¨War for wood¨ in the south of France

¨War for wood¨ in the south of France

By Helios E. M

According to the company's initial supply plan, it would initially be based on a combination of plant residues (pruning and clearing remains), local forest resources and imported biomass. According to Nicholas Bell, from the SOS Fôret du Sud Collective, “existing plant remains can only cover approximately 10 percent of the demand. Another 10 percent will come from reclaimed construction wood, the combustion of which is highly polluting as it contains lead paint or industrial glue. The remaining 80 percent of the biomass fuel required will come from logging ”.

"War for timber" in the south of France

In addition to the Gardanne mega plant, there is already a smaller biomass plant in operation in the area (Pierrelatte, which consumes 150,000 tonnes per year) and another project under study in Brignoles (Provence-Alpes), of the multinational Inova, with an expected consumption of 185,000 tons per year. All this demand for biomass wood joins the existing demand from the “Fiber Excelence” paper mill in Tarascon, also in Provence. This factory, which consumes 1.2 million tons of wood per year, was forced in the summer of 2014 to import wood from Venezuela to meet its needs. For the opposition groups, these existing local supply difficulties indicate an imminent "war for timber" in the area, given the increased pressure on forest resources.

According to SOS Fôret du Sud, the consequences will be an increase in clearcuts (which are not carried out selectively but affect all the trees in a given area), with the consequent risks of erosion and loss of forest mass, to despite the legal obstacles to this practice. As María Sanz, an activist for the group, explains, “clear fellings are prohibited in areas of more than four hectares, but to circumvent this prohibition, the timber dealers carry them out on neighboring farms with a smaller surface area. In this way, the total area affected by this practice can be enormous, but since it is divided into different properties, it does not violate the legislation ”.

As the precedent for the Tarascon paper mill shows, a large part of the wood supply will come from imports from South America and Canada. “The Gardanne plant, despite not operating yet with biomass, has already received a shipment from Brazil for the first tests. When it comes into operation, it has the obligation, by contract and in return for the huge subsidies received, to supply itself entirely with local wood within ten years, ”explains Bell. By "local wood" is understood that obtained in a radius of 400 km around the plant.

“The intensification of the exploitation of French forests was one of Sarkozy's great objectives when the project was approved. On the one hand to develop the local timber industry, with the consequent creation of jobs, and on the other to increase French energy independence. Precisely the need to resort to external supply calls into question this alleged "energy independence", taking into account that wood is, after oil, the most imported resource by France. The initial forecasts were that during those ten years half of the wood used in the Gardanne plant would be imported, but the protests have caused the authorities to increase the proportion of imports, without modifying the final goal of 100% French wood.


Consideration of plant biomass as a "renewable" energy would also allow the E.ON and Inova companies to receive huge amounts in public subsidies, through the CSPE (Contribution to the Public Electricity Service), a fee that is added to the bill household electric. It would be about 70 million euros per year for 20 years, about 1,400 million in total. Generally, these aids go to cogeneration plants, whose main use is the heat resulting from combustion, and which generate electricity in a secondary way. These plants have an energy efficiency of at least 60%. In the new biomass plants, however, only electricity is produced, which implies an energy efficiency of around 35%.

"Two-thirds of the thermal energy resulting from biomass burning will be lost as untapped heat," says Bell. "When talking about this energy efficiency we are not taking into account all the energy invested in felling, processing, drying, and especially the transport of wood and waste." In the case of wood imported from North or South America, all this energy used in transportation increases exponentially, with which the Energy Return Rate (ratio between the energy used and that obtained) is greatly reduced.

International dimension

E.ON's project is part of a European trend to convert coal-fired power plants into biomass, initiated in the United Kingdom by plants that did not respect the requirements of the European Directive on CO2 emissions. As organizations such as Biofuelwatch denounce, British power plants currently require more than 50 million tons of wood per year, more than five times all the wood produced annually by the country's forests. This necessarily implies a dependence on forest imports, mainly from the North American Southeast and to a lesser extent from the boreal forests of Canada. "The generalization of this type of power plant entails increasing pressure on these ecosystems, which are especially fragile and fundamental to mitigate climatic changes," they explain from SOS Fôret du Sud. "The felling of primary forests is followed in many cases by plantations fast-growing foreign companies, a trend that already exists in France and may increase. '

Fracking and massive logging

The Cevennes Mountains, in the Ardeche and Gard departments, are also the scene of various shale gas exploration projects using hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Although this technique has been banned in France since 2011, last January a local court agreed with the energy multinational Total in an appeal to continue with explorations. The decision is based on certain technical differences with what the law establishes as “hydraulic fracturing”. This judicial decision has reactivated the anti-fracking movement in the area, which on February 28 gathered more than 15,000 people in a large demonstration in Barjac (Gard). “Although Total has won this legal battle, there have also been other exploration permits that have been canceled. At this moment there are various appeals under way, which is delaying the process in the courts, so for the moment the project is stopped. But there may be a change at some point, if the oil company wins the resources and recovers its exploration permits. On the other hand, next year there will be presidential elections, and the change of government may modify the situation, probably in a negative sense, "says Sanz.

A growing opposition

At the moment the mobilization against large logging and biomass power plants is not as great as that deployed against fracking. "Although many people participate in both struggles, the mobilization against large-scale logging is still insufficient, especially considering that it is a problem that already exists while there is still no nearby fracking exploitation", explains Sanz. This is partly due to economic reasons, since many owners are going to make a profit from these logging, while on the contrary fracking is not going to benefit anyone, and the land where the drilling is carried out will be expropriated with little compensation. But there is also a lack of information, since many forest owners do not know the destination of the wood they buy from them.

Still, the movement is growing.

“The first collective, SOS France, was created in north-eastern France, where numerous logging had already been carried out for both local plants and Belgium. As a result of the Gardanne project, we decided to create SOS Foret du Sud. There have been demonstrations and public meetings that have served to spread the word about the problem, but much work remains to be done. Currently there are opposition groups in all areas likely to be affected by logging.

In addition to citizen mobilization, numerous local institutions have opposed the Gardanne megacentral project, including the municipal associations of Forcalquier-Lure and Pays de Banon, as well as the Luberon and Lure Forestry Boards, representing a total of about 100 municipalities. The Luberon Regional Natural Park has also had a great weight in promoting motions against Gardanne.

Alternatives for the future of forests

The massive logging for the production of electricity is part of an industrial model of forest management in which native forests would gradually be replaced by fast-growing monospecific plantations. Faced with this model, local initiatives for the responsible and careful use of forests are spreading in the affected areas, some of which have been coordinated in the "Reseau pour les Alternatives Forestières" (Network for Forest Alternatives). As Marjolaine Boitard, one of its leaders, explains, “the RAF tries to promote and enhance local forest networks and the alternatives that already exist, so that plants like Gardanne are not the only possible destination for wood. In addition to environmentally different ways of working in the forest, we want to contribute to economic and legal guarantees, for example in access to land without being an owner ”. One of the initiatives that arose with this philosophy is the “Collectif Bois 07” cooperative, which tries to group together in the same territory all the activities related to forest and wood work; from forest management to wood construction and direct sales, through exploitation, sawing or carpentry. The aim is to contribute, through the social economy and artisan work, to revitalize the Ardeche mountains while preserving their forests.

Text published in the newspaper

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