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Rural Development in
the Information Society

Using the Internet to develop the Gâtine (Poitou-Charentes, France): the "Gâtinautes"

In the Pays de Gâtine LEADER area, virtual networks exist alongside the very dense web of local solidarity networks, thereby strengthening the integration and effectiveness of the implemented rural development actions.

Question 1 : What was the only French town in 1998 where one could shop via the Internet in a "virtual supermarket" ? Answer : Parthenay, capital of the "Pays de Gâtine" in the Department of Deux-Sčvres in the Region of Poitou-Charentes, with 11 000 inhabitants, city walls, a Roman church, its cattle market and, since 1996, its "digital resource centres"...

Question 2 : But what is a "digital resource centre" ? Answer (by Jérôme Chausson, young coordinator of the "Maison de la Citoyenneté active" (active community centre) in Parthenay) : "It's a centre open to everyone, where computers, scanners, printers, Internet links, electronic mailboxes and websites created by inhabitants can be accessed by the general public. Everything is free, and even technical assistance is available if necessary." "The digital centres are now part of Parthenay's heritage," adds Jérôme. "This is proven by the fact that they have been included in guided tours of the town."

Visiting Parthenay's six digital resource centres is a bit like visiting the châteaux of the Loire Valley : all are similar and yet all are different. This is because each centre has a different theme and targets a different public : the "Maison de la Citoyenneté active" has a social vocation. It is in some way a one-stop shop to help with local initiatives and the creation of associations. In addition to a whole range of IT equipment, it houses an employment agency and a careers guidance centre. The other centres in Parthenay are respectively located in the town hall (local administrative services), a business park (financial services), the Palais des Congrčs (commercial and tourism services), the library-cum-documentation centre (cultural services) and even a games hall (play activities). Each of these centres is visited daily by between 50 and 100 people. There are 10 full-time staff, responsible for welcoming users and offering assistance in how to use the various IT tools. This assistance, which is one of the main specific features of these centres, is increasingly specialised as the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) becomes more commonplace: in September 1998, the District of Parthenay (17 000 inhabitants) had 2 100 private E-mail addresses in a total of 7 500 households.

The electronic market

"Many things are possible because we are in a favourable technological environment", maintains Patrick Martine, Director of the Parthenay market. This "over-the-counter" market, the third sheep market and fourth cattle market in France, and soon to be the first cattle market on the Internet, is in some ways the interface between the massive computerisation of the Parthenay market town-centre (see box) and the villages of the Gâtine. In this rearing area, it is mostly through market digitisation that the direct economic use of IT will be able to reach the most remote points of this disadvantaged area of the Poitou.

In existence since the 9th Century, the Parthenay market became the main market for butcher's meat in all France in the 1970s, but in the crisis at the end of the 1980s, it lost a third of its assets. The Gâtine breeders then decided to take action and rely on quality. In order to do so, they chose a local "pacemaker" product : the Parthenay breed of cattle, delicious but abandoned by intensive farming because, according to production standards, it was neither impressive enough for its milk nor impressive enough for its meat.

In 1990, an "Association for the Promotion of High-Quality Meats" (APVQS) was created, which today comprises some 200 cattle and sheep breeders (40 of which are organic farmers). Between 1990 and 1994, the association restructured both sectors, organised various promotional activities and obtained three quality labels both for its cattle meat and sheep meat. Encouraged by these results, the APVQS developed a five-year programme in order to continue with its aim to improve both sectors. This plan led to it being appointed project manager of the Agriculture section of LEADER II in 1995, centred mainly on developing the sheep and cattle sectors in the Gâtine and based in particular on the use of ICTs.

In this respect, its first task was to set up a "cattle observatory" for Parthenay breeders, the market and the abattoir. "The project comprises two measures," explains Patrick Martine, "making market transactions totally transparent and guaranteeing that the animals can be traced. In the case of the first measure, the action is to create an Internet site and provide breeders-sellers with a number of free computers to take to market, in order to allow them, for example, to see quotations in real time, to find out about the solvency of buyers, in short to considerably diminish the risks of bad commercial operations. As for tracing the animals, a barcode system will be put in place by Spring 1999. Among other things, this will enable relations between breeders and abattoirs to be harmonised, particularly insofar as paying for the animal's actual weight is concerned."

"All this is a first step towards the electronic marketplace," adds Thierry Rochette, APVQS coordinator responsible for managing the operation, for which LEADER is providing ECU 15 000.

The Gâtine connected (

"Since we do not yet have the fast track, the least we could do was to invest in the information highway !", says Benoît Michenot, development coordinator for the local action group (LAG). According to the "Robert" dictionary, "Gâtine" ("spoilt land") is an old term meaning a "marshy and barren land resulting from the subsoil's impermeability". "The 'Muddy Ground of Parthenay', as we used to say", confirms Yves Pacaud, in charge of new technology development for the LAG. "We were the bumpkins... It was a closed area. Communications have always been difficult ; just imagine that at the end of the 19th Century, one could still come across sedan-chairs here ! However, the isolation of the Gâtine has created an incredibly strong solidarity which has more recently structured itself into a very dynamic associative movement. Add to this new technologies and you can understand that we can now start talking about an 'economy of networks'."

