Estelle Rouquette: “Without the Rhone, there’d be no Camargue”

The Curator of the Museum of the Camargue is a privileged witness of the history and culture of this region, whose identity is marked by water. Whereas the sea is rising and the discharge of the Rhone is falling, she calls for the resources to continue living in the Camargue. For her, it’s simple: human beings must no longer live against nature but with it in this territory undergoing constant change between land and sea.

Estelle Rouquette devant le Rhône, Grande Montlong, Arles – Copyright : SYMADREM

When did human beings first settle in the Camargue delta?

The presence of human beings in the delta is very recent! Hunter-gatherers did not live in the delta, which was very small and only began forming 7,000 years before our era. At the time, the delta was an area of extraction. People came here to hunt and fish but not to live, due to floods and the insalubrity, mosquitoes, etc. The conquest of the delta by human beings started with the first arrivals from the sea, the Greeks, who started by setting up trading posts.

Later, it was the Romans who made the Rhone delta a cereal growing area. That’s what the museum recounts: how activities have evolved since antiquity and polyculture up to the 19th century when winegrowing predominated in large estates that submerged the vines to protect them against phylloxera. The Camargue is now known for rice growing, with the “Riz de Camargue” label.

Why is it said that water structures and gives life to the Camargue region?

Water has structured and restructured the Camargue for a very long time, with the contribution of the river and its different branches that render the habitats less harsh and shape the region with floods and low water levels. On the other side, there’s the sea that pushes back the sediments and forms them into the delta whose contours changed considerably up the end of the 19th century.

Indeed, it was during the industrial era and Napoleon III that the State, pressed by the big landowners of the Camargue, financed the erection of levees all around it to protect it from the floods of the Rhone and the sea, to place property and cattle in security. This history left an imprint on people’s minds: up to then, they had adapted to and lived with floods without considering that they were disasters. The concept of “disaster” arrived with the flood of 1856, which was the flood that proved too many. It occurred at a time when humanity believed it had complete control over nature, and it was to accelerate the containment of the Rhone.

The Camarguais, who feared to see the return of a period they had not known, that of the floods three or four times in the same winter, still hark back a great deal to this Napoleonic era when men opposed the natural cycle by turning to the technology implemented in the developments. However, the floods enriched and washed the soil, allowing it to expulse the salt it contained. These natural exchanges are no longer possible today, or at least they’re feared. The challenge now is to change people’s mindsets: it’s not possible to be against nature, we’re with it and have to accept the dynamics of aquatic ecosystems while preserving the presence of human beings and economic activities.

What does the geography of the Camargue look like?

You can see clearly on the maps in the museum, some of which date back to the 17th century, that the Camargue forms a kind of very mobile archipelago. The morphology of this territory is highly specific and rooted in the delta of the Rhone which extends from Fos-sur-mer to Grau-du-Roi, where the Vidourle, a coastal river of the Cévennes, marks its boundary. The Camargue is an island located in the middle of the delta. It also comprises a small island next to Saintes-Maries de la Mer, called the Petite Camargue. Although the form of these islands has changed over time, it has now been stabilised so as to maintain and develop human activities. For example, I’m thinking of the salt farms near the village of Salin de Giraud which could only have existed after the levees were built along the Rhone in 1860, making it possible to protect this method of exploiting the sea, which could have swept these installations away. Far older salt farms can be seen at Fos-sur-mer and Aigues-Mortes because the ground was much more stable than it was in the Camargue, at the centre of the delta’s movements!

Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Salin-de-Giraud, 1913. Digitised glass plate negative, Photo Carle Naudot / Copyright David Huguenin, Collection of the Museum of the Camargue.

What is the history of these salt marshes of the Camargue, which are so characteristic of the Rhone delta?

The salt marshes are large spaces composed of ponds within which seawater enters and then evaporates so the salt can be harvested. The salt can be destined for food, food conservation and health. In the Camargue, the salt farms of Salin de Giraud were created by the companies Pechiney and Solvay to produce soda intended for the soap manufacturers of Marseille.

Marseille soap is also a product of the Camargue! Lastly, at least partially, olive oil was also necessary. The salt farming companies like Pechiney and Solvay (a Belgian group), which arrived at the end of the 19th century, built two workers towns from scratch, based on the model of towns in Northern Europe. This village built from nothing had a population of up to 5,000! It was right next to the Rhone, with a port from which boats could transport the soda to Marseille.

