The revival of tradition in France’s forests

The French realise the need for a more inclusive policy which is better for both people and forests.

These days, the inhabitants of villages who once took up arms over the suppression of their forest rights are more likely "to pursue sylvan strolls than take up goat herding or participate in the annual firewood allocation" [Getty ]

The dispatch arrived in haste at the prefect’s office in June 1843. “Sergeant Ruty, state forest officer in the Foret de Chaux, has been found dead – a victim of murder.” For months, tensions had been rising in this heavily wooded region of eastern France, in the Franche-Comte.

A lawsuit brought by two dozen communities demanding the reinstatement of their ancient use rights in Chaux Forest had recently failed, and skirmishes with guards, the hated enforcers of French forest law, had multiplied.

Along with two previous murder attempts – one in the form of a booby-trapped gun tied to a snared songbird – the area had also been the scene of a string of suspicious forest fires, dozens of incidents of tree girdling and the torching of a guard’s barracks. The latter was suspected to be the work of a former mayor.

Such violence was once commonplace in France’s forests. In 1843 alone, in addition to the murder in the Foret de Chaux, killings of forest guards also took place in the Ariege, Ardeche, Meuse, Lorraine and the forest of Versailles. This trend would continue almost through the end of the century, with one or more assassinations in the line of duty occurring every year from 1840 forward.

At stake in the conflict was the issue of who, as one group of villagers put it, would be “masters of their woods”. For more than three centuries, from the promulgation of its landmark Forest Ordinance of 1669 forward, the French state sought to suppress customary and communal forest uses in favour of military and industrial interests.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the architect of the 1669 ordinance and Louis XIV’s minister of finances, had framed the restrictions as imperative for the future of the realm: “France perira faute de bois!” (France will perish for want of wood!), he warned, lest its looming timber shortages put it at an economic and strategic disadvantage relative to its maritime rivals.

Hoping to ensure present and future supplies of naval timber, the crown curtailed longstanding practices like woodland grazing and ordered the conversion of coppices – scrubby, high-density thickets grown for fuel and craftwood – to haute futaie (high timber trees). Especially prized were elm, which was used for ships’ keels; fir, for deck planks; and above all oaks, which comprised the crucial “ribs” of ships’ hulls. In keeping with oaks’ slow growth, the ordinance mandated that haute futaie could only be felled in one-hundred year rotations.

Restrictions on coppices

While forge owners and iron manufacturers were able to overturn some of the ordinance’s restrictions on coppices, arguing that they limited charcoal production and inhibited the manufacture of artillery, rural inhabitants, particularly the poorest peasantry, were less fortunate. Though critical to their survival, their broad array of forest uses, from raking up leaves for stable litter and gathering wind-blown branches for firewood, to growing stakes for vines and harvesting communal timber, was not only banned but also decried as a threat to national security.

These draconian constraints, which prefigured the restrictions that colonial and postcolonial authorities the world over would place on woodland custom from the late nineteenth century forward, spawned resentment and occasional revolt among rural communities. During the French Revolution (1789-1799), anger over the forests indelibly shaped local ideas of liberty and oppression and gave way to a brief and chaotic 10-year reprieve from administrative oversight, as revolutionary republicans in Paris delegated woodland authority to municipalities and individuals. 

By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the ordinance’s restrictions were back in force and a new, even more punitive and exclusionary law was underway: the Forest Code of 1827. It was with the Forest Code’s uncompromising stance on customary and communal usage that villagers like those surrounding Chaux Forest took particular umbrage. 


Protecting forests is a means of creating carbon sinks to stave off climate change [Getty]

Combining rigorous policing of France’s state and communal forests with more efficient modes of extraction and the self-assured certainties of scientific forestry, an emergent area of expertise in the nineteenth century, the code expanded on earlier prohibitions and instated new ones, especially against customs associated with the rural poor.

The practice of pasturing goats, known as “the poor man’s cow”, amidst the forest understory was particularly condemned. “There is nothing more devastating, more harmful to the forests,” remarked one observer in 1806. “A troop of goats scattered within them does one hundred times more damage than the axe.”

Blaming the degraded state of the nation’s forests on silvopastoralism and a long list of other communal and collective woodland uses, rather than the intense fragmentation and clearing of “wastes” for cultivation that had followed the Revolution’s land-redistribution schemes from 1790 forward, the code mandated that all use rights and other access claims that could not be substantiated through written documentation would be terminated.

These rights, which dated as far back as the 10th century, had originally been established by medieval landlords to attract tenants to clear and plant their land. In exchange for rent and labor obligations, tenants received liberal access to collective resources like forests and streams. Yet even in cases where these arrangements had been formally confirmed, the ancient capitularies or charters in which they were recorded were frequently missing – burned up in fires, lost, or tucked away in forgotten places.

In this way, the code’s demand for written proof stripped many villages of their woodland rights. Claims that were validated were subjected to further reduction, through a process known as cantonnement, in which rights-holders were granted possession of a fraction of a forest in return for being barred from the rest.

