Conservatoire du Littoral (Coastal Conservancy)

The Conservatoire du Littoral is a French public administrative establishment formed by the law of July 10, 1975, which for the first time introduced the word “ecology” into French law. Its purpose is to protect the coasts in the context of expanding economic, industrial, and tourist activities, some of which are funded in part from outside these coastal areas.

Coastal Conservancy

The creation of the Conservatoire du Littoral, which was recommended by the 1972 Picquard Mission, was inspired by the British National Trust and the experience of interministerial missions for the development of the Languedoc-Roussillon coast (known as the Racine Mission) and the Aquitaine coast (MIACA). At the time, regulatory protections were not enough to protect the most highly coveted natural spaces. The power struggles in these sectors led to changes in the laws, which were often a “ban on doing” (Gérard, 2021).

The French government’s choice of the “all tourism” model on the Languedoc coast was challenged from within, as well as by local movements and a portion of the political community. A number of abandoned high-biodiversity areas were deteriorating and needed proper management to remain viable. To address these problems, the Conservatoire du Littoral, created in 1975, bought up land to protect it and place it under management (e.g., for farmers), but without necessarily providing access to the public.

The land purchased cannot be sold, and this right is imprescriptible. These prerogatives made the Conservatoire du Littoral a highly contested tool for development among the ministries, before it was transferred to the Ministry of the Environment in 1981, mainly because, according to the minister at the time Michel Crépeau, “the lands acquired by the Conservatoire since its creation are now considered by all to be part of the national heritage, just like the national parks” (Bécot and Parrinello, 2020).

Conservation and Development

The Conservatoire du Littoral’s strategy is based on a carefully constructed balance between protection and development. Thus, while some tourism actors want to see development along the coastlines, at the same time they understand that uncontrolled development is a threat, leading to saturation that could degrade the environment. Conservatoire agents see the institution as a tool for correcting the oversights of the planning policies carried out in previous decades (Bécot and Parrinello, 2020). From its beginnings, the Conservatoire commissioned ethnographic studies and used photographs to illustrate the value of the regions where it operates (Kalaora and Konitz, 2004). Although conservation is the stated goal, it is expected to act as a facilitator and regulator working with cities, regional tourist boards and associations.

The Conservatoire relies on management plans and agreements. 90% of these agreements are made with cities, but some lands are also managed by associations whose purpose is to protect nature and heritage. Management plans detail the objectives and actions to be implemented. The agreements determine the rights and obligations of each partner, particularly the funding and human resources. The managers employ nearly 900 guards to provide surveillance, maintenance and visitor services. By the mid-2000s, some 600 farmers were working agricultural lands belonging to the Conservatoire (Braive, 2005). The Conservatoire also takes care of built heritage with historical, architectural or cultural significance.

Ill. 1. The Abbey of Beauport, acquired by the Conservatoire du Littoral in 1992 after having been at risk of being transformed into a real estate development, is not just a historical monument but also a coherent ensemble that combines natural and cultural aspects that visitors can explore while strolling freely without having to follow a marked path. This policy regulates traffic by diversifying the cultural offerings and price points as well as by setting up visitor stations. The parking area, ticket booth, restrooms, and museum space are designed for a maximum of 50,000 visitors annually (photo by Yves19800-Pixabay).

Side effects may occur near the intervention zones of the Conservatoire du Littoral. On the Côte Bleue, Denis Berthelot and Jérôme Dubois (2010) found that the Conservatoire was caught in a power struggle between those who want to protect their personal interests, with a sea view and private beach access, and those who demand that maintenance be performed to reduce the fire risk.

Some individuals and families who own expensive coastal properties see the Conservatoire du Littoral as a way to preserve their own privileges. In 1977, Countess Jacqueline de Beaumont, one of the first to sell to the Conservatoire du Littoral, sold three kilometres of shoreline along a piece of land located between Pont-Aven and Moëlan-sur-Mer. This protected the land from any type of development, while still allowing the owners to continue using the land, since they had retained possession of the nearby buildings. Similarly, to stop the invasion of tourists who picnicked, camped and left trash strewn on the sandy dunes of the Keremma domain, the fifty-seven co-owners donated 110 hectares along nine kilometres of coast to the Conservatoire in 1987 (Desouches, 2009; Buhot et al., 2012: p. 66-67; Vincent, 2015).

The 2002 law, which formally extended the Conservatoire’s missions to the maritime public domain, is the culmination of the institutionalisation of the Conservatoire. This law also gives it the right of first refusal, where it previously had to go through the departmental councils or the Safers (rural land development and management agencies). The Conservatoire’s intervention strategy for 2050, developed in 2005, includes a promise to preserve one-third of the French coastlines intact for all time, while working for sustainable development. In 2015, 13.1% of the coastline was protected by the Conservatoire du Littoral (Conservatoire du Littoral, 2015).

Johan Vincent


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