From exploration to the preservation of our rivers and oceans – Interview with Erik Orsenna

© Elodie Bernollin / Fondation Tara Océan

Tara is a living encyclopedia, an encyclopedia on the move”. Sitting on the schooner’s deck, Erik Orsenna — writer and chairman of the Initiatives for the future of Great Rivers — recounts his meeting with Tara and the path that led him to become a sponsor of the Tara Ocean Foundation in 2019-2020.

Here you are aboard Tara. Could you tell us in a few words what Tara means for you?

My link with Tara is a link with the planet. I have been sailing since childhood and trying to understand the relationship we have with the oceans for about 15 years. I started following Tara with passion, first because it’s a legendary boat and I like legends. One day I learned that a boat was heading to the Arctic to continue with the great explorations of the past.

Why was the boat going there? Because we don’t know everything and are far from knowing everything. She was going to continue the exploration, because exploration is a continuous movement. I said to myself: I must go with Tara. And then it didn’t happen, but I passionately followed what Tara was doing.

Later the schooner left the Arctic and set out to explore plankton. Honestly, I didn’t know anything at all about plankton. So I said to myself: Tara is a living encyclopedia, a moving encyclopedia. I love to learn, especially by traveling alongside seafarers. My passion has always been salt water, but also fresh water and its rivers.

190613_140211© Noëlie Pansiot - Fondation Tara OcéanThe schooner Tara in action © Noëlie Pansiot / Tara Océan Foundation 

In 2019-2020, you became a sponsor of the Foundation, at exactly the right time. The land-sea link seems to mean a lot to you.

Yes, now the scientists of the new Microplastics Mission are studying the link between rivers and oceans. As a river specialist, I have a strong conviction that the health of the Ocean depends on the health of rivers, and the health of rivers depends on the care of the people who live near them, in the heart of the watersheds, and what is discharged into the rivers. That is to say, the respect people have — that WE have — for the rivers.

Today it happens that, with the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, I chair the Initiative for the Future of Great Rivers (IAGF). I saw a connection between Tara’s research on oceans and what we are doing on the rivers.

How do you see the future, now that ecological crises are proven facts and all the lights are red? In your opinion, what are the levers for change?

In New Zealand, there is what I think is an exemplary situation: the Whanganui River has become an entity with legal rights. In other words, the government can be attacked if the river is “wronged”. I find it great that humans are not the only subjects with rights. This is something that particularly touches me.

Michel Serres, who was a very close friend, wrote “Le Contrat naturel”, a contract with nature, complementary to the social contract. For such a contract to exist, we must understand nature. This is what I love and respect in the Tara Ocean Foundation — “explore to understand” and “share to change”.

These are the two pillars of my life. Just as Tara tries to understand the mechanisms of the planet, 150 years ago, Pasteur had the same ambitions trying to understand the mechanisms of life. We have to understand things in order to care for them. To improve our care-taking, we must transmit knowledge. The Tara Ocean Foundation is doing this —from the infinitely large to the infinitely small—studying the planet and plankton, the immense Arctic ice caps, and invisible microplastics.

Interviewed by Noélie Pansiot & Elodie Bernollin

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