From 1891, the Camargue was also crossed by railways developed by private companies that also transported wine. It was transported directly in tanker wagons and was intended for blending with wines from Algeria at Marseillan and Sète. Since the roads were difficult to travel on, railways were necessary to transport the wine and the salt. The Camargue was at the centre of a trading network, and the river and the sea were both transport corridors and resources.

Harvesting salt at Salin-de-Giraud, between 1935 and 1940. Photo Carle Naudot. Digitised glass plate negative / Copyright David Huguenin, Collection Museum of the Camargue.

The development of the Camargue also comprises the creation of canals from the Rhone to permit farming.

These two periods of development are indissociable. There are canals to bring water and culverts to drain it – since during floods it’s necessary to drain the water to the Rhone or the marsh of Vaccarès, which covers 6,500 ha. These works started in the Middle Ages! Although we know that as far back as antiquity, Roman villas were already installed close to the river to benefit from this freshwater so vital for life, with the first culverts.

Maps from the 17th century show that the Camargue was already crossed by all these networks. The Rousty canal, for example, just beside the museum, starts from the Petit Rhône and flows into the Vaccarès marsh, crossing several estates including “Mas du Pont de Rousty”. What changed in the 19th century was the work of the hydraulic engineers who came to perfect these developments, with steam pumps and then diesel pumps.

Baudoin diesel engine, produced at the foundry of Marseille in 1890 and belonging to the estate Dépôt du Mas de la Cure, Museum of the Camargue.

These pumping stations still exist, following improvements made by rural development engineers in the 20th century. They are now electric and managed by a governance structure that dates back to the Middle Ages: the Syndicats d’Arrosants (Watering Syndicates), or ASA (Authorised Association of Syndicates), which pool the cost of water and ensure its distribution in each estate served by a canal. This is the case of the canal of Fumemorte (in Provençal, “dead river”), a canal that passes via an old branch of the Rhone and benefits from this natural geographic trough. The solidarity promoted by the ASA regarding water management is part of the cultural identity of the Camargue, an identity based on water resources which remain a major cultural symbol, in addition to the classic folklore symbols of the Camargue, headed by bulls and horses.

Is this solidarity based on water still as strong in the Camargue?

The shared governance of water persists. Water is managed by very strong and powerful organisations. For example, the ASA are part of the management of the reserve, which is quite rare for regional nature reserves which are generally run by mixed syndicates of local authorities. Governance also includes local chambers of agriculture, which have the right to speak and vote. They also coordinate the Water Commission, and commissions responsible for various issues in order to take important decisions on territorial development. In particular, they deliberate on the need to evacuate the central marsh of Vaccarès when the sea is lower than the water of the marshes. This commission plays a vital role in the complex system of interconnected bodies of water between the sea, the Rhone and the central marshes, a balance that was once achieved naturally.

In the Camargue, there are very strong and powerful organisations around water issues.

How can this balance between nature and human beings be maintained in the context of climate change and the rarefaction of water resources?

The challenge is to assist the sustainable development of the territory, without preventing its people from developing their activities. Moreover, that’s one of the roles of the museums: communicate messages, make people aware. We try to push towards change: the aim is not to go back to the 18th century, but to find a resilient project for the territory that incorporates this new state of affairs. The sea is rising and the river is lowering: we have to find the means to continue living.

Can this awareness be achieved regarding water?

Personally, I think that it’s by the guiding thread of water that we’ll be able to find solutions. I’m optimistic, because awareness really seems to be dawning – I’ve been working at the Reserve for 14 years and the term “climate change” was completely forbidden previously, despite scientific evidence. Today, it’s water that makes these changes most visible and concrete, leading to genuine awareness.

For example, I participated in a consultation meeting on the management of the old salt farms acquired by the Coastal Conservatory and thus the Reserve in their joint management. They have been rewilded to create buffer zones between housing and rising sea levels. I could see the change in perceptions: not only is nature in danger, it’s also an ally for developing! Nonetheless, I remember that during the meeting one inhabitant of Salin de Giraud exclaimed that “We have to abstain from water!”. It’s strange to want to abstain from water in a wetland (laughs). Not too much abstinence though!

What relationship do young people have with the river?

Thirty-year-olds don’t have the same perception of the Rhone as their elders, who sometimes have a very strong relationship with it. They grew up with the idea, since 1994 (Ed. hundred year flood), that the Rhone can overflow again, like it did in 2003. This hazard has been well understood and assimilated.

