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In the south of France, drought, rising sea levels threaten traditions | WGN 720 Radio

SAINT-MARIE-DE-LA-MER, France (AP) — In a makeshift arena in the French coastal 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 duck and dodge the animal’s attacks while the audience lets out a collective gasp. Part ritual and part spectacle, the tradition is deeply woven into the culture of the country’s southern wetlands, known as the Camargue.

For centuries, people from all over the region have watched the Camargue bulls frolic in the Rhône Delta, where the Rhône River meets the Mediterranean Sea. But now the tradition is under threat due to rising sea levels, heat and drought that are making water sources salty and lands infertile. At the same time, the authorities are trying to preserve more land, leaving less for grazing bulls.

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

Generations of “manadores” or ranchers like Frédéric Reyna have dedicated their lives to raising the bulls that are indigenous to the region. Wild bulls, which can win prestigious fighting competitions, are most valued.

Reyna, a fifth-generation monadier, has raised many of these bulls on his “monad” — the term for a ranch in the region — east of Egg Mort. 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 there will be no land left for his famous cattle to feed on.

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

A temporary dam built by the local authorities to stop the rising sea has sunk in on itself, the water passing through it and ending up in the monads’ pastures. The edge of the ranch slides into the sea. The land that has not been swallowed up becomes unusable as the inflowing waters make the marshes more and more saline. Heat and drought, exacerbated by climate change, are also depriving land of fresh water, allowing seawater to take over.

“We used to only have salt rising on our land” closer to the coast, Reyna said. “But now the salt is rising through the soil five to six kilometers (3 to 4 miles) beyond the shoreline, where you can see the salt being covered by vegetation.”

Sea levels around the town of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer in the Camargue rose steadily by 3.7 millimeters (0.15 in) per year from 2001 to 2019, nearly twice the global mean sea-level rise measured over 20th century, according to the local research institute Tour du Vallat. Warming, expanding oceans, and melting land ice that result from climate change are contributing to sea level rise.

The researchers added that adding salt to the soil would make the land barren and uninhabitable long before it was swallowed up by the sea. Some affected pastures have already become bare with little vegetation, and the abnormally high salt content poses a health hazard to organisms that cannot tolerate it.

The Camargue has always attracted people because of its abundance of species and resources, despite ​​the hardships of living between the tides 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 lifeline of the Camargue, bringing fresh water from the Alps and reducing salt levels in the Camargue. As rain and snow fall, it becomes a less reliable source of fresh water, and researchers estimate 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 it is likely that in the coming years the 40% of the river flow arriving in the Camargue will be reduced to a much smaller percentage,” said Tour’s Jean Jalbert du Valat.

During the summer, which suffers from high temperatures and reduced rainfall, seawater can reach up to 20 kilometers (12 mi) into the Rhone River. During the heatwave this August, the Reyn family’s water pump in the Petit Rhône, a branch of the main river, began pumping salt water. They were forced to move the pump further upriver outside their own ranch to water the land and feed the livestock.

The Raynes recently bought 10 hectares (24 acres) of land north of their property for their bulls to graze.

“It’s not a lot for 250 bulls, but if one disaster happens, it will be a setback if we ever have to start over again,” Reyna said.

Manager Jean-Claude Grull already grazes his animals on individual pastures, taking advantage of the different conditions each offers for his cattle.

At dawn he whistles as he walks across the open field until a group of cotton-white Camargue horses heed his call and appear out of the mist. Growl loads his horses onto a truck and drives from one of his pastures to another he owns further down the road.

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

Fewer and fewer areas are becoming a priority for the ranch as authorities work to acquire land designated for conservation. Christine Aye, mayor of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Mer, said conservation efforts across the state put nature ahead of its citizens.

“They tell you on TV that the Camargue needs to be returned to nature,” said Islay, who is skeptical of schemes aimed at saving the region by limiting global warming and reforesting the land.

“The Camargue will be dry without fresh water” if such conservation plans are adopted, she added.

Aylett favors measures such as increasing the number of tidal barriers along the coastline, which she says will help residents, but researchers say these ideas are only a temporary fix and will not withstand the effects of coastal erosion and rapid climate change.

Scientists in the region say the Camargue risks losing its economic and cultural value, as well as its natural beauty, unless action is taken to help stem climate change. Leading climate experts around the world say sea levels will continue to rise and that decisive action is needed to stop the problem from worsening.

“The last five generations of the Camargue have lived with the belief that the balance of the Camargue is stable and will always be stable, but we are in a delta that is starting to face climate change,” said Tour du Vallat’s Jalbert. “Cracks are starting to appear in this ecosystem that we thought was stable.”

For Frederick Raine, how big those cracks are depends on whether he can keep the 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. “It would be terrible to leave this place, but if the sea comes here one day, we will have to go.”


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. Learn more about the AP Climate Initiative here. AP is solely responsible for all content.


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