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Everything you need to know about ‘affouage’

With wood burning appliances becoming more and more efficient, the ancient French tradition of ‘affouage’ – which gives individuals the right to gather wood from a local forest – is making a comeback. As a way of maintaining woodland, it’s great news for the environment, and it’s good for your pocket, too. Tempted? Us too! Which is why we’ve been taking a closer look at what ‘affouage’ is – where it began, how it’s regulated, and what you need to do to exercise your right to it…

The Origins of ‘affouage’

Run the word ‘affouage’ through an online translator and the rather unhelpful translation you’ll get is… affouage! So, let’s break it down. The word ‘affouage’ comes from the ancient French verb, affouer, which means ‘to heat’. ‘Affouage’ then, is the source of the heat – in this instance, wood. Nowadays, the word is used to denote the practice of cutting designated trees in a forest, with the intent of using the resulting wood to heat one’s home. Hence, you’ll see it used in sentences such as “L’affouage est une pratique ancienne qui contribue à l’entretien des forêts.” (Affouage is an ancient practice which contributes to forest maintenance).

It’s a word that came into use during the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the Ancien Regime (the two centuries preceding the French Revolution) that it became associated with the practice of taking wood from communal forests. By 1827, official rules of ‘affouage’ had been drawn up as part of the ‘Forest Code’ – a collection of regulatory and legislative texts concerning the exploitation and protection of forests in France. 

How it Works

The National Forestry Office (the ONF) earmarks the areas that can be used as communal forest, and it’s up to the municipal councils who oversee those areas to decide whether or not they are indeed ‘given’ to local inhabitants for the purposes of affouage, or managed in an alternative manner. If the municipality decides to manage the forest through affouage, it divides the area into ‘lots’, which are then allocated to any residents who wish to partake in the process.

As well as providing a way of maintaining the forests, there are two other major benefits of allocating land to residents for the purpose of affouage: It creates a strong link between the inhabitants of an area and their local forest, giving them a greater appreciation of their surroundings and the history of where they live; and it gives residents equal access to a cheaper source of fuel for heating and cooking.

‘Affouage’ and the Law in France

Of course, as with anything that is offered for ‘free’ (in fact, it’s not always free, as we shall see), there will always be those who can’t resist the temptation to take more than they need. And there’ll always be those who are more concerned with how the system can benefit them, than how it can benefit the land. For both these reasons, the practice is regulated – with criminal and civil penalties, ranging from small fines to imprisonment, issued to anyone caught breaking the rules (ie. damaging protected trees, cutting unmarked wood, setting fire to the forest or driving on forest soil). If you’re wondering who’s watching, the answer is the three local ‘guarantors’ appointed by the municipal council.

Getting Started with ‘affouage’

Before running into the woods with your axe, you need to ask your mairie whether or not it’s even possible to exercise your right to affouage in the area where you live. If it is, then you will need to get your name on a register, and you might also need to pay a tax – it’s not often a lot (certainly no more than you’d pay for the equivalent amount of ready-chopped wood), and sometimes there’s no tax at all. You’ll then be allocated a patch of land (drawn from a hat, as it were, to ensure that no-one is treated favourably and given the piece of land that’s easiest to access, for example).

You may need to invest in the right equipment before getting to work, too (unless you hire a company to do it for you, which is allowed). You’ll need: a forestry helmet, gloves, trousers, safety shoes / boots, and industry standard tools. A first aid kit is also a good idea. And don’t forget to create a wood store back at home, as you’ll need to dry your wood before using it – the general rule is one year per inch of thickness, which means this is definitely not a quick, cheap way of getting firewood; when you exercise your right to affouage, you’re in it for the long haul!