Resisting for the Future
The World Equestrian Games of Eventing was in 2014 held in one of France’s most beautiful and prestigious equestrian venues, the Haras du Pin in Normandy.
As I went there, I was held up by the sight of a camp of a completely different order, just some kilometres from the Pin, in Nonant-le-Pin. A camp of a completely different order but whose interests are closely linked to those of the national stud centre and of the whole equestrian business of the region.
It is all a long story which is difficult to make short – of absurd decision-making, of murky entrepreneurship and of local mobilisation – but it is well worth to be told, as an example of complacent regional ruling and of how to fight for long-term values across social borders.
In 2012, a company called GDE bought 170 acres of beautiful farmstead in Nonant-le-Pin. Seen from the main road, the estate looks Arcadian and serene with its typically Norman manor house surrounded by pastures where thoroughbreds peacefully graze. You need to get up on a ladder against the entrance gate (like I did, with the courtesy of the FRO*) to see the back of this idyllic scenery: the big white installations of the waste treatment, GDE’s activity. Or, rather, planned activity. We will get back to that.
It all looks proper enough, although industrial.
The snag is the waste that is supposed to be treated: a mix of things called RB (“Refus de Broyages”), DIB (Déchets Industriels et Banals) and Fermentiscibles creating a type of biogas containing heavy metal, dioxin and so called HAP, “Hydrocarbure Aromatique Polycyclique”. Some of these substances being carcinogen and teratogenic, thus obviously a danger for human and animal health.
GDE’s sombre background, having collected bad press for, amongst many other things, a toxic waste dumping in Abidjan in 2006, has done nothing to reassure the local population.
An investigation prior to the construction of the site led to a prefecture refusal of the installation, a refusal that was annulled (with the motivation of procedure errors) by the Administrative Court of Caen in 2011.
If the local attitudes were diverse at the time, environmental issues standing against promises of employment, the horse breeders, the regions main employers, had an immediate reaction towards the project, fearing contamination of their world-renowned animals and a loss of image. Several celebrities connected to the region, amongst them the filmmaker Luc Besson, also protested against GDE’s plans from early on. Against them, they had the environmental Minister of the time, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who supported the project.
The plant was built. But the villagers were not ready to give up just yet. For them, the risk of contamination, which would probably have led to great difficulties for the equine activity that the region is living on, was simply too big considering the lack of confidence in GDE’s methods, and they would not accept it. It started with a blockade of the centre of the nearby town Alençon – and ended with the blockade of the plant where villagers now relay each other 24/24 to impede any entrance of waste trucks.
The name of the association, the “Front de Résistance de l’Orne”, makes one think of radical political movements – and it is certainly the idea – with a twist of chic gentry. “It is in the interest of us all”, the two fellows “on duty” explained whilst offering a cup of coffee, “we come from all walks of life but we are together in this – if you destroy the long-term values of a place for short-term profit, you are certain as a village to lose everything”. They are very active, and few people visiting the World Equestrian Games in 2014 could avoid getting a FRO flyer in his hand. A well-documented Internet gives every information needed – and one can even buy the appropriate “anti-GDE” badge for anyone who plans to visit Nonant. The villagers have not been alone: above the celebrity support, the assistance, not least the scientific one, by the NGO CNIID, “Centre National d’Informations Indépendantes sur les Déchets”, has been of crucial importance. But the support has been in balance with the villagers’ engagement, the determination to succeed certainly motivating the helping hand.
In October 2015, the prefect prohibited the entrance of waste on GDE’s site, basing her decision on an expertise stating a large number of aspects of the installations that were not in compliance with the type of sensitive treatment it was supposed to carry out. Is the battle won? Maybe. But probably the villagers will stay in front of the gate as long as the site has not been closed definitely.
I have my own history with this region, which has left me a memory of a timeless and somewhat sleepy beauty and gentleness. In this affair, it had to meet harsh reality, and stood up to the challenge.
Even gentry can be radical, given the right cause.
*The “Front de Résistance de l’Orne”.