As with the 1669 ordinance, the creators of the 1827 Code forestier characterised the project as critical to the nation’s well-being. “We are not afraid to say that the most urgent law for the France of today, for the France of the future, is a forest code,” declared one lawmaker. “All the needs of life are linked to this conservation,” added another, “agriculture, architecture, nearly all the industries seek in it essentials and resources which nothing could replace.”

Reliance on wood

The code’s authors were right to be concerned. By the beginning of the 19th century, France’s forest cover was at its lowest extent, before or since. Without readily accessible coalfields such as existed in England, France remained reliant on wood as its main source of energy and materiel until well into the 1850s. Population growth and rising consumer and industrial demand rendered conservation measures essential. Yet the “needs of life” that the policymakers emphasised were conceived of in extremely limited terms.

Focused almost exclusively on naval timber and, later, industrial and urban fuelwood, they not only discounted the forest’s multivalent contributions to the peasant economy, but also ignored its essential ecological functions, the diversity of benefits referred to today as ecosystem services.

Even as they succeeded in protecting timber trees and afforesting areas denuded by pasturage, the narrowly focused silvicultural mandates of the 1669 ordinance and 1827 code reduced biodiversity, increased trees’ susceptibility to disease through monocultural plantations and uniform felling cycles, and disenfranchised local stakeholders.

By transferring forest oversight from the level of the community to the Eaux et Forets (the Water and Forest Administration), the laws unwittingly engendered subterfuge, conflict, and abuse among inhabitants who had formerly, albeit sometimes grudgingly, contained their extractions within the bounds of custom.

Deprived of access to resources that heretofore had been communally governed, the sweeping restrictions of 1669 ordinance and its more forceful successor, the 1827 code, alienated rural inhabitants and gave rise to an every-man-for-himself mentality that, in the long run, caused greater damage than the practices it sought to restrict.

By the 1840s, squeezed by the Forest Code on one side and demographic pressure on the other, woodland villagers lashed out at the most visible sources of their misery. They harassed forest guards, harvested timber out of season and sold it for individual profit, and lit forest fires to distract from their defiance. Those who did not participate in these acts directly turned a blind eye or stayed mum when questioned.

As inhabitants’ frustrations intensified, attacks on guards increased. The spring and summer of 1843 marked an exceptional acceleration in the violence. That May, the guard squad of the municipal woods of Doucier, in the department of the Jura, fended off 15 masked attackers. In early June, the field and forest guard of St Julien was ambushed and nearly lost his life. Two weeks later, four assailants chased, disarmed, and wounded the cantonnement guard of the city of Dole.

Finally, on June 23, Sergeant Ruty, a state officer who had been threatened with assassination previously, was found dead in Chaux Forest, killed by a single blow to the head. A day labourer from the village of La Grande Loye, on the southern edge of the woods, was arrested for the crime.

This pattern of behaviour – disenfranchisement, deprivation, desperation and violence in response to constraints on customary use and access rights – was not limited to the forests of the Franche-Comte, nor even France as a whole, in the 19th century. Rather, it was and still is characteristic of natural resource struggles the world over. As the political scientist Elinor Ostrom and other political ecologists and sociologists have shown, successful long- and short-term management of common-pool resources is contingent on the collective participation and shared responsibility of stakeholders.

France in recent years has started to reintroduce and support forest practices not in use since the mid-17th century [Getty]

Struggles over woodland policy

In my own work, a longue duree study of the struggles over woodland policy in France from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I explore how the conflicts were shaped not only by material realities but, more powerfully, by competing political, economic, and ideological outlooks between those who would conceive of forests largely in terms of wood and fuel, and those who relied upon its broader benefits, from leaves and fodder to haute futaie.

It is all the more ironic, then, in light of its long history of legislative suppression of customary practices and peasants’ violent response, that in recent years the French government has begun actively encouraging the very practices it once reviled, arguing that they are vital to restoring biodiversity, mitigating climate change, and maintaining the forest’s abundant other contributions, both measurable and multitudinous.

All over France and indeed all over Europe, traditional silvopastoralism, jardinage(selective system timber felling), and coppicing are being revived for their ecological value as well as their economic potential. In Britain and Switzerland, for example, coppicing for bird and butterfly conservation is expanding, limited only by the procedure’s intense labour demands and the variable market for smallwood.

Likewise, in Besancon, capital of the department of the Doubs and the largest city in the Franche-Comte, goats have been employed in a concerted campaign of socio-ecological enhancement – maintaining and restoring open spaces for biodiversity and human enjoyment – since 2007. Once denounced as a “vagabond race [that] errs everywhere”, these famously voracious bleating beasts now enjoy the endorsement of state environmental agencies and official praise for their efficacy.

Along with silvopastoralism, other traditional activities like charcoal and tar making have also been endorsed and revived. In 2008, the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forest in Europe identified these formerly disparaged practices as key strategies in the economic development and sustainable management of European forests in areas where “fully mechanised timber production” is not possible.

In this way, goats, shepherds, coppicers and charcoal burners have come to be rehabilitated both as indispensable agents of ecological repair and as vital contributors to the rural economy.

Interestingly, though based on a vastly different vision of the forest and its benefits, the impetus behind these recent, multi-usage eco-initiatives and the hortatory language used to present them is remarkably similar to the anxious, implicitly apocalyptic rationales of the 1669 ordinance and 1827 Code forestier.

