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The local, the exotic and the wild

Themes explored during the walk in the IFRC forest on Nov 8th 2022.

A simple walk at IFRC’s doorstep is enough to shed light on one of the most complex questions of the IFRC park project - and any landscaping project today: what does it mean to take care of our local environment? The diverse and sometimes contrary points of view of IFRC staff, inhabitants, biologists and foresters generated interesting readings and interpretations and the emergence of creative tension points.

Among them, the question emerged of how to deal with the mix of local and exotic species which characterises the IFRC forest. Some people highlighted that local tree species are much better for biodiversity. Being part of the food chain, they can accommodate several hundreds of insect and bird species, much more than their exotic counterparts. A participant provocatively compared imported species to plastic trees in the context of biodiversity. The emotional topic of cutting some trees was touched upon, with more or less drastic points of view : from preservation of all existing trees to keeping only local species and replacing exotic trees with young endogenous ones. However, all participants seemed to agree on a few things: no tree should be cut lightly, and it is important to be able to communicate well with the community about the reasons that lead to the decision of cutting it.

The participants were keen on knowing more about the objectives of the project: Is it exclusively about biodiversity? Or local biodiversity in particular? Either way there are more complexities involved - fully grown exotic trees bring other benefits. For example, they provide shade and freshness in the warm summer. Some have low hanging branches which can be used as children’s places to play. Some participants also highlighted their feeling of unease about categorising species as local versus foreign or a proposal that completely excluded foreign species from the forest. Such biological categories have to be used with caution, since they have a totally different resonance in the social world.

Another interesting point of discussion that emerged was the notion of what is a wild and healthy forest. For example, the stone arrangements, now covered with moss - were part of the 19th century landscaping project that aimed to turn this land into a British garden, in line with the romantic taste of the period. Other elements like the absence of a clearly defined path and the very dense canopy, being actually detrimental to the health of the forest - from a forester and naturalist point of view were also discussed. The absence of a path leads people to walking freely - which encourages stomping in the whole forest instead of concentrating it in defined places. Similarly, the relative absence of light makes it difficult for grass, bushes and young trees to develop and reinforce biodiversity. Thus, notions of what is wild and natural are being challenged.

Other widespread ideas were challenged, for example the fact that adding beehives increases local biodiversity. Indeed, if beehives are installed without increasing the surface of the meadow, the new bees compete with wild bees for pollen, which often leads to a decline in wild bees species.

Finally, forests have to be seen as dynamic systems which have their own temporality : what seems far away for humans is nothing in the timeframe of a forest. Forests evolve slowly, for example reacting to climate change : mediterranean tree species will slowly become more adapted to central european climate conditions. From a foresters point of view, working with local species is still very important, and introducing new species now is not necessarily a good thing.

One thing is sure : any human intervention in the IFRC park should only help the forest become more self-sustaining and diverse, and the IFRC staff and inhabitants should become more aware and knowledgeable of its functioning in order to respect it better.

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