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Challenges for rural areas

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key word: methodology and development
source: LEADER Magazine n°12
date of publication: 10/96

Millevaches (France) In search of recognition

A remote area touching the three departments of Limousin, the Plateau de Millevaches has succeeded in making up for its principal handicaps by playing the innovation card. But the road to territorial recognition is long.

A woman holds out a brochure from the window: "these are the new activities... Can you put them on the Internet for me?". Jean-Marc Abel, one of the heads of the "Parabole" company, takes the document and confirms that "it'll be done within an hour." He explains to the visitor that it is a service commonly rendered by the Tourism Bureau of Felletin. Like the neighbouring town of Aubusson, this village of 2 840 inhabitants located at the entrance to the Plateau de Millevaches, has been known for its tapestries since the 14th century. With Parabole, Felletin has already entered the next millennium: "in France we are the only platform of information highways in rural areas," Jean-Marc Abel says. "We have sought to meet the challenge of 'off-shore' information technology, to show that European rural areas can advantageously provide intellectual services for companies located in the city, sometimes very far away." Created in 1994 by 7 shareholders, Parabole is much more than a simple provider and manager of Internet sites: the company, which benefited from LEADER I aid (ECU 50 000) and posted in 1995 roughly ECU 450 000 in sales turnover, ensures the "customised" design, development and "telemaintenance" of specialised software programs. Its customers include several large private companies based in Paris, public organisations and SMEs "needing to communicate". Its 15 employees are young, most highly qualified and from the region. "I was lucky," analyst -programmer Sylvie Nérigot says. "I didn't have to look for work outside the area. I got this job right after graduation. The company then gave me specialised training.

Cyberspace

Parabole's experience has already had repercussions elsewhere, but with the general public and in a more amusing form: a few yards from its offices, an association was set up, "Cyber en marche" (Cyber on the move), with a view to "initiating and training the local living strength in new communication and information technologies." In the context of LEADER II, the association has created a "cyberspace" in Felletin, the prelude to a future cybercafé where the young and not so young (300 users a month) can "surf at random on the net". An Internet site has also been set up (http://www.parabole@parabole.mairie-felletin.fr). A quantity of information can be found on local events: advertisements, social, cultural, sports and school activities (40 schools in the area are participating), etc. "It's a new tool for regional planning," says Christophe Bernard, development agent for the Federation of Millevaches, the local action group. "We want to establish a local partnership around the use of the Internet, and the 'Cyber en marche' site is a means to familiarise companies and individuals with this new medium. We are also going to create 'pages Millevaches' which in the case of tourism, for example, will complement and disseminate for a much larger public the information already contained in the interactive booths that we have set up."

The cyberspace experience is not the first media innovation supported by LEADER Millevaches. In Faux-la-Montagne (400 inhabitants), "Télé Millevaches has been operating since 1986, distributing a monthly information magazine to 123 locations in the Plateau and producing films to order and television documents "on the memory, life and future of the region. "The purpose is to have a speaking forum, to show what is happening here, to encourage people to be their own development players...," one of the heads, Michel Lulek, explains. He also created with 5 partners a fast growing company (30 employees) specialised in the manufacture of "bio" furniture.

"Conveying" the area

"Dissemination" is a key word for the local action group. The Plateau de Millevaches has the rather unjustified reputation of being a harsh, cold and rainy country: "the 'water tower of France' image taught in geography class to French pupils and the idea conveyed by many immigrants that one cannot earn one's living here are severe handicaps in terms of image," the president of the Federation of Millevaches and president of the LAG, Pierre Desrozier, deplores.

Yet, it is a region with many assets that has succeeded in stopping the dramatic loss in population and attracting a lot of "neo-rurals". It benefits from an exceptional natural environment (extensive forests, rivers and lakes), but any promotion of the area, especially for tourism, is handicapped by the fact that Millevaches shares borders with three departments (*): "each one preaches for its parish," development agent and tourism official Valérie Boutaud explains. "The Plateau has an identity of its own, yet aside from a "Guide on short walks" which is very comprehensive but for a specialised public, we don't have, for example, any 'unified' brochure which presents all the area's attractions."

And there are a number of tourist attractions: in addition to several social tourism establishments and the "integrated resort" of Vassivière (artificial lake of 1 000 ha including a whole series of cultural and tourist infrastructures; 700 000 visitors in 1995), a number of private, public or voluntary initiatives often supported by LEADER, have been created and developed a little bit everywhere.

