By Jaya Ramachandran
The Mediterranean forest area has expanded by two percent resulting in a rise of 1.8 million hectares – about the size of Slovenia, says a joint report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Plan Bleu, Regional Activity Center of UN Environment/Mediterranean Action Plan.
But the report titled The State of Mediterranean Forests 2018 warns that in the period 2010-2015 forests in the Mediterranean have also been considerably affected by degradation and are increasingly in jeopardy from climate change, population rise, wildfires and water scarcity.
The report analyses the circum-Mediterranean region, a territory encompassing thirty-one countries and a wide range of political, economic, social and environmental contexts. The region has an extremely rich natural and cultural heritage. Here, human and economic development is largely dependent on at times scarce natural resources and a vulnerable environment, notes the Foreword to the report.
“Today, human activity has placed substantial pressure on this environment, the impact of which is felt differently in the northern, southern and eastern sub-regions. Based on a bioclimatic definition of Mediterranean forests, the Mediterranean region includes more than 25 million hectares of forests and about 50 million hectares of other wooded lands. These lands are strongly interconnected with urban and agricultural/rural areas,” write FAO Assistant Director-General for Forestry Department Hiroto Mitsugi, and Plan Bleu’s director Elen Lemaitre-Curri in the Foreword.
Mediterranean forests and other wooded lands in the region make vital contributions to rural development, poverty alleviation and food security, as well as to the agriculture, water, tourism, and energy sectors. Such contributions are, however, difficult to quantify, they say.
Moreover, changes in climate, societies and lifestyles in the Mediterranean could have serious negative consequences for forests, resulting in the potential loss or diminution of those contributions and to a wide range of economic, social and environmental problems, they alert.
Commenting the report, Mitsugi said: “Mediterranean forests have long been adapting to pressures caused by human development. But never have these pressures been so extreme as they are now. Unless we do more to combat forest degradation, more than 500 million people across 31 countries and three continents will soon face a wide range of economic, social and environmental problems.”
Lemaitre-Curri concurred: “In a context of rapid climatic, societal and lifestyle changes in the Mediterranean, forest and tree-based solutions are critical to the region overall sustainability, with an expected impact well beyond forested areas.”
Upstream forests, agro-forestry, and urban trees and parks can help preserve key ecosystem services, reduce soil degradation and transition towards a circular, resource-efficient, bio-based, low carbon and socially fair green economy, she adds. “Reaching this potential will require using a range of instruments, including participatory approaches, innovative economic instruments and partnerships.”
The report provides some key figures about Mediterranean forests:
- Mediterranean countries’ forest area – the size of France and Italy, represents two percent of the global forest area.
- Overall, the increase in forest area has been slightly greater in northern Mediterranean than in southern Mediterranean. But, on a country basis, the greatest loss of forest area (between 1990 and 2015) occurred in European countries such as Portugal, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania.
- There are 80 million hectares of degraded lands – including forests – in the Mediterranean.
- Protected areas have increased, particularly in regions with small forest areas – North Africa hosts four percent of the Mediterranean forests, but forest represents nearly a quarter of its protected areas.
- Forests are storing over 5,000 billion tonnes of carbon (about 2 percent of the global forest carbon), with an increase of 1.65 billion (2 percent per year) between 1990 and 2015.
- Over 400,000 hectares of forests are burnt each year.
- At least 339 (16 percent) of Mediterranean forest animal and plant species are threatened with extinction.
According to the report, forest degradation in the north of the Mediterranean is driven mostly by land abandonment and fires, while forests in the south-east suffer from an overexploitation of fuelwood, overgrazing, and population pressure.
Climate change remains the most significant threat to all Mediterranean forests. Rising temperatures, erratic rain patterns, and longer droughts will significantly alter the cover and distribution of forests and trees over the next years.
For example, as trees try to withstand droughts, they deplete their carbon stores and produce less carbohydrates and resins, which are essential to their health. This has already led to a decline or dieback of oak, fir, spruce, beech and pine trees in Spain, France, Italy and Greece, and of Atlas cedar trees in Algeria.
The Mediterranean population doubled between 1960 and 2015, reaching 537 million, and is estimated to rise to 670 million by 2050. While there has been little demographic change in the north, rapid population growth in the south-east has led to an excessive exploitation of natural resources.
Wildfires remain a significant threat. Although the number of fires have decreased in the north and northeast in recent decades, the number of larger fires (affecting over 500 hectares) have increased. The report predicts this trend – overall fewer but larger fires – to continue.
Water shortages and soil erosion are particularly harmful to Mediterranean forests as soils are thinner and poorer than in other regions.
The report highlights that over 300 animal and plant species of Mediterranean forests threatened with extinction.
The Mediterranean region is the world’s second largest biodiversity hotspot, but as forests face rising pressures, so are its animals and plants.
Forests are home to three quarters of Mediterranean terrestrial mammal species, nearly half of the region’s vertebrate species and almost three quarters of terrestrial insects. Forests also hold more than a quarter of the region’s higher plant species.
Forests in Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Morocco have the highest number of threatened species (26 percent in Spain, 24 in Italy, 21 in Greece, 17 in Turkey, 15 in Morocco).
Mediterranean forests are also rich in fungi. However, they are gradually decreasing due to clear-cutting and timber harvesting.
The FAO-Plan Bleu report offers solutions to forest degradation. It urges countries to scale up the restoration of forests and landscapes. In particular, it recommends:
- Thinning and planting mixed tree species to reduce droughts’ impacts.
- New firefighting policies that look beyond suppressing fires and include preventative vegetation management, preparedness and restoration activities.
- A regional forest strategy and common policies.
- Strengthening forest value chains.
- Mediterranean forests are already part of the green economy, but their contributions could be maximized if green economy-related strategies place greater focus on forests.
- Increasing forests, parks, and vegetable gardens in urban areas.
- Creating stronger private-public partnerships for forest management.
- Applying FAO’s guidelines on restoring degraded forests and landscapes.
The report covers, among others: Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Palestine, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia and Turkey.