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Economy

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Dans la forêt business, le grand blues des forestiers

by Philippe Jérôme

Forestry: The Foresters’ Blues

The world of labor

Translated Saturday 17 September 2011, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Bill Scoble

A series of suicides is rocking the National Office of Forests, where unease is growing among the civil servants as their job shifts to salesman from protector. Will the next scheduled death be that of the public service, as French forests are condemned to mercantile over-exploitation?

From our special correspondent on the French Riviera.

In Bormes-les-Mimosas, a charming seaside resort near Cape Nègre, a big 2000-square-foot, seven-room house is up for sale at the edge of Maures Forest. It’s a forest house – both the official home and the office of a former civil servant for the National Office of Forests (ONF). His job was cut when the public service, which was set up in 1964 on the ruins of the Administration of the Waters and Forests, was restructured yet again.

“The ONF is trying to generate income by all possible means, and selling off its property is one way,” said Arnaud Reusser with regret. Reusser is stationed in the upper valley of the Verdon, where he is responsible for the management of hundreds of acres of larches, fir trees, and other types of pine trees that belong either to the French government (state forest) or to municipalities. This is “his” forest, as he puts it, and he loves it, as do all the civil servants whose vocation it is to embark on this unusual career.

“I’ve seen fellow-workers cry and become depressed after a storm has harmed their forest,” Arnaud Reusser recounts. He says he is “poorly paid but very happy to work for future generations." Reusser was hired on contract after the 1999 storm and then passed the competitive exam to become a forester. His initial enthusiasm does not seem to have suffered, although lately, the green-uniformed young man, who has “also taken the oath and been armed to police hunting by the public,” has been brooding.

“Staff numbers are continually falling, and those who remain in the service have bigger and bigger areas that they have to manage. We no longer can perform all our missions, which run from preserving biodiversity to dealing with the public. We’re overloaded with work and we’re being pushed more and more to concentrate on being salesmen for the wood-growing factory that the public forests are becoming. That’s not the way I saw my job when I was entrusted with a forest that is to be handed back in good condition!”

This change for the worse in the jobs of foresters, forest rangers, and forest technicians is obviously linked to the financing problems that the ONF has encountered over the past decade. Since it was set up, the EPIC (1) has had two sources of financing: the sale of lumber (100 percent of state forest income and 10% to 12% of municipal forest income) and an annual grant of government aid termed the “compensatory sum.”

This mode of financing is all the more irregular as it depends on lumber prices, which in the final analysis are determined by the buyers at open ascending price (English) and open descending price (Dutch) auctions. Lumber prices have been halved over the past decade. As a result, two options presented themselves: making ONF financing independent of speculating on lumber prices, or else producing more lumber in the hope of making more money. The second option was adopted, ecologically sugar-coated during the “Grenelle Environmental Round Table” (2), where it was decided to produce an additional 4.2 billion board feet of firewood by 2020. Shortly afterwards, the figure was upped to an additional 8.9 billion board feet by the person who was becoming fed up with the environment (3). At present, annual production is around 5.5 billion board feet.

Pascal Leclercq, the general secretary of the CGT Forestry Trade Union, believes we’re heading for “an over-exploitation of the forest, forgetting that it is above all an ecosystem which, while it can produce raw material, also plays a social and environmental role.” In the looming free trade chain saw massacre, the ONF civil servants, guarantors of the common interest, appear to be in the way. And their wages appear as an “adjustment variable.” As a consequence, their numbers are being axed – 700 jobs are slated to go by 2016!

The ONF has been “reformed” continuously for the past ten years. New management techniques made their appearance at the same time as contracts with objectives to be met. “The civil servant’s main job henceforth is to harvest a volume of lumber as scheduled and to find customers to buy it,” said Pascal Leclercq, who believes that in a matter of a few years the public forests have gone from “prudent management to short-term commercial profitability.” “The title of the last training course that I attended was ‘listening to the customer,’ Arnaud Reusser says.

Does this reorientation of ONF policy help to explain the 21 suicides among forestry civil servants in the past few months, with the last two, in early summer, occurring in parts of France as different as granite-ribbed Lozère and sandy-soiled Gironde? According to Pascal Viné, the new general director of the ONF, who recently visited the French Riviera, “it is very difficult to link the present worker unease with the suicides” (Var Matin, August 17, 2011 edition).

But it must nevertheless be pointed out that, proportionately, this tragedy is greater than the suicides at France Télécom. The ONF has shrunk to only 9500 workers. All of the trade unions at the ONF, with greater or lesser caution, directly link the suicides with the “new methods of management and on-the-job suffering.” The CGT points out that many of the civil servants who took their lives in a context of “creeping privatization” were veterans, for whom the ethics of their job came first.

They were veterans who, little by little, had seen “hammering” – the fixing of two state seals on a tree to be cut down, the foresters’ pride – replaced by anonymous spray-painted marks. In Provence, a private entrepreneur and a big regional employer took advantage of that to devastate a state forest and grab 170,000 board feet of lumber. All it cost him was a slap-on-the-wrist inn fines. In the confrontation with this lumber merchant, the government backed down – and civilization took a step backwards.

Figures

Woods and forests cover 39.5 million acres in mainland France, up 20% over the past thirty years.

The proportion of forests in mainland France varies from 5% in lower Normandy to 62% on the French Riviera.

Private forests account for 71% of the standing lumber that is cut down.

Since 1987, around 6,000 jobs have been cut at the ONF, or 40% of the original staff.

The National Office of Forests employs around 9,500 workers, of whom two-thirds, recruited by competitive exam, are civil servants, under oath, and bear firearms.

Wood presently represents around 70% of the renewable energy used in France. The amount is set to double by 2020.

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Notes

(1) An EPIC or établissement public à caractère industriel et commercial is a category of public undertaking in France, including some research institutes and infrastructure operators.

(2) The "Grenelle Environment Round Table", instigated by the President Nicolas Sarkozy in the summer of 2007, was to define the key points of public policy on ecological and sustainable development issues for the years 2007-2012.

(3) President Nicolas Sarkozy.


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