Corsican Chestnuts (part 1): The social and political landscape.

I’ve wanted to go to Corsica for 15 years and thanks to the Savanna Institute for sending me to Sardinia for the European Agroforestry Conference, I was finally able to visit last week. Many people view Corsica as a vacation destination where you can enjoy the Mediterranean coastlines while drinking incredible wines and indulging in their unique cuisine. However, I’m not all that into beaches, and instead chose to spend time learning about Corsican chestnut (Castanea sativa) culture and the integration of livestock under these ancient chestnut trees. I was planning on writing one essay about the Corsican management of their chestnut trees for food and livestock, but my emotions took over and I ended up learning much more about the social culture and political ecology of Corsican chestnuts, which deserves its own essay. The second essay, soon to come, will surround the aspects of renovating, managing and processing chestnuts in Corsica.

Map of Corsica.

Castagniccia: The Chestnut Region

The first night in the Castagniccia region, in the heart of the Corsican chestnut forest, we talked with an Innkeeper about the surrounding chestnuts, provoking an unexpected story of rural flight from Corsica’s young people. Though some own land in the Castagniccia, most young people have moved to the coast or to mainland France for jobs, only returning for short periods of time- usually only time enough to pick up a small amount of chestnuts in a season. The forests here, she told me, are sick from abandonment, a theme that became amplified as we talked to more people. Because there are no people around to revive these forests, chestnut yields are in decline. Because the trees are yielding fewer nuts, it is becoming harder and harder to harvest them. The prices have ballooned to $8 euros/pound due to the fact that people are now foraging for them in an untended, overgrown forest, rather than harvesting from the abundance of stewarded chestnut forests that once fueled a culture of mountainous people.

As a result of the chestnut shortage and inflated price, chestnuts are being imported from mainland France at less than half the cost. Yet, these imported chestnuts aren’t Corsican chestnuts, as they’ve been selected and bred for fresh consumption. Corsican chestnuts are bred for flour, a dietary staple in Corsican cuisine, and have been selected over hundreds of years for this specific purpose. The mainland France chestnuts thus reduce the quality of products the Corsicans have perfected over hundreds of years.

Corsican value-added products from local chestnut flour

The next morning, on a hike into a nearby chestnut forest, it suddenly struck me that I was standing on an 850 year old chestnut terrace system. The Innkeeper was right, the ancient remnant chestnuts were suffering. Feeling the vines tightening their grip, making way for the undergrowth to fill the ever-increasing voids from chestnut die-back, an all too familiar sadness washed over me. No one is here to help the trees. No one is here to take up the responsibility of enlivening the hundreds of years of purposeful breeding and selection and tending. Without human intervention, this ancient ecosystem at the delicate intersection of wild and domesticated, will succumb to the undergrowth.

Terraces for chestnut harvesting and travel through the forest

Standing amongst this neglect, I was hit with the futility of my own work and purpose. If Corsica, a culture whose resilient identity is centered around the chestnut, is losing their chestnut forests to abandonment, what hope does the future of tree crops have in the US, whose society refuses to see the value of renovating the incredible trees that already exist? There is little-to-no respect for tending old trees unless they have aesthetic value in well-trafficked areas. Age is viewed as an illness of decline, where planting new is largely favored over investing in the old. My local land grant university has published pamphlets saying that renovating old orchards and plantings don’t make economic sense and they should be cut down and replaced with new trees, without taking ecology into account. They say the trees are vectors for disease and harmful to the new trees that have far fewer natural resistances to the climate. And yet here I am on Corsica, seeking personal inspiration to keep doing the work I love, and witnessing their ancient trees fade away.

Overgrown Chestnut Forest

Why is this happening here? Why are the chestnut forests in decline? In asking these questions to chestnut growers and producers, I received pieces of answers that together, formed a larger picture. Please note: If anyone reading this is Corsican and has corrections, please contact me through http://www.fruitandfodder.com. I’d love to connect with you.

A BRIEF HISTORY:

Due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean, Corsica has been fraught with invasion for the entirety of its human inhabitation. For five hundred years, leading into the 18th century, the island was somewhat under Genoese rule. While the Genoese occupied the coast, the Corsicans occupied the mountains, where the chestnuts grew wild and abundantly (pollen records show Castanea sativa present in the Neolithic period). Though the Corsicans found fault and corruption in nearly everything the Genoese did, one of the greatest gifts bestowed on the Corsicans was that of improved chestnut cultivars. Specifically, grafting the wild-growing chestnuts over to cultivars that make flour (the big fat grafts of these flour-producing cultivars are still alive today on 800+ year-old trees). It was the ability to make bread from these grafted chestnuts that supported human resiliency on seriously rough terrain. This resiliency also bled into Corsican politics and their fight for independence and autonomy. In the Mid-18th century, Genoa secretly sold Corsica to the French 13 years after the Corsicans had formed their own republic (if you get a chance, listen to this fascinating podcast on Pasquale Paoli). The sale to France led the Corsicans to fight several battles for their independence, eventually succumbing to French rule. To this day, Corsica’s wish for autonomy from France is loud and clear, citing the illegitimate circumstances of their colonization.

The Decline

Despite French rule, Corsicans continued to tend the chestnut forests and produce flour until WWI, when 1 in 12 Corsicans were killed in war, losing the next generation of land stewards. With the massive loss in able-bodied labor, Corsica’s economy went into a recession which caused a mass exodus of the population. After nearly 700 years of forest stewardship for chestnut flour, WWI marks the beginning of decline.

Corsican chestnut harvest, late 19th century

Abandonment: Rural Gentrification
After WWII, Corsica became a major vacation destination for the French. Over the years, this has ramped up to the point where the island’s population now swells by four times its size in the summer months. Due to its popularity, many French nationals have bought property on this island, which in turn has caused a drastic rise in real estate values that choke the Corsican’s ability to stay on the land and keep their culture alive. This rural gentrification, which I’m all too familiar with in the US, is one of the larger causes fueling the abandonment of the chestnut forests today.

What does rural gentrification look like? It looks like second homes or land investments owned by, as one Corsican farmer put it, “functionaries.” This was a polite way of saying that these people are very educated in ways that do not include the skills or awareness necessary to steward the precious resources they now own. These “functionaries,” who choose to seasonally inhabit or be absentee to these rural areas, are able to pay much more than those who derive their livelihoods from the land. With rising land costs preventing ownership, there are few options to steward land outside of those closely linked with modern-day feudalism. Of course, lifetime leases are naturally preferable in order to perform the tremendous amount of skilled work needed to restore these forests, yet they are extremely rare. The needed infusion of energy into abandoned land will never come from short-term leases that absentee or unskilled owners widely prefer.

Many of you reading this can relate, as this is not an isolated problem of Corsica. In the United States, a massive transfer of land has happened since the COVID pandemic. This transfer is taking land out of the hands of the capable and into the hands of unaware”functionaries” looking to diversify their wealth investments. With islands being important indicators for their mainland counterparts, it is devastating to witness the Corsicans struggling to gain long-term access to their land, culture and identity.

Without reform, the untended ancient chestnut forests will certainly fade away. Without action in our own countries to curb the ever-growing concerns of neo-feudalism and recover the abandoned past, the multi-generational future of agroforestry feels more like a movement and less like a way of life. Without supporting the long-term access and energy investment in land by able-bodied people, the succession of today’s plantings will succumb to abandonment as well.

I stand in solidarity with the Corsican people. May they gain their autonomy and become a beacon of hope for the rest of us.

The next essay (coming soon): Corsican chestnuts (Part 2): Restoration, care, diversification and flour