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Written by: José Bové. Edited by Michel Merlet, Morgane Le Gal
Writing date: 2002
Organizations: Association pour contribuer à l’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de la Terre, de l’Eau et des Ressources naturelles (AGTER), Institut de Recherche et d’Applications des Méthodes de Développement (IRAM), Réseau Agriculture Paysanne et Modernisation (APM), Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer pour le Progrès de l’Homme (FPH)
José Bové, « La Société Civile des Terres du Larzac », Communication au Séminaire International sur la Réforme Agraire, IBASE, Fondation Charles Leopold Mayer, Rio de Janeiro, mai 1998.
A long, symbolic and victorious peasant struggle
After 10 years of struggle against the expansion of the Larzac military camp, a result of the original and widely publicised non-violent action that generated large national and international support, the farmers on this French plateau obtained a historical victory in 1981 with the abandon of the military extension project.
It’s in this context that the SCTL, Société Civile des Terres du Larzac, (Larzac Land Trust 1) was created. The group embodies the legal solution enabling the inhabitants of the Larzac plateau to manage the 6,300 ha that had been bought by the public property administration for the expansion of a military camp, and which had not been bought back by its former owners, often non-residents, after the project was aborted.
When the SCTL was formed, most of the land was still being cultivated for 2 reasons: the majority of farmers 2 continued to cultivate it even though their landlord had sold it to the army; and in the late seventies, young farmers illegally occupied farms that had been sold to the army by speculators. In May 1981, the Larzac farmers’ group realised the strategic importance of the fact that this land had been acquired by the State. These 6,300 ha, geographically concentrated and cleared of the burden of private property were perceived as a tremendous opportunity for agriculture in Larzac.
On the other hand, the Larzac farmers who benefited from much activist support were aware of their potential leadership in showing the way to a new land management system. The interest in finding a legal solution that would guarantee long-lasting agricultural activity without having to go through real estate sales reaches far beyond the local context.
Land redistribution managed by the Larzac farmers themselves
In 1981, the Larzac farmers started a collective brainstorming process that lasted three years. The primary goal was to set up new farms and not to expand already existing ones. A « settlement committee » was thus created, which elaborated selection criteria for candidates while privileging projects with a high added value that necessitated a lot of human labour, in order to promote population growth on the plateau 3 and to revitalise the economic and social fabric of the region.
The work thus initiated has been furthered by an « inter-cantonal committee for Larzac land development » and by communal committees in each of the twelve administrative districts of the plateau. At a rhythm of one meeting per month over three years, this committee made the inventory of available land, including its agronomic classifications, selected candidates and distributed the land. It also took care of the buildings having non-agricultural functions.
The farmers who had a lease before the land was expropriated by the army were taken into consideration during the land allocations (3,200 hectares returned to these farmers). In addition, 2,800 hectares were attributed to twenty-two new farms, seven of which had begun through occupation during the struggle, and fifteen afterwards. In order to make it easier for young settlers, the farmers gave up a certain portion of their plots without compensation. Numerous land exchanges took place in order to better regroup the plots around the farm buildings.
It took the farmers of Larzac only three years to settle this question.
Creation of the Société Civile des Terres du Larzac
In December 1982, farmers tried to create a structure for the transfer of the management responsibility back to a body independent of State power. With the help of legal advisors, they opted for the creation of a Société Civile, an innovative structure similar to an associative interest group that aims to manage the State’s holdings (buildings and land) on the Larzac plateau.
Associates of the SCTL are persons and legal entities who either:
a/Make use of agriculture or pasture land given to the SCTL to manage, or
b/Are non-agricultural users of buildings given to the SCTL to manage, or
c/Are farmer members of a common land management committee (one per administrative district)
According to the statutes, half of the shares plus one must be held by associates mentioned in a/, in order to guarantee long-term agricultural activity.
The fact that the management committee is made up of a majority or farmers reflects the fact that farming is the main activity in Larzac. However, a representation of non-agricultural users is guaranteed in order to provide for the development of non-agricultural rural activities, thereby permitting better living conditions on the Larzac plateau.
