Remobilising abandoned lands in Moëlan-sur-Mer

Author: Alice Martin-Prével, Terre de Liens

1) Objectives and highlights

Since 2013, the municipality of Moëlan-sur-Mer in Brittany has been working on reclaiming fallow land along the coastline to encourage the development of environmentally friendly agricultural activities. The municipality used a “rehabilitation of uncultivated land” regulatory instrument from the Rural Code. With the assistance of the Departmental Council, an area of 120 ha of fallow land was identified and declared fit for potential agricultural use. In parallel, a dialogue was facilitated with the owners of the uncultivated parcels with support from Terre de Liens (TDL) Brittany and the Finistère Organic Farmers Group (GAB 29). By 2021, these efforts had allowed one vegetable producer and one social association to rehabilitate fallow plots (5 and 18 ha respectively).

2) Stakeholders involved

Local authorities involved:

  • The Moëlan-sur-Mer municipality initiated the project; with active involvement of the Mayor and Deputy Mayor in particular.

  • The Departmental Council and the Departmental Directorate of Territories and Sea (DDTM) supported the realisation of the official procedure. The DDTM is the competent authority for surveying and declaring the “uncultivated” status of fallow lands.

Other stakeholders involved:

  • Two associations, TDL Brittany (focused on access to land) and GAB 29 (working to promote organic farming), were contracted by the municipality to reach out to landowners and inform them.

  • Landowners, future farmers (candidate to recultivate the lands), as well as an environmental association (Bretagne Vivante) were also key players in the process.

3) Context and levers

Until the beginning of the 20th century, small-scale subsistence farming was practised in Moëlan-sur-Mer. After World War II, mechanisation of farming led to reduced interest in small parcels, which were left fallow and divided up further with each generation. In addition to land fragmentation, some owners’ speculative behaviours impeded agricultural use. They hoped that their plots could be turned into buildable land and sold for higher prices, and therefore preferred not to lease to farmers (the coastal location of Moëlan-sur-Mer makes it attractive for tourism and secondary homes).

The use of the “uncultivated land” procedure represented an important lever of action. This procedure aims to redevelop agricultural lands that have been unused for over three years. It can be triggered by individual demands or public initiatives. Through the procedure, owners are contacted and asked to choose between recultivating the land themselves, selling it, or allowing a farming candidate to recultivate them (the last option automatically applies if no response is received). The procedure also allows to recreate functional agricultural plots by combining the land of different owners, as well as to include parcels with no identified owners (around 20% of the total 120 ha identified in Moëlan-sur-Mer).

The strong political will of the municipality was crucial to undertake such a procedure, which raised much opposition from landowners. Furthermore, the support of the departmental authority and local associations (TDL Brittany and the GAB 29) with relevant expertise was key to achieve positive outcomes despite the context of land abandonment, land fragmentation, limited data on ownership, and resistance from landowners.

4) Actions led

Faced with land abandonment, landscape degradation, and dwindling local agricultural activity, the municipal council of Moëlan-sur-Mer called on the departmental authority in 2014 to begin a “rehabilitation of uncultivated land” procedure on its territory. The goal was to favour the development of environmentally friendly and locally oriented farm projects. The Departmental Committee for Land Planning (CDAF) identified an area of 120 ha of fallow land (23 parcels of between 0.8 and 12 ha). Via a Communal Commission for Land Planning (CCAF), the commune drafted a report on the parcels and their potential for agricultural, pastoral or forestry use.

In parallel, TDL Brittany and the GAB 29 collaborated with the municipality to identify and contact the owners. These had to declare themselves to the government services and decide on the future of the parcels (selling or recultivating). Beyond strict legal requirement, TDL Brittany and the GAB 29 ran a series of workshops to inform owners, reflect with them on the options for recultivation, and collaborate in setting up agricultural projects. The environmental group Bretagne Vivante, was also associated to help assess how to conserve the flourishing biodiversity of some of the fallow areas (by leaving some plots uncultivated, while designating other areas for diversified agriculture).

These efforts succeeded in lowering the resistance of some of the owners, who expressed a preference for attributing their parcels to new farming activities (rather than to existing conventional farms) and/or to organic projects with short supply chain, environment, landscape and social purposes. They also wanted to be associated in the recruitment of future farmers. In 2018, the workshops attended by the owners of six parcels (15% of the area identified by the CDAF) gave rise to a joint call for applications. Owners selected a vegetable producer to farm 5 ha and an association for socio-professional integration through agriculture to farm 18 ha. After obtaining an operating licence from the prefecture, the successful candidates set up their project (the association) or consolidated their agricultural activity (the vegetable producer).

The example of Moëlan-sur-Mer is unprecedented due to the scale of the “uncultivated land” procedure which concerns more than 1251 parcels (more than 400 ownership accounts), and the collaborative approach taken alongside private landowners, with support from actors working in the field, which contributes to the commune’s ambitious objectives of bringing back activities and rural jobs and driving a food and ecological transition.

5) Limits and perspectives

In 2021, more workshops were planned with owners to attribute more lands (three to five new candidates were expected to set up). However, a legal action was launched by an owners’ union to call into question the validity of the “uncultivated lands” procedure. The example of Moëlan-sur-Mer attracted a lot of attention and this union was keen to discourage other municipalities from repeating the process elsewhere.

The union’s opposition has delayed the process and discouraged some of the farming candidates. Another difficulty concerns the cost of rehabilitation of fallow lands. Clearing the plots and investing in farming infrastructure (irrigation, water storage, greenhouses) is very expensive. Subsidies for land clearing cannot be used, as these only apply to farmers who are already established and not to new farms. The municipality approached several institutional partners for financial assistance with the project (region, association of communes, public land institutions, etc.), but to no avail. It appears that financing programmes (the LEADER and/or EAFRD programmes for example) are not adapted for this type of project.

The old age of some landowners, the fact that many no longer lived in the area, and the very fragmented nature of the land created other difficulties. Many resources had to be used to first identify owners (or their heirs) and then contact and convince them.

Despite these obstacles, the municipality is satisfied with the fact that more than 10 local jobs were created by the association for socio-professional integration through agriculture (which was allotted 18 ha). The association has already harvested and delivered its products to the five central kitchens catering to nearby school canteens. The council has changed during the last elections, but the new team continues to carry the project despite obstacles, deeming it necessary for an ecological transition.

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