Puy-de-Dôme: a festive mobilization against an XXL megabasin project

And one, and two, and three shovels! » intones a hundred demonstrators, grouped around a stream equipped with an agricultural drainage system. Encouraged by the crowd, certain activists equipped with spades vigorously dig the embankment to plug the drain. Using branches and salvaged earth, a beaver dam takes shape little by little. The objective? Restore a wetland to allow water to return to its natural levels, essential for the good balance of the ecosystem.

This “punch” action will be the most radical of the mobilization of Saturday May 11, 2024, which, as announced in advance, took place smoothly, in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. festive. More than 6,500 people gathered this sunny weekend for a hike between the towns of Vertaizon and Billom, in the Limagne plain (Puy-de-Dôme). The multi-generational procession stretches as far as the eye can see on the path which runs alongside the agricultural plots.

The procession of 6,500 demonstrators stretched for more than a kilometer. (Photo: Tristan Dereuddre.)

Flags and signs float among the numerous paper jellyfish which stand several meters high on the end of poles. The musical atmosphere oscillates between militant songs and classics of French song: slogans such as “Limagrain releases, resistance and sabotage! » Or “Wetlands, versus basins! » are taken in unison between two Aya Nakamura titles.

The cumulative storage capacity would exceed 2.3 million m3or 500 Olympic swimming pools.

At midday, the demonstrators stopped at the site of the Bouzel megabasin project. They surround the immense plot, forming a human chain, and provide themselves with seeds provided by the organizers. “Plant seeds along the edge, we will create vegetation around the basin! » chants an organizer into his megaphone. This location must accommodate one of the two “substitute reservoirs” which, if they were to see the light of day, could be the bigger megabasins from the country. With an area greater than 32 hectares (the equivalent of 45 football fields), their cumulative storage capacity would exceed 2.3 million m3, or the volume of 500 Olympic swimming pools. In their case, the word gigabassines is even used.


At the origin of this family and pacifist demonstration, we find the local branches of Bassines Non Merci, Earth Uprisings, Voluntary Reapers, Extinction Rebellion and the Peasant Confederation. All denounce a project that is destructive from a socio-economic and ecological point of view. Far from simply collecting rainwater, megabasins pump the water in groundwater or in watercourses.

Those of Limagne plan to pump water resources in Allier during the winter period, between November and March, with the aim of having reserves to irrigate crops in summer. The Allier River is a vital pillar for the region. It not only supplies a significant part of agricultural water needs, but it is also essential for the supply of potable water : around 300,000 people are affected, particularly in Clermont-Ferrand and in part of the Allier department.

On the same subject : “Megabasins cause anthropogenic drought of rivers”

However, its flow is steadily decreasing due to climate change. The forecasts for 2050 are alarming : a drop of around 30% in a normal year and up to 50% in a dry year compared to the current situation. “In a year like 2022-2023, the basin could not have been completely filled if we respect the dates and planned pumping levels. Given the financial issues, it seems very complicated to have basins that will remain empty. We risk regularly having exemptions from the prefect to continue to fill”, alarms Nicolas Fortin, national secretary of the Peasant Confederation.

We must review agricultural models and review water use priorities.

N. Fortin

Devastating”, “mind-boggling”, there is no shortage of qualifiers among the project’s detractors. All denounce a control over water by a minority of farmers committed to the agro-industry model. In Puy-de-Dôme, the multinational Limagrain, which symbolizes the dominant practice of industrial agriculture, is angering the members of the Peasant Confederation.

Megabasins Limagrain Puy-de-Dôme
The demonstrators denounced a control over water by a minority of farmers committed to the agro-industry model. (Photo: Tristan Dereuddre.)

“Here as elsewhere, the problem of basins for farmers is a hoarding of water”, denounces Nicolas Fortin. “During periods of restricted use, farmers with priority crops who will not have access to basins will find themselves without water. We must review agricultural models and review water use priorities: food crops, market gardening, arboriculture, which are directly intended for human food”, he continues.

