The Camargue, the great triangle of wetlands in the mouth of the river Rhne, is the last great wilderness of the north-west Mediterranean coast. It is a timeless place of pink flamingos pecking in shallow lagoons; of black bulls grazing on the salt marshes; of white horses splashing through the surf.
The eastern corner of the Camargue is also a place of vast, ugly, man-made alps of salt, mined from the sea. The salt is used to make chemicals or melt icy, winter roads. A human intrusion? An eyesore? Yes, but the saltworks are also vital to preserve the beauty of the Camargue.
In the past six months, the Rhne delta has been the site of an unintentional, but fascinating, experiment in mankind's ambivalent relationship with the "natural". Everything connects. Our activities, especially our industrial activities, sometimes threaten the planet. In the Camargue, the process is reversed. Nature depends on human activities to survive.
Last winter, 128 Camargue salt "miners" went on partial strike. This spring and summer, 20,000 greater flamingos - one of the world's most bizarrely beautiful birds - came out in sympathy.
The birds are the only large breeding colony of flamingos in Europe and north Africa. Apart from a couple of small sites in Italy and Spain, they are the only breeding community of flamingos on the Mediterranean coast. And they have failed to lay a single egg all spring and early summer. It is now too late for them to breed this year. This is the first time this has happened in 30 years. Why?
In January, the owners of the saltworks, Salins du Midi, lost their main contract. They planned to close the site. In protest, the 128 salt workers stopped pumping and sluicing water from the Mediterranean.
The beautiful salt lagoons of the Camargue are formed by the run- off of dilute sea brine from the saltworks. The lagoons rapidly dried up. Flamingos will breed only on small islands in salt lagoons. They stopped laying. Everything connects.
An ecological catastrophe? Not really. There are plenty of flamingos. They often live for 30 years. It would be a catastrophe only if the 10,000 breeding pairs of flamingos in the Camargue stopped laying eggs year after year after year.
Clearly, the flamingos have a vital interest in the continued industrial extraction of salt in the Camargue. The birds did truly "come out in sympathy" with the salt workers.
In turn, the flamingo strike helped the salt men. The Camargue is listed by Unesco and the European Union as a site of global ecological importance. The non-laying flamingos were an embarrassment to the French government. After the presidential election was over, pressure and incentives were rapidly applied to end the dispute. The row has been resolved. Salt extraction will continue, on a reduced scale, near Salin-de-Giraud, a village entirely dependent on salt, at the eastern end of the Camargue. There will be 46 salt-sluicing jobs and 10 new "environmental" jobs. Seawater will be pumped and sluiced into the lagoons again. There is every reason to believe that the flamingos will resume raising their extraordinarily ugly chicks next spring.
But the dispute is a timely reminder of the fragility of the Camargue. The central Rhne delta - hauntingly beautiful in places, crushingly dull in others - is an artificial wilderness. Its landscape, largely created by human activity, is now threatened, by human activity, and inactivity.
For 250 years, the Camargue has been torn, and shaped, by battles between local interests, and struggles to resist outside interference, as ferocious as the endless battles between the Mediterranean and the Rhne for control of the delta. Those battles are so intense that the protected status of the Camargue as a "regional natural" park may be about to disappear into legal and political quicksand.
"Everything here is a balance," said Eric Coulet, director of the nature reserve at the centre of the delta. …