In southern France, drought, rising seas threaten traditions

SAINTES-MARIE DE LA MER, France (AP) — In a makeshift arena in the French seaside village of Aigues-Mortes, young men in dazzling collared shirts come face to face with a raging bull. Surrounded by the city’s medieval walls, the men dodge and fend off the animal’s charges while the onlookers let out a collective gasp. Part ritual and part spectacle, the tradition is deeply intertwined with the culture of the country’s southern wetlands, known as the Camargue.

For centuries, people from all over the region have attended the festivities of the Camarguaise bulls in the Rhône Delta, where the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea meet. But now the tradition is threatened by rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts that make water sources salty and lands barren. At the same time, efforts are being made by the authorities to preserve more land, leaving less grazing for the bulls.

“Here in the Camargue the bull is God, like a king,” said Jean-Pierre Grimaldi, a resident of Aigues-Mortes, as he cheered from the private stands, where he has watched fights for decades. “We live to serve these animals … some of the most brilliant bulls even have their own tombs built to bury them in.”

Generations of “manadiers” or breeders, such as Frédéric Reynaud, have dedicated their lives to raising the bulls that are indigenous to the region. Wilder bulls that can win prestigious races are the most prized.

Raynaud, a fifth-generation manager, has raised many such bulls on his “herd” – term for a ranch in the region – just east of Aigues-Mortes. His ranch currently cares for about 250 Camargue bulls and 15 horses that graze on semi-wild pastures along the coast. He fears that soon his highly touted cattle will run out of land to graze on.

“Sea levels are rising on our coast and taking more and more of our land,” Raynaud said.

A temporary embankment built by local authorities to stop the rising sea has sunk in on itself, the water running right through it and into the herd’s pastures. The edge of the ranch slides into the sea. Unswallowed land becomes useless as inundated waters make wetlands increasingly salty. Heat waves and drought, exacerbated by climate change, are also depriving the land of fresh water, allowing seawater to dominate.

“It used to be that the salt came up right on our land” closer to the coast, Raynaud said. “But now the salt is coming up through the ground five or six kilometers (3 to 4 miles) beyond the shoreline where you can see the salt overlaying the vegetation.”

Sea level around the town of Saintes-Marie de la Mer in the Camargue has risen steadily by 3.7 millimeters (0.15 in) per year from 2001 to 2019, almost twice the global average sea level rise measured throughout the 20th century, according to the local research institute Tour du Valat. Warming, expanding oceans and melting ice over land, both as a result of climate change, contribute to sea level rise.

The researchers added that driving salt into the ground would leave the land barren and uninhabitable long before the sea would swallow it up. Some affected pastures are already defoliated with little vegetation, and the unusually high salt content poses health risks to organisms that cannot tolerate it.

People have always been drawn to the Camargue because of the abundance of species and resources it contains despite the challenges of living between the ebb and flow of an ever-evolving delta. Its nutrient-rich wetlands contain an enormous amount of biodiversity, making it one of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

The Rhône River has long served as the Camargue’s lifeline, bringing fresh water from the Alps and reducing salt levels in the Camargue. As rain and snowfall decrease, it becomes a less reliable source of fresh water, with researchers estimating that the river’s flow has declined by 30% over the past 50 years and is only expected to get worse.

“The glaciers which are in the process of melting at an incredibly high rate have already passed the point of no return, so probably in the next few years, the 40% of the river flow that reaches the Camargue will be reduced to a much smaller percentage. ”, said Jean Jalbert of Tour du Valat.

In summers plagued by high temperatures and reduced rainfall, seawater can reach up to 20 kilometers (12 mi) into the Rhône River. During a heat wave in August this year, the Raynaud family’s water pump on the Petite Rhone, a tributary of the main river, began pumping salt water. They were forced to move the pump farther upriver outside the perimeter of their own ranch to irrigate their land and feed their livestock.

The Raynauds recently bought 10 hectares (24 acres) of land to the north of their property to allow their bulls to graze.

“It’s not so much for 250 bulls, but if one day a disaster happens, that will be a downfall if we ever have to start over somewhere new,” Raynaud said.

Manadier Jean-Claude Groul already grazes his animals in separate pastures, taking advantage of the different conditions each offers for his cattle.

At dawn, he whistles as he walks through an open field until a group of white cotton Camargue horses hear his call and emerge from the mist. Growl loads his horses into a truck and drives from one of his pastures to another he owns further down the road.

“One day if things get worse, we’ll have to find land further north,” he said.

Less and less area is being prioritized for ranching as authorities work to acquire land earmarked for conservation. Christine Aillet, mayor of Saintes-Maries de la Mer, said statewide conservation efforts put nature ahead of her city’s residents.

“They tell you on TV that the Camargue must go back to nature,” said Aillet, who is skeptical of plans aimed at saving the region by curbing global warming and reforesting the land.

“The Camargue will be dry without fresh water” if such conservation plans are put in place, he added.

Ailey favors measures such as increasing the number of tidal barriers along the coastline, which he says will help residents, but researchers say these ideas are only a temporary solution and will not withstand the effects of coastal erosion and of the rapidly changing climate.

Scientists in the region say the Camargue is at risk of losing both its economic and cultural value and its natural beauty if action is not taken to curb climate change. Leading climate experts around the world say sea levels will continue to rise and drastic action is needed to stop the problem from getting worse.

“For the last five generations the Camarguaise has lived with the belief that the balance of the Camargue is and will forever be stable, but we are in a delta that is beginning to face climate change,” said Tour du Valat’s Jalbert. “This ecosystem, which we thought was stable, is starting to show cracks.”

For Frederic Raynaud, how big those cracks become will determine whether he can keep a ranch that has been in his family for more than a century.

“I’ve always been here, I grew up here, the animals have always been here,” he said. “To leave this place would be awful, but if one day the sea reaches here, we shall have to go.”


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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