Flight forward

In addition to the monopolization of a common good, it is the drying up of natural ecosystems and the degradation of the soil that makes activists jump. The massive pumping of water into groundwater and rivers to fill the basins leads to a drying out wetlands and soils. Furthermore, this same pumping aggravates soil degradation by modifying their structure and composition, having repercussions on the fertility of agricultural land in the long term. “This type of project does not at all promote the gentle and responsible agricultural models that should be put in place to continue to feed ourselves in the long term.”, says Lola, an agronomy school student.

On the same subject : For peasant agriculture, stop megabasins!

Because if megabasins are so criticized, it is also because they represent a short-term approach to water management: by drying out the soil and diverting water resources from natural ecosystems, the project contributes to further reducing increased water availability in the long term. This short-term approach looking like a headlong rush is fully assumed by the Limagrain cooperative. Thirty-six farmers from the Billom basin, grouped within the Free Trade Union Association (ASL) of Turleuros, are at the origin of the Limagne megabasins project. The majority of them are members of the cooperative, the 4th largest seed company in the world. Project leaders benefit from 70% funding from the State.

Our public money goes to benefit private interests, a multinational.

Mr. Panot

You are giving private interests a free pass to continue to dry up groundwater and rivers”, indicated Marianne Maximi, LFI deputy for Puy-de-Dôme, to the Minister of Agriculture last Tuesday May 7 during a question session with the government. “Our public money goes to benefit private interests, a multinational. Water is a number one issue of the 21st centurye century, droughts will multiply. Putting public money into a solution described by Limagrain himself as a short-term solution is completely irresponsible.”, protested during the mobilization of May 11 Mathilde Panot, president of the rebellious group in the Assembly.

The seed jackpot

Limagrain denies being at the origin of the project, which it nevertheless supports. And we understand why: one of the agro-industry giant’s flagship activities is the production of corn seeds. Seed corn is based on the hybridization technique, which involves cross-fertilization between two plants of the same species. Around 15% of agricultural land in Limagne is devoted to this practice, which is particularly water-intensive. Seed corn is proving to be a particularly lucrativeabout four times more profitable than wheat.

On board the Méga-Vélo, the mega-sound system and megaphones dictate the festive musical atmosphere. (Photos: Tristan Dereuddre.)

The seed market is one of the most profitable businesses in existence. The markets are huge”, explains Totona (pseudo), geographer, anthropologist and member of Bassines Non Merci 63. “Between table corn and seed corn, the economic ratio per hectare is 1 to 4. This makes it possible to maintain profitable cereal farms with a fairly small surface area compared to the average.

Originally from the region, Limagrain has built a super powerful empire. With 1,300 cooperators, it is difficult for farmers to become independent from the cooperative. The contract with the seed company allows farmers not to be dependent on world wheat prices with guaranteed prices. “You can support one person on 60 hectares with seed corn. You need about a hundred for corn.”, explains Totona.

On the same subject : Against megabasins, “the water war has begun”

Limagrain contracts therefore allow farmers to maintain themselves and be profitable on smaller farms. Financial security, at the expense of a certain freedom: “The other side of things is that farmers are no longer just the performers. They must produce their corn seeds according to the protocols set by Limagrain, they have the obligation to irrigate. This is where the cooperative holds the farmers: either you irrigate or you have no contract”, he squeaks.

The signs and slogans were out on May 11. (Photos: Tristan Dereuddre.)

This dynamic therefore allows Limagrain to have a pressure way on the farmers of Limagne to encourage them to carry out the megabasins project. “If farmers refuse free union association to carry the basins, they will not have water in the summer. No water to irrigate, no seed corn, and therefore no contract. This is what the Limagrain empire is, everything is locked”, notes Totona.

After a geological analysis, the Saint-Georges-sur-Allier land, initially chosen to accommodate one of the two megabasins, was rejected. Research is underway to find a new plot, allowing activists to win time to try to obtain a moratorium on megabasins. Today in France, around 300 alternative reservoir projects are under study.

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