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A promising experiment in forestry; Brushwood clearance turns fire hazard into compost

Forest fires are one of the main ecological plagues of France. Up to 190,000 acres of forest land go up in smoke in a year. Any low-cost approach which would prevent forest fires would be very welcome.

Now a team led by two brothers, Andre and Bernard Martin, and backed by a team of philanthropists, is working on just such a project in the Var (southern France) at the Domaine del Romey, a large property situated next to the village of Sillans la Cascade, not too far from Nice.

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Not only have the forests stopped burning at les Romey, but several other benefits are being realized. The Martin experiment is:

* Putting very high grade forest compost on the market, whose sale covers the main costs of brushwood clearance -- the simplest means of preventing forest fires.

* Creating jobs in a rural area characterized for years by massive rural-urban migration.

* Regenerating arable land, through the addition of the compost.

* Enabling the production of vegetables without the use of chemical fertilizers.

* Experimenting with the possibility of extracting methane gas derived from the compost for use as fuel.

Andre and Bernard Martin were merchants in Lausanne, Switzerland, with a long-standing personal interest (but no professional background) in new approaches to agriculture. When they read of an experiment in compost-based vegetable and fruit production undertaken in southern France by Jean Pain, a maverick Swiss agriculturist, they sold everything they had, bought les Romey, and emigrated there with their families. This 60-acre property had for many years been declared totally unsuitable for agriculture.

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But unlike Jean Pain, whose experiment has remained essentially at an artisan level, the Martins and their backers very quickly realized they had to do things in a big way to have any significant environmental impact. They also had to do it in a manner that would make their scheme economically attractive, be it to private entrepreneurs (who clear the brushwood) or to the French government (which plays a major subsidies for brushwood clearance and spends huge sums combating forest fires).

The Martins' idea is very simple -- combine brushwood clearance with large-scale compost production, the brushwood being turned into compost.

Brushwood clearance consists in removing undergrowth, tall grass, and some of the smaller trees, and cutting the lower branches of other trees. It has long been known as a method of preventing forest fires, but usually tends to be prohibitively expensive on a very large scale. In France, it costs on average about $2,000 per hectare (one hectare is about 2[*] acres). When one knows that France has 14 million hectares of forest, one can easily calculate the cost. Even the government cannot foot such a bill.

But turn the brushwood into compost, do this on a sufficiently large scale to make it economically viable, hence creating new jobs, use the compost to upgrade impoverished soils, and you have les Romey.

Once the brushwood has been cleared, it is shredded and left to compost for up to 18 months. The compost piles (up to 20 feet high) are regularly sprayed with water and churned to provide adequate aeration. At the end of the cycle, the decomposition carried out by a host of microscopic agents and insects ensures the production of a good forest compost. this is processed into a granular form somewhat similar in appearance to dark brown sugar.

The Domaine des Romey experiment is five years old. It may have been aided by the fact that the Martins were not professional agronomists, hence not educated into the specific beliefs of a given school of thought or technical training. Now many agricultural experiments are under way, including intensive research by agronomists on the improvement and diversification of compost production.

Marketing of the compost is undertaken by a sister organization, PROMUS (standing for Provence Humus) run by Andre Martin. So far, demand has exceeded supply.

The compost is used mainly for vegetable, flower, and fruit production. But an extension of the productive capacity, presently 5,000 tons per year, would enable les Romey to offer the compost at a lower price. That could make it a competitive product for large-scale agriculture.

The operations of les Romey have proved so promising that leading French agronomists and the government have become very interested and are offering their collaboration. Plans are under way to increase productive capacity to 20, 000 tons per year in the next two to three years.

An exciting aspect of the experiment is the possibility of a supplemental energy source. Les Romey is experimenting with the production of methane gas derived from the compost.

Can this experience be duplicated elsewhere? Bernard Martin says, "I think the experiment can be repeated anywhere on the surface of the planet where there exist forest matter and forests that need to be cared for." If this is the case, the experiment has worldwide ramifications.

The natural dynamism of this experiment and its enormous potential are such that the team at les Romey is establishing a nonprofit foundation to disseminate information, organize study sessions, create a regional network of autonomous "study and action" groups, set up a research center, and establish other activities to enhance the quality of life and protect the environment. Also, to meet demands from other areas of France and even abroad, the team is starting a firm of engineering consultants to help disseminate the technical information and know-how on which this unique experiment is based.

(Further information can be obtained from: Domaine des Romey, 83690 Sillans la Cascade, Var, France.)m

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