The most obvious recent example is the sweepingly ambitious policy project known as Grenelle Environment, a roundtable of state forestry agencies, national and regional environmental offices, nongovernmental environmental organisations, agricultural interests, municipal officials and scientists commissioned in 2007.

The title is a nod to France’s Grenelle meetings of 1968, which brought together workers and students and launched sweeping socio-economic initiatives. Devoted to “improving” the nation’s environment as a whole, Grenelle Environment’s five-year plan and consequent legislation are focused, like France’s landmark forest laws, on assuring and enhancing the national interest through conservation.

Rather than proscribing peasant practices and expanding state power over the unruly, however, the aims of the new legislation, in the words of its sloganeers, are “Forests for conservation, ligneous independence, and biodiversity” and “Produce more wood, while better preserving biodiversity!”

Achieving timber independence

In this conceptualisation, protecting France’s forests is not only a way of achieving timber independence and weaning the nation off of ill-gotten tropical hardwoods (a goal Jean-Baptiste Colbert would have approved), but also a means of promoting sustainable rural economic development and creating carbon sinks to stave off climate change


In Britain and Switzerland, coppicing for birds and butterfly conservation is expanding [Getty]

All of these efforts, presented as conservation and biodiversity strategies, economic advocacy,and cost-saving simplifications, emphasise, in the words of a 2009 European Union Green Infrastructure workshop, “the need for healthy ecosystems, not just to halt the loss of biodiversity, but also to derive benefits from the valuable services that ecosystems can provide us”.

At the same time, the advocates of the initiatives recognise that their implementation must be inclusive or face the same resistance and resentment that stymied earlier policies. As a member of France’s Ministry of Ecology noted, “At the local level the question will be how to integrate divergent interests in local land-use plans… This is essential because the proposals have to be accepted by local partners if they are to stand any chance of success on the practical level.”

Two and a half centuries ago, decision making regarding the forest was worked out at the level of the community, founded on custom and the recognition that communal engagement was imperative to effective enforcement. By underscoring the importance of such inclusivity today, the French state has, in essence, affirmed the virtues of custom, collectivity and co-operation, values that for centuries sustained the viability of the countryside.

Governments in other countries, as well as advocates of conservation and environmental protection elsewhere, would do well to consider France’s hard-won historical experience in this regard: after centuries of struggle, the merits of customary usage in maintaining healthy forests and communities are clear, as is the necessity of inclusivity in the exploitation and stewardship of common-pool resources.

The case of the Foret de Chaux is again illustrative. Still very much a timber-producing woodland today, Chaux has nonetheless been refigured by the enterprising inhabitants ringing its perimeter as an eco-tourist destination and “mountain bikers’ paradise”, as one marketing pitch proclaims.

In addition to annual festivals that celebrate the forest livelihoods of olden times, like woodworking and pit sawing, there are walking tours commemorating the bygone, bloody battles between the forest administration and Chaux Forest’s oppressed and enraged customary users.

These events take place in the communal cantonnements, the more than two dozen forest parcels on the edges of Chaux Forest that villages gained ownership of after a century of tenacious insistence on the legitimacy of their use rights. Reconstituted as peculiar and sensational lore for tourists’ attention, the triumphs and even the traumas of the past -Sergeant Ruty’s death among them – have not been in vain.

The concept of conservation

These 21st-century developments in French forest policy represent a profoundly ironic turn, one whose significance is not lost on its advocates. As President Jacques Chirac noted in a speech in April 2002, “The rural world is today the victim of the policy of land management conducted in later years, a policy that ignores ruralite for want of understanding its reality.”

Although this acknowledgement came too late for the Francs-Comtois who repeatedly struggled to defend their ancient firewood, timber and grazing rights, it nonetheless signals that policymakers have reappraised the one-dimensional, centralised, exclusionary concept of conservation that guided French woodland management from the 1669 ordinance forward.

Pushed by a new political-ecological front that emphasises quality of life over quantity of profit, local endurance over global extraction, and a consideration of forests’ economic value in its many guises, the French state is increasingly acknowledging the value of customary usage as a model of ecologically sound, sustainable resource management that integrates stakeholders in all their variety.

To be sure, the idea of woodland customs – coppicing, woodland pasturage, charcoal burning and more – is easier to discuss than achieve. These days, the inhabitants of villages who once took up arms over the suppression of their forest rights are more likely to pursue sylvan strolls than take up goat herding or participate in the annual firewood allocation.

Where traditional practices are implemented, it is generally the work of a conservation group or an individual contracted by the municipality, state, or departement. Nonetheless, in the persistence of their claims and the present-day reconsideration of their forebears’ livelihoods, the descendants of the peasantry may, in a modest way, claim that they are the masters of their woods after all.

Kieko Matteson is an assistant professor of history at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. In 2013, she will be a fellow at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany, where she will finish edits on her book manuscript, ‘Masters of Their Woods’: Conservation, Community, and Conflict in Revolutionary France, 1669-1848. 

A version of this article first appeared on the Solutions Journal.