Vast expanses of dense forest may not be a typical Mediterranean image - Mediterranean forests account for a mere 1.5 percent of the total wooded surface of the planet-but forests of the countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea have played, and continue to play, a key role in the development of local civilizations.
Just as they do elsewhere, forests in the Mediterranean contribute to the production of products that are crucial to economic activity, although timber here plays a less predominant role and many different products, such as fruit, bark (cork), rubber, resins and fodder, contribute towards a diversified economy. Perhaps most important are the ecological functions of trees and forests-protecting the soil and its fertility, protecting crops against the wind and regulating the flow of surface water through forests and woodlands. The close relationship that has developed over time between humans and the forest has sometimes been stable, but more often it has been out of balance and detrimental to forests that are notable for their fragility.
The impact of human action on the forests of the Mediterranean basin dates back to the beginnings of cultivation and animal husbandry, which affected forests in the form of clearing, some 12 000 years ago in the Near East. The greatest expansion of agriculture occurred during the Roman era (between the second century BC and the fifth century AD). The expansion of the agricultural frontier resulted in a rapid reduction of the environmentally fragile forests; in the fifth century BC, Plato deplored the deforestation of Attica. Moreover, not only was wood the main source of energy, but it was also an essential material in shipbuilding - an activity of particular significance for these trading and warfaring empires. From the decline of the Byzantine Empire (about AD 640) until the mid-nineteenth century, exporting and importing countries were linked by sea, with wood being both the building material of choice for boats and one of the major products traded.
Beginning in the nineteenth century and still continuing today, a new phase of development has affected the forests of the northern and southern parts of the Mediterranean basin in very different ways. In the face of rapid population growth, a precarious state of resources and a relatively low standard of living, people's dependence on forest resources in the southern countries, has continued and even increased. Direct pressure on the resource therefore continues in this area. In the north, on the other hand, the transformation of agriculture, industrialization and economic growth have led to the abandonment of farmland and to the spontaneous regeneration of forests. However, this has been accompanied by unmanaged and dangerous accumulations of forest fuels, which heighten the risk of forest fire. Moreover, in many instances the development of infrastructure for the tourism industry has also contributed to forest degradation.
The many roles of Mediterranean forests and their importance for the region's populations are thrown into sharper relief as this century draws to an end. A new awareness and a revival of interest have given rise to several scientific studies - both regional and international - and set in motion a number of programmes concerned with the future of the region's forest ecosystems.
This issue of Unasylva considers a number of the many facets of Mediterranean forestry, with authors contributing from across the region. In the opening article, O. M'Hirit (Coordinator of the Cedar Network, Silva Mediterranea) provides abroad overview of the richness of the region's forests and the challenges they are facing. C.M. Larbi (President of the International Association for Mediterranean Forests) describes efforts in Tunisia to develop integrated approaches to forest management appropriate to the southern shores of the Mediterranean. P. Quézel, F. Médail, R. Loisel and M. Barbero provide a detailed analysis of the biological diversity of the Mediterranean ecosystem and the challenges to its conservation. G. Montero and I. Cañellas present the salient features of Spanish Mediterranean forests and the results of management practices monitored over a period of more than 100 years.
Forest fire is one of the most serious threats to Mediterranean forests. D. Alexandrian, F. Esnault and G. Calabri analyse trends in forest fire across the region and underlying policy-related causes. In a related box, E. Rigolot briefly examines issues related to the use of prescribed burning as a forest management tool.
M.C. Varela considers the role and potential of cork oak (Quercus suber) in the Mediterranean region. M. Malagnoux and J.-P. Lanly discuss efforts to join forces in meeting the challenges facing the Mediterranean basin, from ancient times to the present. Complementing this article, R. Morandini provides a historical overview of the work of Silva Mediterranea, the FAO statutory body that focuses on the region and has just completed its first 50 years of activity.
Forests have played a fundamental role in the civilizations that have flourished in the region. Today, they are just as important and, if managed following the principles espoused in this issue of Unasylva, should continue to provide essential products and services in the future.