Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Caves of Choranche

Nothing anguishes me more than heights and holes. By heights, I mean mountain ledges and cliffs. By holes, I mean deep gorges and abysses. Well, in settling down in a place such such as Choranche, I struck a jackpot of nightmares. It’s an empire of heights and holes. That’s the main reason why people come here... either to visit the famous limestone caves (like those of Jenolan in Australia) or because they’re keen on rock-climbing or caving.

Concerning the caves of Choranche, it's hoped that these extraordinary geological phenomena will end up being placed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites. This would be a godsend for local tourism. Not surprisingly, however, a handful of rural families—nearly all of whom are oldtimers in the region—have expressed opposition to the Unesco project, because they have the impression that they will be subjected to constraints such as no longer being free to erect farm buildings or create tractor paths through the woods.

In the case of caves, the question of property rights and obligations is amusing. To be considered as the legal owner of a vast underground network of caves, you only have to own the property where the unique exit is located. In the case of the local caves, their unique exit is located up in the cliff face above the commune of Choranche, which is why they are referred to as the caves of Choranche. But the kilometers of subterranean passages are actually located beneath the surface of a neighboring commune, Presles. Obviously, the owners of land that lies directly above the network would be targeted by new legislation introduced in the context of the Unesco project. In other words, property-owners in Presles would bear the brunt of constraints, even though the caves are located officially in Choranche. This apparent anomaly is an ideal pretext for kindling animosity between the native families whose ancestors worked in agriculture and newcomers who are more oriented towards touristic activities.

Happily, although I’m a perfect case of a newcomer from a foreign land (where “foreign land” means any geographical region on the planet located more than fifty or so kilometers from the village of Choranche), I find it easy to avoid being dragged into these squabbles. After all, it’s a spontaneous reaction for me to steer clear of anything and everything that’s connected with heights and holes.

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