Restoring an ecosystem unique in Europe: private-sector leverage for a land-use plan based on the restoration of biodiversity: lessons from "Opération Cossure", the first trial of an offset supply scheme in France.
Located between the Rhone and the Alpilles mountains in the south of France, the Crau Plain comprises the only semi-arid steppe in western Europe. Thousands of years of use as pastureland, together with harsh hydrological conditions, have combined to create the "coussoul", an expanse of close-cropped steppe vegetation that is unique in Europe and host to remarkable array of biodiversity. Located amidst a number of major strategic players (industry/port complex, infrastructure, intensive agriculture, etc.), the steppe has been reduced to one quarter of its original size, and even this area continues to be threatened by human encroachment. In an effort to stop this degradation, a new, locally developed land-use project emerged in the early 2000s after twenty years of consultations. The idea was to bring the use of the lands of the arid Crau into line with their ecological potential, itself the product of 3,000 years of low-intensity grazing. In 2008, CDC Biodiversité, a subsidiary of the Caisse des Dépôts group, acquired a 357-hectare commercial orchard on the Crau plain in order to turn it into an area favourable for sheep farming and biodiversity. Once restored with the help of scientists, this natural area would enhance and bolster the ecological integrity of the Coussouls de Crau Nature Reserve. With its expertise in both finance and environmental science, CDC Biodiversité has undertaken to provide financing (Euro 12.5 million), restore and manage the area for at least 30 years, and to ensure that its ecological purpose continues to be fulfilled well beyond that time. It was clear that the implementation of a project of this sort would require a financial mechanism to be put in place. This resulted in the launch, in consultation with the French Ministry of the Environment, of this first pilot "natural assets reserve" through an offset supply scheme. As a pilot trial at the scientific, technical and economic levels, Opération Cossure is an experiment in restoring a degraded ecosystem that is unique in Europe. In describing the project, the article underlines the leverage role that business can play in realizing a land-use plan based on reconciling human activities and nature.