The most spectacular initiative is certainly the utilisation of the Limoges-Ussel railway for tourism. Since 1993 this line has been run by two local associations, one responsible for the technical aspects and the other for the tourist part of the operation. Twice a week in summer an authentic steam train takes tourists and the region's inhabitants (on average 235 passengers per trip half of whom are locals) through places which in some spots, like the gorges of the Vienne for example, are inaccessible with other means. But the particularly innovative dimension of the project lies in the activities which take place along the route (200 km in all): each station is an opportunity to discover musicians, comedians, folk groups, etc. and to enjoy - free of charge - baked goods and refreshments prepared by the inhabitants of the town visited. Pierre Desrozier insists on the economic interest of the operation: "this train is a real integrated element of development. It enables us to bring visitors to Millevaches who otherwise would not have come. They discover an interesting area that they did not know, and the extended stop for the noon break is an opportunity for the restaurants and farm inns to 'fill up'. The passengers even have time to visit the curiosities located near the railway. The train is a good promotional vehicle."

Mike Evans rightly takes advantage of the train's stopover for visits to his "City of Insects". This British citizen arrived on the Plateau in the early 1970s. "On bicycle, with a degree from Oxford in hand," he mentions with a smile. He liked the region and decided to stay. After working as a farmhand, he trained as a beekeeper. Because this activity proved rather unprofitable ("too many retired grandpas were playing beekeeper and driving prices down"), Mike in 1989 began turning his small farm into an educational attraction ("a concept that was already extensively developed in the United Kingdom"). With a passion for entomology, he gradually built a living museum of insects which today attracts 10 000 visitors a year, "the most popular site in Limousin after the Aquarium in Limoges!", he says proudly.

Mike Evans is also the president of "Meeting Millevaches", a newly created association that already includes 20 local tourist operators seeking to implement a common promotional strategy (LEADER II finances the costs of a part-time job and some equipment). Priority goes to coach companies: "A whole group from Millevaches went to Ireland," recounts François Chatoux who runs an agri-tourism farm with his wife. "What particularly surprised us was the ease with which our hosts were able to take in coaches of tourists in an area like ours with no big hotels. I also was struck by what the Irish said when they came to visit us: 'it's nice what you have, but who makes the business?'"

Towards a Regional Natural Park?

"The creation of a Regional Natural Park 'Plateau de Millevaches', with all the institutional weight that that would procure, would give decisive impetus to the development and recognition of our area," Pierre Desrozier says. "With the Park, we would have a solid unified structures and strong arguments in terms of image and promotion for the people here and for the outside..."

The Natural Park project nevertheless has major obstacles to overcome, beginning with the opposition of several influential interest groups: farmers, foresters, hunters and fishermen... "It's rather classic," Christopher Bernard comments: "'Natural Park' is associated with 'protected reserve' where everything is forbidden. Communication on the project needs to be resumed..."

The actual creation on 20 June 1996 of the "Syndicat mixte de Millevaches en Limousin," embracing the Region, the three Departments and 120 municipalities, and which will gradually substitute the Federation of Millevaches, should mean a revival of the project in a wider framework of consultation.

Paradoxically, another factor could play in favour of the Park: Bernard Bigliardi, a producer of cheese made from sheep's milk which won a prize at the agricultural fair in Lerida, Spain, in 1994, thinks that the "mad cow crisis" is necessarily going to make thinks change." In this cradle of the Limousin breed, cattle farming represents 75% of the local farming activity. Establishing the Natural Park would help the sector, which has been hard hit by the drop in consumption, boost the quality image of Limousin beef.

But Georges Nadalon, a forester and nursery owner who only recently opened a magnificent "Arboretum Park" in the heart of the Plateau, expresses perhaps the general trend: "I fear the land will be abandoned and I am against a Natural Park designed in offices in Limoges. But if the project is orchestrated by the locals, if its founding principle is 'to protect to utilise', then they can count on my support!"

(*) In France, the Department plays a very important role in promoting tourism. The three Departments concerned here are Corrèze, Creuse and Haute-Vienne.

LEADER Millevaches
Area of the region: 3 334 km2
Population: 45 943 inhabitants
LEADER II funding: ECU 8 333 000
EU: ECU 3 030 000
Other public funds: ECU 3 000 000
Private: ECU 2 300 000

Federation of Millevaches
Mairie
F-23340 Gentioux-Pigerolles
Tel: +33 5 55 67 97 90
Fax: +33 5 55 67 92 67


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