A short micro-history on “The Myth of The Tragedy of the Commons”

Many European mountain communities held on to their common rights to use the forest well into the 19th century. Elinor Ostrom is fond of highlighting the example of how this was the case in the Swiss Alps – where viable and long-standing communal use and ownership patterns in the highlands co-existed with private ownership in the valleys. Such was also the case in the French Pyrenees in the early decades of the 19th century.

This was still a highly forested and remote world. Local historian Georges Labouysse describes it thus: ‘The conditions of life of these mountain dwellers were hard. They live in autarky in remote valleys where the means of communication were difficult…. They didn’t know what was happening in the outside world. Most of the time they weren’t even aware of the successive changes of regime since the Revolution: from 1815 to 1830 as follows: Napoleon 1st, Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe: four sovereigns in fifteen years!’ He goes on to tell us:

From times immemorial, the poor country people of the Pyrenees had freely used the forest to survive: tree trunks to construct their houses, dead wood to warm themselves, grazing for small herds, poaching and wild foraging and clearing and burning to create  a few pastures.

A charcoal burner’s hut in the forest

These community rights of usage (usufruct) were coupled with quite widespread communal ownership of land and, particularly, of forests. In fact, French historians have shown that, in contrast to the situation in the rest of France, in the Pyrenees forests were, in the majority of cases, owned in common by the local communities who lived in them. Some such communal rights and ownership patterns went back to Roman and Visigoth times, but others had had to be extracted in the early Middle Ages from the local Lords – either voluntarily or often after long fights. What is more, these rights of use did not constitute a free-for-all. Just as with the English ‘commons’, these mountain communities knew precisely who had a right to what and the extent of these rights in terms of how much could be used or taken. Mostly these rights were not written down, which was to cause problems later on, but they were explicit and informal mechanisms had evolved to ensure that the rights were not abused.

In terms of any Tragedy of the Commons, the first important point here is that there wasn’t one. The local communities had used the forests for centuries, and although they had carved out a few small plots to cultivate agricultural products, or on which to graze their cattle, there had been negligible impact on the extent of forest cover and on the health of the trees. Such communities led a rather meager life to be sure, but it had certainly been, to use a modern word, ‘sustainable’.

Yet things were changing in the outside world, and not just in terms of monarchs. In the early days of the French Revolution, communities were turned into ‘communes’, but these communes remained the proprietors of the forests. Things soon changed when Napoleon took charge of the country. He called the Ariège, the Pyrenean region with which I will be primarily concerned, ‘the land of iron and of men’. He had need of both – the men for his armies, and the iron mines to supply his forges. He also needed the Pyrenean forests to supply charcoal for these forges. So he nationalized them all – they all became the property of the state. It was at this time, and over the next few decades, that deforestation in the Pyrenees started to pick up.

Iron forges like this sprang up all over the Pyrenees – they consumed huge quantities of charcoal

With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the ‘national’ forests were privatized. They were sold, often at knock-down prices, to the ‘rich bourgeoisie’. They became private property. The new proprietors of the forests, who were often also the owners of the large iron forges of the region, didn’t want to have any truck with the local communities’ ancestral forest rights, which they vehemently contested. Their sole interest was their own profit. Many significant fortunes were made by cutting down the trees ‘sans pitié’ to feed a rising French industry and its steam engines. It should be added that French industry was at this time (the 1820s and 1830s) still almost totally dependent on charcoal – only much later did coal come into general use.

The new regime was brought into law in 1827, with the passing of a national Forest Code. All rights of forest usage were suppressed and any ‘paysan’ who continued to exercise such rights would in future be considered, literally, an outlaw and be liable to huge fines or imprisonment. During the debates, one Deputy explicitly stated why the Forest Code was necessary:

Industry whose prosperity is growing every day demands immense resources from our forests, (resources) that mining in the entrails of the earth can’t replace, above all for reasons of combustible quality.

No question here of any Tragedy of the Commons or such like. Industry needed the wood and thus the forests would fall. To enforce their private property rights the new proprietors kicked the local people off the land and recruited ‘forest guards’ to keep them off. For the local communities all this was a disaster. For generations they had relied on the forests to survive; now they were facing destitution. Most local people couldn’t be expected to fully understand the larger political and economic forces that were starting to play out, but they could see what the consequences were for themselves in their own locales. They had been kicked out of their ‘ancestral’ forests, hated forest guards had been employed to keep them out, whole swathes of forest were being felled and more and more charcoal burning forges were appearing everywhere.

They had to resist. Starting 1n 1828 they did so. This was the famous (at least locally) Guerre des Demoiselles. The new forest proprietors, who were usually also the owners of the forges, had contested the communities’ right to use the forests. When the communities had sought redress in the local courts they were asked to show written documentary proof. Of course such ‘charters’ granting these rights had either never existed or had long since been destroyed. But the locals looked for them in any case. On the 4th September 1828 they broke into the Town Hall of Sentein in the Ariège and broke open chests looking for such documentary proof – but in vain. Labouysse describes what happened next, in despair:

They undertook actions which were to mark the collective memory of this country (pays). Thus in February 1829, in the forest of Bethmale, the agents of repression – the famous forest guards paid by the private proprietors or by the State and whom the population called Salamanders (because their uniforms were black and yellow) roughly searched the houses of a few isolated peasants. Suddenly eight men appeared, disguised and armed with various instruments, who chased them away. This is the start of a permanent insurrection.

