From the beginning of time there has been strong population pressure on the natural environment along the entire periphery of the Mediterranean basin, and not only by the rural population, because there have been urban concentrations since ancient times. The strategic and economic importance of navigation on “Mare nostrum” and the requirement for wood for naval construction have had a not insignificant part to play in exploiting the region's forests.
This human pressure is exerted on forest land:
for fuel in the form of fuel-wood or charcoal, in industrial round wood, as well as in traditional forest products such as bark or heather stubs;
for animal feed using foliage, or to obtain grazing or cultivation land.
The first has a degrading effect (the impoverishment of populations which are over-exploited or rarely regenerated), the second necessitates clearing, or generally leads rapidly to clearing.
Wood consumption for energy requirements (fuel-wood, charcoal) or for construction is one of the major causes of reduction in forestry capital (see Annex 1 - Forest resources utilisation study)
Information on wood consumption is inaccurate. Most forestry services estimate it to be two or three times the total annual growth. The extent of this consumption gives an excellent indication of forest degradation.
Providing cattle fodder in the form of foliage, particularly in times of drought, has a devastating effect. However, the pressure from livestock comes above all from forest grazing, a practice which not long ago was severely restricted in many European countries on account of the damage caused to young trees by the cattle. This situation is all the more alarming since the Mediterranean forest is already fragile due to natural conditions (soil and climate) and cannot regenerate itself without there being protection measures available.
With respect to north Mediterranean landscapes, one notes the meagre presence of cultivations of edible fruit trees such as the sweet chestnut, which would have the double advantage of guaranteeing a part of human food supply and at the same time maintaining forest cover over the soil.
Forest fires are still one of the most rapid ways of clearing Mediterranean forest areas; they often originate from badly controlled pastoral land burning, and they are sometimes used in the fight against wild boar.
However, the number and extent of forest fires are generally appreciably lower than in Mediterranean Europe. This comes from the fact that forest grazing “cleans” the grassy and scrub strata accessible to cattle, thus diminishing the risk of fire starting and propagating in the undergrowth. In addition, the effect of populations gathering all dead wood reduces the quantity of easily combustible woody material.
The only zones where forest fires cause real damage are those where they occur repeatedly. Generally speaking neither forest fires in North Africa nor in the Near East constitute as great a problem as they do in Mediterranean Europe.
When even the rural section of the population is reduced due to an exodus which has already started throughout the country, urban population requirements take over in fuelling the degradation and even the deforestation process. Close to urban areas, the need for construction land adds to fuel-wood and round wood requirements, which are made yet more acute on account of population concentration.
Thus it seems difficult to imagine durable forest development schemes which could accommodate a growth in human population at an annual rate of 3 or 4 per cent, without considerable efforts being made in planting and forestry management.