|Vallée de La Loue - ©CRT de Franche-Comté|
The book is based on a wealth of archival material and primary documents that Matteson found in both national and provincial archives in France. She sorts through and illuminates very technical modes of forest management, while setting the scene for conflicts between local communities and the French state in masterful ways. She seeks to explore reform efforts on the part of the state as well as the ideological agenda of lawmakers, landowners and commentators in order to explore both the successes and failures of natural resource allocation and environmental conservation in the context of sweeping revolutionary change and the expansion of state power. She examines a number of important questions in this regard including why conservation policies prompted resistance; and how customary rights were supplanted by those of private property. To this extent she resuscitates a debate, which has recently again become the focus of some attention among environmental historians in France on the “tragedy of the commons,” which was sparked by Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article in Science and Elinor Ostrom’s rebuttal (among others).
The great strength of Matteson’s close study of the Franche-Comté lies in grounding her work in a micro context, in a specific time and place. She shows the very real impact of policies enacted in the capital on a rural region of France, but one wonders how and whether imperial conquest that began during the period which she explores and French encounters with other forested landscapes shaped (or did not shape) policy in the metropole, a subject explored in Richard Grove’s path-breaking Green Imperialism. Matteson mentions, for example, that the French forest code was exported wholesale to Algeria at the time of conquest, where conditions were far different from those in metropolitan France. Many foresters served in both France and in her colonial possessions. This code was finally revised in 1903, and one wonders about the extent to which foresters considered and compared colonial and metropolitan forests and landscapes.
Finally, calls for saving forests came from other quarters and were articulated less in terms of conservation than in terms of heritage preservation and patrimoine. These calls came not from engineers, scientists, or foresters but from a middle class urban public. It was the Barbizon school of painters who were behind Napoleon III’s 13 August 1861 decree that created the first protected natural landscape in the forest of Fontainebleau as a réserve artistique, and the painters fought pitched battles with foresters, who defended their own conservationist initiatives, such as planting pines. Both made claims about protecting the forest, but in very different ways.Catherine Dunlop writes:
Together, Matteson’s innovative research methods lead to her bold new interpretation of French revolutionary politics. The untold story of revolutionary activism, she argues, was a struggle over natural resources, and specifically wood. Ordinary Comtois, she demonstrates, were willing to challenge their central government and face death because they desperately wanted to maintain control of woodlands that were essential for their livelihoods. The revolutionary political culture that emerged in Franche-Comté was one that pitted advocates for local land use against “conservationists”—political and military leaders based in Versailles and Paris who wanted to claim all of France’s woodlands for central state needs such as naval timber. “Conservation,” a term that many of today’s environmentalists view positively, became a dirty word for Comtois citizens who associated the policy (embodied in legislation such as the Forest Ordinance of 1669 and the Forest Code of 1827) as akin to a land grab by hated and untrustworthy outsiders.
When viewed from the peripheral territory of Franche-Comté, Matteson argues, the Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 were much more about a defense of local autonomy, and a defense of local environmental resources, than previously thought. Even though some beneficial political rights were secured as the result of revolutionary upheaval, Matteson points out that in many ways, every French revolution ended in tragic disappointment for Comtois because they failed to halt the advancement of a state-centered conservation regime that ultimately destroyed the fabric of the region’s ecosystem and economy. As it would happen across the globe, the French state’s top-down seizure of natural resources and technocratic style of wilderness management supplanted communitarian systems that were in fact much better for long-term environmental sustainability.