On the other hand, I think that that younger generations have not yet developed a different paradigm. Many of them still seek to preserve a heritage, practices of growing crops and livestock breeding. But there’s a certain flexibility; it’s a generation that will know how to recover. It is also awaiting financial and technical assistance from the public authorities, because the inhabitants of the Camargue will not be able to overcome the challenge awaiting them on their own. Part of the exhibition tells of the flood that the Camarguais experienced in 1551. They helped each other to build dikes … After a few hours the river won, but they had tried to defend themselves! We know well that defence on the local level is not enough, just like it was not enough in the old days.

In my opinion, a population remains to be won over. That of young farmers who still have a link to the river through extraction and leisure, and no child of the river! Some dream of maintaining what fostered the wealth of the farms of the Camargue since the 19th century. But nature-based solutions are making their way. I can see this awareness of struggle taking form, and all this conception of the relationship between agriculture and nature in which a field is a natural space and where farmers are and make nature. So, there’s a change of approach, even if it’s only for the sake of image. Many farmers have guest houses. They receive a public interested in this “natural” nature, and so they can’t keep up the paradox! This agritourism has had a big impact on orienting farmers towards agroecology. In the beginning, the Camargue didn‘t want to open up to tourism for fear of “over-tourism”. Today, the economic benefit is obvious, but it’s a tourism that the farmers control: they advise visits, organise stays. We’re still a long way from mass tourism because the region started very late.

Jean Travers and the Prefect Cousin, The Camarguais want the Camargue to stay alive a mysterious, cutting from the newspaper “Le Provençal”, 1967

And you, Estelle Rouquette, what is your personal relationship with the Rhone?

Well… I’ve always been irrigated by the Rhone! (she laughs) since I’m the daughter of a farmer in the Montpellier region. Our farm was irrigated by the Lower Rhône. I now have a property at Fontanès, north of Montpellier, and the Lower Rhone reaches as far as there! This river is tentacular, it’s everywhere, with the Lower Rhone, the canals, its tributaries.

I lived in the Roquette neighbourhood of Arles, still right next to the Rhone. I spent my nights with the residents of the neighbourhood on the quays, looking at the Rhone which rose in 2003. We were soaked by the river which flowed over the parapet. Then I was afraid of the Rhone, saying to myself if the parapet gave in, the whole neighbourhood would be swept away. But without the Rhone there’d be no Camargue. For me the Rhone is both a friend and a foe.

I no longer live in Arles, but I pass over the Rhone every day, and when I return, I look to see where it is, whether it’s low, high, muddy… It’s part of my life. The Rhone sets limits, borders. The Île de la Camargue exists only because of the Rhone and the sea. I think the identity of the Camargue is here, in this insularity isolated and protected by the Rhone and the sea.

If the Rhone were a person, what traits of character would you give it?

For me, the Rhone is embodied by legends, like the Drac and the Tarasque. The Rhone is a mystery with its depths and eddies. It’s a river with a very strong character, but with a good side too. When one has passed through the spines and teeth of the Tarasque, one knows that it is a very kind river, that you can dance with it! For me, the river is a multiple being: mysterious, a benefactor, powerful and sometimes angry.

The Monsters of the Rhone

The legend tells that the Drac, a fantastic creature invisible to humans but which could take on a human appearance, lived near the town of Beaucaire. It hides in the depths of the Rhone and feeds on the washerwomen who work close to the river. One day, the monster made away with one of the washerwomen, taking her down into the water to bring up its son and cover the little dragon with a special lotion every day so that it too would be invisible to the human eye. Released after seven years, she left endowed with a mysterious power: that of being able to see the real face of the Drac because, unfortunately, one of her eyes had come into contact with the lotion. One day, when going to the market, she saw and recognised the monster. Furious at being discovered, it put out the washerwoman’s eye.

Sculpture of the Tarasque by Pascal Demaumont, Tarascon / Copyright: Gérard Marin.

As for the Tarasque, it gave its name to the town of Tarascon. According to Christian tradition, the story started when Martha, Mary Magdalene’s sister, arrived from Palestine during the 1st century to evangelise the region. Sailing up the Rhone, she stopped at Tarascon and found the villagers terrorised. A monster haunted the banks of the river. This amphibious six-legged dragon, covered with a spiny tortoise shell and armed with claws and teeth, devoured beasts and people. Martha went to the Tarasque and tamed the animal. With her belt, she led it before the crowd who hurried to put it to death. So, Martha became the patron saint of the town. This myth expressed a message to the population: one must beware of the Rhone.

Statue of the Drac, Place de la République, Beaucaire / Copyright: Beaucaire Terre d’Argence Tourisme.
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