The Conservatory of the Coast, an original governance for fragile commons

The French Conservatoire du Littoral (Conservatory of the Coast) was created by a law in 1975 and attained its true scale over the next 30 years. It is a public agency that buys coastal land, establishes concrete policy objectives for its preservation and its usage and oversees the implementation of these policies. As of the first of June, 2006, it owns 1000 square kilometers (180,000 acres) that represent about 543 miles of coastal line. Its aim is to achieve ownership of a third of all French coastal land.

The most original achievement of the conservatory regards its governance. The organisation has a relatively low budget (35 million euros, that is around 45 million dollars) and its central management team has only 100 persons. It is able to work with great efficiency because it has constructed a multi-party governance between the agency (backed by law), experts, local communities, NGOs, individuals, and private firms. Land is acquired either on the agency budget (with fragile territories or territory to which access is restricted when it could or should be public being the main priorities) or through the possibility to give land in compensation for inheritance or capital tax. Experts and local users are mobilised to provide input to the definition of preservation and use policies, the agency keeping its “final cut” on the definition of these policies as a tool to facilitate the production of consensus. When the care and use policies are defined, their implementation is assigned to local parties, either local communities or NGOs or a combination. A team of 450 guards (recruited by local communities or through some youth employment schemes) oversee the respect of rules. Private firms can benefit from tax deduction schemes when sponsoring the conservatory. Some of the sponsors are foundations from companies like Total (the main French oil company) for which one could prefer that they work for the quality of the coastal environment by recognising their responsibility when chartering oil ships (Total was the charter of the Erika ship whose wreck created one the worse pollution of French coasts in the past years). But other sponsors have no environmental responsibility to rescue their image from.

The conservatory is an innovative management scheme for the commons, whose activity is little known in France, maybe because its governance mechanisms are unusual in this country, where usually a strict boundary exists between direct state management, local communities, individuals and firms.