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Removing mill weirs in France: The structure and dynamics of an environmental controversy

Regis Barraud
University of Poitiers, RURALITES Research Team (EA 2552), Poitiers, France; regis.barraud@univ-poitiers.fr

ABSTRACT: In France, as in many other parts of Europe and North America, the vast increase in the number of dam removals in order to restore ecological continuity has led to a large number of local conflicts, resulting in a significant ecological controversy. Most of these hydraulic works were connected to former water mills. This article will suggest new analytical methods to help understand and interpret this controversy through the use of two complementary approaches. The first is based on a geohistorical approach. It allows us to identify the development of the meanings and values associated with mill weirs and also to trace the development, since the 19th century, of state involvement in dealing with their ecological impact. Our second method, based on political ecology, attempts to decipher the current state of the controversy. Taking this as our objective we have undertaken a qualitative analysis of the discourse produced on a national level and also of the network of actors who make up the oppositional base to dam removal. The affective and emotional dimensions of the controversy, and also the attachment to local places, both of which are often crucial in the expression of opposition on the local scale, can be identified in the discourse. Yet, the discourse we have analysed reveals argumentative poles which translate both the opposition based on rational arguments and also an alternative vision of the development of rivers (heritage status, green and local power production). The oppositional argument which has been developed notably includes a discussion of the knowledge and scientific expertise upon which the process of dam removal is based. It also includes a critique of local consultation and decision-making methods.

KEYWORDS: Dam removal, environmental controversy, heritage, political ecology, France