Unravelling land use change, land attachment and the effects of “rewilding the mountain” policy on farmers’ wellbeing in the French Southern Alps

Leonith HINOJOSA *±1 – Claude NAPOLÉONE 2 – Naoufel MZOUGHI 2 – Eric LAMBIN ³ – Michel MOULERY 2

1 Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, Earth & Life Institute, Université catholique de Louvain
2 INRA Ecodéveloppement
3 Georges Lemaître Earth and Climate Research Centre, Earth & Life Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, and School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University
± Corresponding author: leonith.hinojosa@uclouvain.be


The increasing abandonment of agriculture and grasslands in European mountains has concerned for some time both academics and policy-makers. Scientific literature suggests that bio-physical conditions and policy incentives significantly influence farming abandonment and related patterns of land use change (LUC). Others highlight the effects of globalization and regional integration. However, few insights have so far explored the non-market determinants of LUC and land management at the farm level. This indicates to the need for more integrative approaches to land use dynamics, particularly to understand spatial patterns of land abandonment and permanence in mountain regions. Moreover, if farmers’ wellbeing is considered to be at the core of mountain agriculture conservation, the effects of environmental and agricultural policies on farmers’ constraints ought to be considered among the key factors that influence their performance and agreement or disagreement with such policies. In France, among the external effects of environmental policy, those regarding the repopulation of the European mountains with wolves appear to be controversial.

Based on two research pieces on resilience of mountain agriculture in the Alps, this paper proposes an analysis of the ways in which different factors driving economic performance, social satisfaction and agricultural land conservation mutually interact to generate place attachment. It also shows mountain farmers’ perceptions of the main constraints for their productive activity and personal satisfaction with their living conditions. Our study, carried out since 2013 (Hinojosa et al. 2016a, 2016b) within the REGARDS project, covered 417 mountain municipalities of Provence-Alps-Cote d’Azur (PACA), in SE France. The first part of our research looking at land use change drivers used CORINE land cover data for change over the 1990-2006 period and census data. These two sets of date were combined to perform a regression analysis of agricultural land abandonment linked with various bio-physical, demographic, socio-economic and agricultural policy factors at the municipal level. Findings obtained at this first stage show that high altitude grasslands are less likely to be abandoned than those located in lower altitude areas. Our findings also suggest that grassland abandonment is driven by a combination of both local and regional/global factors. In addition it shows that European Union policies for maintaining agricultural activity in marginal areas have not been fully effective in reducing grasslands abandonment.

In the second part of our research we carried out a survey of farmers to identify patterns of land attachment and related explanatory factors. We also asked farmers to identify the main constraints that they experience in developing their agricultural activity as well as their perceptions about the qualities of life in their communes. To analyse these data we firstly applied an ordered probit model in order to identify factors for place-attachment in mountain environments. Our findings suggest that social relations at the family and neighbourhood levels, satisfaction with work, and the distinctiveness farmers assign to a place are important factors of attachment to their communes. However, we found no significant linkages between place attachment and farm profitability.

Thirdly, by also using probit models we analysed the relationship between farmers’ perception of the broad EU’s policy and environmental organizations’ actions for “rewilding the European mountains”, and the constraints of multiple origin that farmers identify towards their agricultural activity. The effects of the aforementioned policy are reflected on significant issues such as the effects over the expansive presence of the wolf in the region. Actually, we found that the perception of the wolf as a constraint changes with farm size and livestock type. This may be due to bigger and sheep farms having a higher probability of experiencing problems with the presence of wolves. Sheep farms are more exposed to wolf attacks due to extensive farming practices (in comparison to dairy farms which mainly use barns). On the other hand, by implementing less flexible livestock breeding practices, big farms incur into higher investment and frequently also higher debt rates. However, our results did not show any relation between farm profitability and wolf presence. To explain this, it is relevant that, compensation policies seem to effectively counteract likely financial loss due to wolf attacks. Nevertheless, farmers highlight that the expansive presence of wolfs has impacted their historical land-use patterns of the mountain and their livestock breeding practices. Therefore, at least symbolically, wolves and agricultural activity may be considered as competing to occupy the mountain. Overall, the subjective set of constraints studied indicates to the presence of the wolf as a very important factor for farmer´s wellbeing. Furthermore, our model suggests that farms where a successor is likely to take over the farm are less likely to identify constraints due to the wolf presence; similarly, farmers who declared personal constraints that make them unhappy with their activity and/or life in the mountains seem to be less likely concerned with wolf expansion.

Our model also identifies the perceptions of constraints associated with farm profitability and the factors that influence farmers’ opinion on relation to various key agricultural and environmental policies. We found that constraints for market-based and farm management are negatively related with farm profitability, while livestock type (sheep farms) and agricultural policy (mainly referred to the CAP) behave in the opposite direction. These results can be useful to motivate comparative research on mountain areas of the Mediterranean region and elsewhere, notably the Alps, and to suggest nuances derived from overgeneralizing interpretations of factors of agricultural land abandonment and of the effects of policy.

We conclude that while grassland abandonment has taken place across whole the mountains of PACA, it was less important in high mountain municipalities. Similarly, farmers in the higher mountain areas expressed a greater attachment to land than those at lower altitude municipalities. Therefore, bio-physical factors do not necessarily drive land abandonment. Furthermore, the “mountain effect” (Hinojosa et al. 2016a) in land abandonment and land attachment needs to be considered by land and environmental policy. This is especially the case should particular effects on mountain conservation be pursuit. Similarly, by unravelling how the views of multiple farmers on the constraints to their activity and life in the mountain shift according to their particular circumstances, spatially explicit land use policies in the EU and France could be developed that allow for socio-economic and policy factors to play differentiated roles in relation to contingent geographic settings and farm management practices.


Hinojosa L., Napoléone C., Moulery M., Lambin E. (2016a) The “mountain effect” in the abandonment of grasslands: Insights from the French Southern Alps. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment: 115-124.

Hinojosa L., Lambin E., Mzoughi N., Napoléone C. (2106b) Place attachment as a factor of mountain farming permanence: a survey in the French Southern Alps. Ecological Economics: 308-315