In 1829 and 1830 the resistance grew and spread over the whole region. Eventually it is estimated that 150,000 people were involved. In general, the resistance was comprised of young men, usually under twenty, joined by numerous veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. The bands became larger, and local leaders emerged. The most famous of these was called ‘Vidalou’ – in reality a certain Jean-Baptiste Lafforgue. Wherever they went, the forest guards, the Salamanders, were confronted by groups of such ‘disguised’ young men, who tried to stop them preventing access to the forests. They were in fact disguised as women or ladies (Demoiselles), hence the name given to the insurrection: La Guerre des Demoiselles. On eyewitness has left us this description of the Demoiselles:

The leader with whom I spoke was very tall, wore a underskirt over his …  grey trousers, had a sheep’s skin on his head which covered his whole face, (and) where he had made three openings to be able to see and breath; he wore a light cavalry sabre. Another, armed with an axe and of normal height, was covered with a dress tightened with a red belt to which was attached a pistol; his face was smeared black, with pig bristles implanted all over his face, and mainly in his eyebrows and top lip; he was ‘coiffured’ with a ‘shako’ (a hussar’s helmet). The rest of the band was more or less dressed in the same manner.

The bizarre disguises were necessary to prevent the Demoiselles from being identified. When individuals were brought before the courts they were often released because there was no solid evidence as to true their identity. Yet the manner in which they were dressed also finds echoes in the history of the local carnivals when, similar to the tradition in much of Europe, for a few days each year the world really was ‘turned upside down’. Lords served the peasants and women lorded it over men.

The Demoiselles had the support of nearly all the local population, including most of the village Mayors. The prefect of the Ariège wrote to the French Minister of the Interior in 1830 that it wouldn’t be of any use to try to plant spies or informers in the communities because:

The interests of the country people of the Ariège, in matters that concern the forests, are so linked that one can’t hope to find secret agents for the authorities, other than by buying them at a very high price.

The people of the Ariege still celebrate the victory of the Demoiselles

But the central government needed to act to protect the rights of private property. They had been told that ‘the inhabitants of the Ariège were ‘as savage and brutal as the bears they raise’. They sent in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmerie. But to little effect, despite instituting the notion of ‘collective responsibility’ even for individual ‘subversive’ acts. Not only did the Demoiselles have the support of the local populace – even the local freemasons, clergy, postmen and customs men were on their side – but they were also employing classic hit and run guerilla tactics, which the French troops found difficult to counter. As military repression didn’t seem to be working, the government decided to negotiate. Finally, on the 23rd February 1831, the French Interior Ministry issued an ordinance revoking all the statutes of the 1827 forest code. A general amnesty was proclaimed; all convicted offenders were released and all trials stopped. Ancestral rights to the use of the forest were restored. The people of the Ariège had won a significant, historic, but ultimately Pyrrhic, victory!

By the 1830s, many regions of the Pyrenean uplands were indeed experiencing significant deforestation. Michael Williams quotes several contemporary reports that described the scene ‘with phrases and words like “landscapes of desolation,” “blasted,” “terrible aspect,” and “terrible nudity of bare and sterile rock.”’ But, as we have seen, this deforestation, at least in the Pyrenees, was not the result of local communities having had common use of the forests, it was quite clearly the result, first of Napoleon’s need to wood to supply his armies and, later, of the privatized forests being exploited by private owners to supply wood and charcoal for the French industrial revolution.

The Ariege forests were saved as much by the shift to coal as by reforestation programmes

The Demoiselles were to return sporadically over the course of the next forty years. But in the long-term they weren’t able to stop the private felling and exploitation of the Pyrenean forests. This went on. The local people found it more and more difficult to survive, as their forests were cut down and their access and use was increasingly hampered. Like millions of Europeans in the 19th century, they emigrated in their droves to the growing towns and cities of France. There to become new members of the burgeoning urban proletariat. As regards the forests of the Pyrenees, what is left of them today can’t be put down to later French reforestation efforts, of which there were many, but rather they owe their existence to the fact that eventually French industry shifted to the use of coal, and later imported oil, and away from charcoal, as its primary source of energy. In this sense fossil fuels did save some of Europe’s forests.

What I hope is clear from this modest micro-history is that the deforestation that took place in the French Pyrenees was not caused at all by a Tragedy of the Commons. It was the result of political and economic developments in France as a whole and, at the local level, the deforestation was carried out by the new private owners of the forests, not by the local communities who had lost their rights to use the ‘commons’.

Sources and references

 Georges Labouysse,  D’étranges demoiselles,  Occitania, 2006 ; François Baby, La guerre des Demoiselles en Ariège (1829-1872), Montbel, 1972;  Jean-François Soulet, Les Pyrénées au XIXe siècle. L’éveil d’une société civile, éditions Sud-Ouest, Luçon, 2004;René Dupont, La guerre des Demoiselles dans les forêts de l’Ariège (1829-1831), Travaux du laboratoire forestier de Toulouse; Toulouse ; Prosper Barousse, Les Demoiselles, La Mosaïque du Midi, 1839 ; Michel Dubedat, Le procès des Demoiselles. Résistance à l’application du Code forestier dans les montagnes de l’Ariège (1828-1830), Bulletin de la société ariégeoise des sciences lettres et arts, 1899-1900.

  1. Excellent site! Congratulations! I myself created a page devoted to this topic, but treated with a sense of humor on this dramatic background, however, a little history of Carnival. It is unfortunately not yet completed for the last years of the deal …

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