Police arrested 21 protesters in southern France's Sivens forest Friday as they swooped in and cleared out the site where environmentalists had camped out since October 2013 to protest the construction of a controversial dam project in the bio-diverse wetlands.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Cazeneuve ordered the camp's immediate removal Friday after the Tarn regional council voted in favor of constructing a scaled-down version of the reservoir at the forest located about 400 miles south of Paris.
Cazeneuve said that 300 gendarmes were sent to supervise the evacuation, which was completed within a few hours and relatively peacefully, despite police forcibly dislodging three activists perched on a wooden watchtower.
Some protesters had voluntarily left earlier Friday morning under a requested police presence to protect activists from counter-protesting local farmers whom the environmentalists accuse of employing intimidation tactics and even violence to dislodge them.
"We're not going to resist because there are ten times more of them than there are of us, and they're ten times more angry," one protester told French daily Libération.
Farmers were among those who vocally supported the council's original plans to build a reservoir capable of storing up to 1.5 million cubic meters of water, which would have provided much-needed irrigation to the surrounding farmland.
Watch VICE News' documentary Militant French Eco-Activists Protest Deforestation: Fight for the Forest below:
An impossible compromise
The council's decision to build a smaller dam has been met with opposition from both camps. Farmers argue that the new reservoir won't meet their irrigation needs, and environmentalists, who wanted the project to be shelved permanently, say the new project does not offer sufficient environmental guarantees.
The decision came after Environment Minister Ségolène Royal blocked construction of the original project in January and presented the council with two alternatives: build a dam half the size to be located more than 330 meters (1000 feet) upriver, or replace it with four smaller ones.
Tarn General Council Chairman Thierry Carcenac said that members did not vote on either of those options Friday, but said that the council had approved construction of the smaller dam and that the minister's second proposal was too costly.
Further studies would be carried out to determine if the new reservoir should be located, "300 meters, 200 meters or 50 meters away from the present site," Carcenac said after the vote, according to Radio France Internationale.
Pending the surveys, work at the site may not begin for another two years, he added.
Christiane Lambert, Vice President of the FNSEA agricultural union, described the council's decision as a "lesser evil," but Carcenac, who has been a strong advocate for the dam from the start, told Le Monde that the region would now have "to make do with 500 cubic meters of irrigation per acre, instead of the 2,000 we initially proposed."
A long battle
The protest site at Sivens, which was been occupied intermittently since October 2013, was coined the Zone to Defend (ZAD) by demonstrators, who call themselves "zadists." The camp has seen numerous clashes between police and the environmentalists, including one that ended in the death of 21-year-old Rémi Fraisse, who was killed by a police stun grenade in October, 2014.
As police entered the site Friday, the remaining zadists converged symbolically on the spot where Fraisse fell.
Keen to avoid any new tragedy at the site, the interior minister spoke to environmental activists from the Tant Qu'il Y Aura Des Bouilles collective — named after the local term for unprofitable wetlands — before the evacuation to ensure that it would take place "under good conditions and with protection," according to Libération.
By midday Friday, the ZAD was fully evacuated, according to local media reports. But the fight may not yet be over, with some activists vowing to hide in the woods to continue the protest after the clearing.
Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho
Image via Sébastien Thébault / Wikimedia Commons