On April 29, 1985, the Société Civile des Terres du Larzac (SCTL) signed a sixty-year lease with the State, renewable for 6,300 ha 4. With this legal arrangement, the State supported decentralisation and the management by the people concerned of their own means of production. The SCTL, which by its composition regroups the majority of state assets users, manages state holdings and makes its decisions according to users’ advice. It rents or lends holdings, the management of which was entrusted to the SCTL according to rules established after much debate: the objective is to revitalise the plateau, both by new settlements and by supporting the people already there.
The two main types of contract 5 are based on the duration of the economic activity, provided that leases (with a few exceptions) are always connected to a usage, and to the conservation or creation of employment.
The SCTL proposes farmers a career lease, valid up until the age of retirement. This type of contract is an example of how farmers’ use rights are secured in a way that is different from ownership. It is a normal agricultural lease in conformity with the French rural code, which guarantees agricultural use rights for the duration of the economic activity,6 but which is not automatically transferable to descendants 7. Its price is determined at the local level by the préfecture, as is the case for all rural agricultural leases in France.
Non-agricultural users have a lesser-known form of free contract, called a « use loan », designed for non-agricultural holdings that have buildings on them. The loan is approved according to the usage as defined in the contract (artisan, commerce, habitat, etc.). The length is determined by the SCTL according to the duration of the borrower’s professional activity. It is not transferable to heirs and it is free 8.
The SCTL had to take into account the fact that the buildings on its real estate holdings were generally in bad condition. The handing over of farms or houses required large investments that the SCTL could not make. Occupants were responsible for building improvements, but they were taken into account when they leave. The SCTL established a use value ensuring the leaving tenant a fair compensation and retired people a sufficient sum of money to move elsewhere.
Although being born in quite uncommon conditions, the experience of the Société Civile des Terres du Larzac represents an innovative and original approach to land management for local development, which is of interest to a much broader public. It has shown that collective management of a large area of land 9 is possible and can be successful as long as it is organised in accordance with the real interests of a given area’s users.
Access to land must be independent from ownership. For a producer, being able to settle without being obliged to buy land is decisive. Land must no longer be submitted to the market: without having to abolish ownership, land management and its agricultural destination can be collectively secured at a municipal, district or territorial level.
Collective land usage must be preserved; the common good must outweigh individual interests. He or she who cultivates the land does not necessarily need to make all of the decisions. It is the people living in a territory who must decide collectively how the land ought to be used. For the benefit of a collective territorial management arrangement, a portion of the landowner’s property rights can be removed. It is no longer the principle of « land is for those who cultivate it », but rather « land is for the collective use of a territory’s inhabitants ».
1 We use the term «land trust» because of the similarities to the common law related scheme, even if it does not exist in the French legal framework. (note of editor)
2 For the 103 farmers concerned by the fight against the military camp, there were 450 land-owners.
3 Affected, like a lot of French rural areas, by a desertion phenomenon linked to the dominant model of agricultural development.
4 The peasants also collectively manage 1 200 ha of supplementary land, through the GFAs (Agricultural Land Groups) which had been established from 1973 with the help of activists in order to prevent the Army from acquiring land.
5 The SCTL can sign a third type of contract, hunting leases (free), with communal hunting societies.
6 In France, less than 0.5 % of farmers benefit from this, as most private land-owners refuse to make up leases for more than nine years.
7 If a child wants to take over from his parents for an identical agricultural or artisanal utilisation, he/she will be able to, and will even have priority; but if this child wants to keep the lease while pursuing an objective contrary to the revitalisation desired by the SCTL, his/her contract will not be approved and the asset will be rented to a third party. The decision then will be made by the SCTL general assembly!
8 The SCTL preferred the « usage loan » to a usual lease in order to avoid the danger of lease transfers, that is, the sale of a commercial artisan activity that would ultimately make it impossible for the SCTL to choose its tenants.
9 A number of French «communes» are smaller.
José Bové et François Dufour, Le monde n’est pas une marchandise, Des paysans contre la malbouffe, Entretien avec Gilles Luneau, Ed. La Découverte, Paris, 2000.