France economy

Who will save Gustav Eiffel’s century-old plane trees?

Arborist Thomas Brail has set up camp in a bicentenary plane tree, one of the three century-old trees once protected by Gustav Eiffel but now threatened by a tourist development project around the Eiffel Tower.

Brail sits enthroned in the branches of the largest plane tree at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. From its height of 14 meters, it is surrounded by ropes.

The ecologist from Gers, in southwestern France, founded the Groupement national de surveillance des Arbres (GNSA) in 2019 and lends his support to opponents of the OnE Paris project – a series of tourist facilities and offices that are to be built at the base of the tower in time for the 2024 Olympics.

The project would involve cutting down 22 trees. A petition to denounce it has so far collected some 140,000 signatures.

“It’s a pity that we prefer to focus on a building – an iron monument that does not provide oxygen and does not decarbonize the planet – rather than this poor plane tree that does its job so well”, Brail declares, after winching himself. at the foot of the tree.

Arborist Thomas Brail makes his way down the tree to chat. © Hird/RFI

“These trees are home to birds, bats, insects… The older the trees, the more biodiversity they offer. That’s why we need to conserve these old people.”

Sensing opposition mounting, the deputy mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Grégoire, promised that no tree over 100 years old would be felled.

Listen to a report on the campaign to protect trees in Spotlight on France

Spotlight on France, episode 75
Spotlight on France, episode 75 © RFI

Critical root zone

But activists say the old plane trees will nevertheless be killed because the construction project would attack their so-called “critical root zone”.

“If we were in Germany or the UK, there would be protection all around this tree to officially stop construction in a park,” says Tangui Le Dantecscientific advisor to France Nature Environnement.

“But in France we only have limited regulations that limit building within six meters of a tree. It may work for a young tree but not for a 200-year-old tree whose roots are much longer.

“For the moment this tree is in good health but if we build at the foot of its roots, it will die.”

To plant trees

The redevelopment project also involves planting dozens of trees and creating green space in the crowded center of the capital.

But Le Dantec says it’s not just about numbers, because older trees are irreplaceable in terms of what they contribute to the ecosystem.

“At the moment he is in good health,” says Tangui Le Dantec, admiring the 207-year-old plane tree in which Thomas Brail is camping. © Hird/RFI

“This tree is worth 700 newly planted trees,” he says, reaching for the sturdy plane tree that Brail occupies.

“And that’s the equivalent of 130 to 150 adult trees in Paris. By ecosystem services, I mean the depollution of the atmosphere, soil, water and the cooling effect it has.

“This will become very important in the coming years with global warming.”

French heritage

Plane trees, in particular, are part of French heritage.

Napoleon would have had them planted along the roads to provide shade for his troops. They also became a feature along the Canal du Midi in southern France, providing shade for horse-drawn barges transporting goods.

Although better suited to Mediterranean climates, they have managed to thrive in more northern cities like Paris.

The cyclists of the Tour de France, July 2016, get much-needed shade thanks to the canopy of plane trees on the section between Arpajon-sur-Cère and Montauban.
The cyclists of the Tour de France, July 2016, get much-needed shade thanks to the canopy of plane trees on the section between Arpajon-sur-Cère and Montauban. AFP – LIONEL BONAVENTURE

“These three plane trees were planted on the Champs de Mars in 1814, explains Le Dantec.

“There were dozens of them when the tower was built, but Gustav Eiffel did a lot to protect them. They are in a way the trees of Gustav Eiffel.

The largest, in which Brail is crouched, weighs 50 tons.

“It’s 50 tons of living history. This tree has known two empires, two monarchies, four republics, two occupations and countless wars.

“It’s history, heritage, but above all it’s life in the very heart of the densest city in Europe.

“So this is the life we ​​should cherish.”

green lungs

Activists say the Champ de Mars park is indispensable in a city like Paris, which lacks green spaces.

“We are well below the WHO recommendations in terms of square meters of green space per inhabitant”, assures Philippe Khayat of the NGO SOS Paris, one of the petitioners.

“We have about 3m2 per capita, while we need at least 10m2 to be healthy.”

Khayat also denounces the OnE project as purely commercial.

“Behind all this there is a commercial project to make more money with tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower.”

Emile Meunier, a Greens official on the Paris city council, originally voted for the project in February – but has since changed his mind. He says it’s not too late to give up work.

“The project has been voted on but as it is a city project so we can go back on it and cancel the planning permit”, he specifies.

Strengthen protection

Since Brail began his sit-in, Paris City Hall has promised talks with environmental groups to find a way forward.

But the mission of the arborist goes beyond the walls of Paris.

He wants the environment code, which prohibits the felling of healthy trees in urban areas, to be better respected across the country.

In February, it was amended to include an exemption for “planning and development” reasons.

“The law is strong, but it’s weakened and that worries us,” Brail said.

He also wants stricter regulations on the clear cutting of forests in France, which leads to a dramatic loss of biodiversity.

“Our ecosystem will collapse if we continue with this highly industrialized economic model,” Brail says.

Thomas Brail, perched 14m above the ground, talks to the press.
Thomas Brail, perched 14m above the ground, talks to the press. © Hird/RFI

“Of course we can take wood from the forests – I burn wood myself at home – but not like we do. It’s too violent for the forest.

“We all know the planet is getting warmer because we don’t have enough trees. It’s that simple.”

PM support

In 2019, Brail spent 28 days in a tree in front of the Ministry of Ecology to try to prevent the felling of 26 plane trees in Condom, near his home.

His mission failed but then the Minister of Ecology Elisabeth Borne tweeted his support for her “sincere” fight, and said she hoped they could work together to improve tree protection.

A copy of his message is printed on a huge sheet that has been hung next to Brail’s tent.

Now she is prime minister and Brail is counting on her to keep her word.