The Camargue Biosphere Reserve lies between the Rhône River and the Mediterranean Sea, and since its review in 2006, now covers the entire biogeographic region of the Rhône delta. It is an immense natural area located between two densely populated regions, and is bordered by the cities of Montpellier, Nîmes, Arles and Marseille and the Fos-sur-Mer Industrial Zone.
The Camargue’s predominantly flat landscape actually has numerous pockets of diversity: alluvial ridges along the former and present branches of the Rhône, dune ridges formed by sea currents, and the historic shores of the Mediterranean. In the depressions between these still partly-wooded ridges can be found low-lying lagoons fringed by salt steppes, reed marshes – parts of which are harvested – and ponds, the largest of which, Vaccarès, occupies 6,500 hectares.
The high salt content of the soil and water, great variations in flooding conditions and the whims of the Mediterranean climate all contribute to the biological wealth of the Rhône delta.
The agricultural landscapes of the Camargue are diverse: the wet grasslands and sansouires (Salicornia steppes) are used for breeding bulls and horses, former marshes have been converted into rice fields, lagoons have been developed for salt production and fruit and vegetable crops, and vineyards can even be found on the dune ridges. The water necessary for this agriculture is conveniently found all around. This natural irrigation system determines the management of the agricultural areas and indirectly determines that of the surrounding natural environment.
Administrative authorities: Camargue Regional Natural Park (PNRC) and Joint Committee for the management and protection of the Camargue in the Gard department (SMCG)
Many managers, users, research organizations, and administrations are involved at various levels throughout the Camargue. The Biosphere reserve provides a framework for collaborative projects across the entire Delta. Operational decisions are made by the Management Committee, the Technical Committee (made up of partners and stakeholders of the site), and the Scientific Council (involving local researchers).
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Those who have worked in the Camargue over the centuries have managed to maintain a high spatio-temporal diversity in their cultivation and development of natural environments.
The challenge has been preserving these environments in the face of changes in the land and population, development of extensive livestock farming, agriculture and salt production, appearance of new types of leisure activities, and restructuring of industrial activities at the port of Fos-sur-Mer, located just beyond its southeastern corner.
The preservation of 300 migratory and semi-sedentary bird species (75% of all bird species identified in France), some of which are endangered, depends on this maintenance of diversity.
Their habitats are a result of the balance between natural environments and those used for economic or recreational purposes.
Rice and salt production help to maintain many canals, which are important habitats for some species, whether directly or indirectly.
Extensive farming of Camargue bulls and horses is practised in the site’s ‘high’ wetlands, a technique that is highly appropriate to the ‘wild’ expanses of the Camargue, one which could be seen as the cultural soul of the Rhône delta. Grazing land supports a high level of biodiversity which requires open habitats to be maintained.
Hunting is a core activity of the site’s identity. It maintains the connection between humans and nature, a love of the marshes and a desire to preserve it and pass it on to future generations. It is also an important economic resource in preserving the wetlands on the large private estates. Fishing and reed harvesting, or sagne, are also resources that can be sustainably managed if the natural environment remains intact.
Like extensive livestock farming, these cultural and economic activities are indicators of the health of the Delta and should be maintained in balance.
Nature discovery tourism is booming. This also helps to promote the wetlands and is therefore seen as a healthy alternative to other forms of economic activity which would be less ideal from a heritage point of view. This trend should therefore be encouraged, preserving the quality of the sites for the benefit of visitors, locals and nature alike.
This desire to maintain the balance between humans and nature is reflected in the implementation of contractual agreements with the site’s economic stakeholders (agri-environmental measures and Natura 2000 charters, labels and voluntary commitments), and of conservation programmes for Protected Natural Areas (national nature reserves, sensitive natural areas of the region and department, and coastal conservation authority land).
Ensuring scientific monitoring of the Biosphere Reserve
The Biosphere Reserve Scientific Committee is proposing to identify parameters and indicators which are simple and relevant enough to be able to measure changes in the Camargue relating to biodiversity, water, human activities, coastal issues, etc. The information will be stored in a joint observatory for the entire Delta. Six discussion workshops have already been established with a dedicated facilitator for each. The project may be able to find funding under the quality-resources-biodiversity section of the interregional Rhône Plan contract.
A large number of scientific organizations are currently working in the Camargue. They are attempting to identify (or generate) benchmarks for Biosphere Reserves in relation to biodiversity, as well as indicators of its overall condition.
Getting to know the Camargue Biosphere Reserve
A collection of 15 annotated maps, published in the form of a small atlas, presents the key features of the Biosphere reserve: zoning, coastal development, flooding, irrigation systems, natural environments, human activities and land use. Co-published by the Camargue Regional Natural Park (PNRC) and the Joint Committee for the Camargue in the Gard (SMCG), the atlas is available upon request for educational purposes, and is on sale at the Reserve’s visitor centres.
Camargue from Above, aerial views of a Biosphere Reserve.
This photographic exhibition by Jean Roché shows the Rhône delta from an aerial perspective. It accompanies the book Camargue Land'Art: la Camargue vue du Ciel (in French, published by Actes Sud) which presents the site through its unique characteristics – the connection between humans and nature, and the landscapes which result from this relationship. The exhibition travels to each of the communes of the Biosphere reserve and further afield.
Public awareness in schools and for visitors
In partnership with the French Federation of Camargue Races, school activities are offered to Biosphere reserve students on the theme of Camargue races and the role of the herds in maintaining biodiversity. Many other activities and guided tours are offered to schools and the general public.
Supporting agri-environmental projects
A fairly substantial proportion of the Biosphere reserve site is part of the Natura 2000 network of European sites of particular environmental importance. The Biosphere reserve’s administrative authorities are in charge of drafting and implementing objectives documents.
They also oversee contractual arrangements between farmers and the State according to specific terms. These arrangements involve livestock farmers, rice growers, wine producers, reed cultivators and salt producers, and the agreements range from Natura 2000 contracts to agri-environmental measures and/or charters.