give these sparsely inhabited flatlands a look of utter desolation at times, most of the Camargue’s 8,000 hectares are meticulously cultivated and highly productive farmland. During the Roman occupation, it was known as the granary of the Roman Army and often compared with Egypt, since most of the region was inundated each year by the Rhone the way Egypt was flooded annually by the Nile.

Land not set aside for planting rice, strawberries or vines is now put to use as grazing land for roaming herds of cream-colored horses and for breeders of the small but spirited bulls reared for the well-known “course Camarguese,” a sport indigenous to the area. Bull-breeding began in the 1860s when French bullfighting traditions were revived by Napoleon III’s Spanish wife. Although barbed wire is more visible these days, mounted “gardian,” Europe’s last cowboys, many of them locals, are still used for much of the fieldwork and to round up the bulls for the rings.

The Camargue is also the habitat of over 400 varieties of waterbirds, including bee-eaters, storks and large numbers of migratory flocks. The Etang du Fangassier, a lagoon near the enormous salt-evaporation hills and pools known as the Salin de Giraud, attracts great flocks of flamingos. In one notable year, over 13,000 pairs settled here to breed before returning to Africa in what one observer described as “a massive, ascending pink cloud.”

Most of the wetlands that form the southern part of the Camargue are contained within the designated Parc Naturel Regional de Camargue. The park was set up to preserve the area’s fragile ecosystem and to devise ways to sustain agriculture, grazing, salt production and tourism, which are the region’s economic mainstays. Visitors have access to many of the sights of the Camargue by means of pedestrian itineraries, cycling trails and sightseeing roads that take in folklore, Gypsy and ecology museums. The routes pass salt flats and sea dikes and run through villages whose isolation in these morbidly beautiful marshes has only recently been broken.

In fact, the Camargue’s carefully fabricated cultural myth of white horses, pink flamingos, black fighting bulls and gardians is not as timeless as it seems, but a mid-19th century concoction. Its marshy, sandy landscape, its migrant population and its wildlife represent a combination of natural and man-made elements. The transient characteristics of the wetland are also reflected in the Camargue’s small population of 9,000, many of them immigrants or the offspring of immigrants, seasonal workers or people who have passed through, stayed for a few years and then moved on. The people who work in the salt-extraction zones, gouged out of parts of the eastern, coastal stretch of the Camargue, are mostly descendants of Spanish, Moroccan and Greek immigrants. It is quite a paradox that this largely created and controlled landscape has become a European model for nature wildernesses.

But nothing is quite what it seems in the Camargue. Take that resident population of mosquitoes. The region is plagued by almost 30 varieties, the only stretch of the French Mediterranean that is still infested. Newspaper headlines last fall ran reports on one particularly virulent strain, the culex variety, carrier of the West Nile virus. Though this particular strain appears to be harmless to humans, over a dozen of the Camargue’s trademark white horses have died of the fever in the last six months.

Ironically, the mosquitoes have become something of a cause celebre, as doubts have been raised about the motives for their eradication. The mosquitoes, as ecologists point out, are not popular with tourists and, not unreasonably, the Camargue’s small hotel industry is lobbying for their extermination. Local hoteliers and politicians, in particular, have been pressing for at least a decade to have this last stretch of the coast sprayed.

For those who oppose development, the mosquitoes are viewed as a form of immunization against the potentially more lethal tourist infestation. Environmentalists back supporters of the insects, claiming that their extermination would upset the food chain, since birds depend on them as one source of nourishment.

The region has other problems as well, including the prospect of a decline in rice production, with Brussels planning to abolish its subsidies next year. Rice provides the main livelihood for the region’s tiny population. If the paddies go, locals may be forced to mass-market their land for tourist-related development. If the subsidies are removed, the impact will be not only economic. The physical appearance of the area, embodied in the hauntingly beautiful, dilute salt-water lake called the Etang de Vaccares, once little more than a dry creek in the summer months, is likely to change, as it has been significantly shaped by rice farming, drainage and irrigation. Remove the rice paddies, which replaced poor-growth vineyards and wheat-fields in the 19th century, and the ready supply of water needed to control the level of the web of ponds and lagoons that characterize the area, will disappear, say environmentalists.

While there are several views on what should be done to save the delta, everybody agrees on at least one thing: With the Mediterranean rising by 2 cm a year, almost certainly as a result of global warming, the sea is depositing less sand, while the presence of dams upstream on the Durance and Rhone rivers, structures that have severly reduced the flow of silt, are helping to inundate the Camargue. The old dykes that have always protected the region against the sea may no longer be enough.

Plans for more up-to-date sea defenses have been proposed, but locals fear that this will trigger more tourist development. The Camargue remains the last stretch of the French east coast not to have fallen prey to apartment blocks and hotels. During July and August, the traditional months for Europeans to vacation, the scramble for a towel-size patch of beach, traffic jams and queues for restaurants along the French coast are notorious. The Camargue represents a maddening exception for the hoteliers and local politicians who stand to reap large profits and kickbacks from development projects. If tourism doesn’t spell the end for this curiously lovely delta region, local pessimists argue, the effects of industries, the encroaching conurbation of Marseilles and tourist developments in Languedoc to the west will.

Inevitably, each interest group has a different view of what constitutes the real Camargue. The fate of this unique region has typically been decided after the gauging of all shades of opinion. Airing one’s views, whether in heated bar-room debates or in the columns of the national newspapers, is how disputes have always been settled in the Camargue and probably always will be.