French farmers squared off against a group of environmental activists Monday near the site of a proposed dam in the Sivens Forest, around 400 miles south of Paris. The clash coincided with an upcoming vote by local officials that will decide the fate of the divisive dam proposal.
The farmers argue that the dam will provide much-needed irrigation for their fields. They have been clashing with the Zadists — the name given to the activists occupying an area near the proposed dam site dubbed the "zone to defend," or ZAD — who maintain the project poses a huge environmental threat to the biodiverse Sivens wetland.
Tensions had been building all weekend after the two sides fought over a barricade that was erected by activists on a road near the proposed dam site. Local police said clashes between the opposing groups "came to blows several times."
In an attempt to avoid any further skirmishes, police reportedly formed a 150-strong cordon on Monday to separate the farmers from the protesters.
The farmers, who see the dam as a vital boost to local agriculture, have called for the immediate eviction of the occupiers, who they say are preventing them from logging and accessing their pastures.
In January, a court in nearby Albi ruled that some — but not all — of the areas occupied by activists could be cleared.
The original dam proposal called for a reservoir capable of storing up to 1.5 million cubic meters of water. Local officials and farmers say that much water is needed to irrigate the surrounding farmland, but French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal suspended the original dam project in January, saying it was no longer "an appropriate solution."
Instead, Royal said she "endorsed" two new proposals. One would build a smaller version of the dam 330 meters upstream. The other would create three smaller reservoirs. The Tarn general council, the local governing body that has final say over the project, is now studying the alternative proposals and is scheduled to make a decision Friday.
Activists with the Tant Qu'il Y Aura Des Bouilles collective — named after the local term for unprofitable wetlands — say neither of the alternatives offer sufficient environmental guarantees.
"While the initial project seems to have been suspended, it remains that the two alternatives put forth are unacceptable," the group wrote on Facebook. "Both projects are located in the wetlands, they both overestimate the irrigation needs, they both continue to serve the interests of local officials, and they were both imagined in a logic of destruction. We are not giving up!"
Pierre Vincens, a local famer who supports the dam project, told AFP the community needs "at least 650,000 cubic meters of water to irrigate 80 small farms." He said it was "necessary to build a dam on the site initially earmarked and to allow for possible expansion, according to future irrigation needs."
A French farmers' union has waded into the debate and thrown its support behind the region's growers. Aveyron Dominique Faye, the union's president, told BFMTV that his organization is trying to "put more pressure on public officials so that they enact the law."
"Ten days ago, the court ruled that the occupation of the site by the Zadists was illegal and unlawful, and that they should be evicted without delay," Faye reportedly said.
Addressing the French National Assembly in January, Royal, the energy minister, said the protesters would not be evicted until a final decision about the dam is made. "As soon as local officials have made their choice, the site will be evacuated, and the rule of law will be restored," Royal said.
The Tant Qu'il Y Aura Des Bouilles collective says farmers have penned in the activists occupying the site. They called for a March 4 meeting in the nearby town of Gaillac to gather supplies for their comrades.
Zadists have denounced the use of "psychological pressure" by the farmers, who they claim have blocked off several access points to the proposed dam site.
In October, a 21-year-old protester named Rémi Fraisse was killed by stun grenade fired by police during a demonstration at the dam.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter@meloboucho