Thanks to the belief of certain elected representatives - particularly Jean-Marie Morisset, the LAG's Chairman -, Parthenay's IT experiment has been relayed to rural areas by departmental and regional authorities. New technologies have in some way rewarded the voluntarism of a "country" territorial strategy which began in the 1970s. "The Pays de Gâtine wager," maintains Dominique Brouard, LAG Director, "is development based on poor logistical means but on strong networks of developers and businessmen. This strategy is facilitated by area authorities at all levels and by the intermunicipality - the Gâtine has seven municipal communities that have each taken on one or two development agents. A tight networking of resources has therefore been established. The creation of digital centres in each district and of electronic mail between the administrative services of the 76 municipalities in the Gâtine by Summer 99 should enable the poor quality of the means of communication to be overcome, the local development networks to be electronically formalised and, eventually, our area to be reactivated."

"Mouton-Village" (Sheep-Village)

The regeneration of the area is already well under way in Vasles. Here, the partnership between the local authorities, the village's key actors and associations (24 associations for 1 650 inhabitants) has worked wonders : the "Mouton-Village" project, which has completely transformed the area, is an example of a particularly successful sector integration (social, agricultural, cultural, tourism). Vasles and the surrounding areas depend on butcher's lamb for their livelihood.

In 1990, there was a crisis : the price of French lamb collapsed. No-one would bet on the sector's future, except for the municipality's Mayor, Gilles Parnaudeau, and three other "visionaries", who chose this moment to put their great idea into practice : to make sheep farming a lever of local development. "Transforming an area threatened with a population drain into an 'area-resource'", says Christian Proust, one of the "founding fathers" of Mouton-Village.

"Developing know-how by all possible means : producing an environmentally-friendly high-quality sheep, selling it at the best price, promoting the sector, using it as a tourist attraction. Quite simply a cultural revolution in the village !"

The first thing was to build a covered market. In 1991, the project's initiators managed to convince 7, then 15 breeders to "produce the best lamb in the world". A list of specifications was drawn up which would lead to a label, then to a marketing company which in Summer 1998 secured a contract for supplying top-quality lambs to a large supermarket chain. But if we look back on all the work carried out to date, we can note that each year has seen its batch of productions : the centre of the village was entirely renovated in 1992 ; in 1993, the "Lamb Garden" was opened, where about 20 breeds of sheep from all over the world, some of which are threatened with extinction, are kept in a very attractive setting ; in 1995, the "House of Sheep" was built, an enormous building where all facets of sheep-farming activity are presented through the ages and continents in the form of workshops, automaton demonstrations, etc., the sales outlet providing "fair trade" of woollen articles from different countries. The whole forms a tourist complex covering about ten hectares, totally integrated into the village and which each year attracts more than 35 000 visitors. "People started to believe it when the first tourist coaches pulled up", recalls Christian Proust. "Now they are proud. We can even talk of a 'climate of projects' in Vasles and can confirm that Mouton-Village has created 12 direct jobs and about 15 indirect jobs, not to mention maintaining the breeders. This is now the main challenge : to ensure that there are still breeders in ten years' time. In order to do this, we are planning to create an 'eco-farm' to train young people..."

Meanwhile and with LEADER, Mouton-Village has embarked on transnational cooperation to "open up to other practices and maintain the mobilisation of the inhabitants". Thus, 150 Spaniards from the Tierra de Campos LEADER area (Castile-Leon), who were in a similar position and shared the same concerns, came to Vasles in March 1997 ; 100 people from the Gâtine returned the favour in July 1998. The Portuguese LEADER group Basto has also joined this initiative dubbed "European Network of Sheep and Men".

Spoiling the Gâtine

The Vasles-Mouton-Village experiment is the embodiment of one of the main lines of the LEADER strategy : the creation of four thematic gardens centred respectively on birds, geology, make-believe and botany. "It is about creating an original product that is able to 'irrigate' tourist flows throughout the Gâtine, while maintaining a quality natural and landscaped heritage. Creating gardens in the great garden of the Gâtine", Valérie Rocher, who is coordinating the creation of the Soutiers floral garden, sums up nicely. Another significance of the "Gâtine Gardens" operation, co-financed by LEADER to the tune of approximately ECU 600 000, is that it has brought about the implementation of social inclusion scheme based on "green jobs". Soutiers thus currently employs seven former long-term unemployed people.

These gardens also fit perfectly into the Gâtine's cultural strategy. The Gâtine cannot rely on considerable natural tourist flows but, in a strong position because of the concentration of associations, it has become a real "land of festivals" : apart from cultural activities throughout the year, there is the Festival of Games (100 000 visitors) and three large-scale music festivals in Parthenay, a Painting and Sculpture Festival in St-Loup-sur-Thouet and, every autumn in the village of Ménigoude (800 inhabitants), the International Ornithological Film Festival which, in its 14 years of existence, has become one of the most important festivals of animal and environmental cinema in the world (30 000 visitors, dozens of film-makers, 40-odd films in the competition, a multitude of meetings centred on ecology).

"The first International Festival of Culinary Art will be organised in the Gâtine in 1999," says Benoît Michenot. "These events mobilise an impressive number of volunteers and it would be interesting in terms of development to carry out an entire study on the phenomenon..."

All of these achievements and attractions in the Gâtine are naturally presented on the network of networks. Additional Question : Where is the centre of the world ?

Answer : In Pougne-Hérisson (380 inhabitants), a medieval village in the heart of the Gâtine, which every two years organises a sort of event based on the make-believe of the storyteller and humorist Yannick Jaulin, and which will be home to a marvellous "Garden of World Stories" until the year 2000. To find out more about the indescribable content of this project to which LEADER is contributing, visit the website at

source: LEADER Magazine nr.19 - Winter, 98-99

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