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Overview of Mediterranean forest conservation issues

The conservation issues related to Mediterranean forests reflect the different socio-economic conditions prevailing in the north and the southern / eastern shore of the basin. In the north, rural abandonment has resulted in the collapse of many of the traditional, sustainable forest management activities. In the south, high birth rate results to over-exploitation of forest resources and forest depletion.

A consequence of rural depopulation in southern Europe is the increase of the cover and the total biomass of Mediterranean forests. In many cases, dense shrub communities have invaded land previously occupied by marginal agricultural activities. In certain locations, an increase in wildlife population densities has taken place, which means that rural abandonment was beneficial to forest integrity. However, many times regenerated forests are of poor quality and of low biodiversity, as sustainable management methods that had been applied for centuries to the woodlands were abandoned.

An example of these negative effects is the impact of forest fires: although Mediterranean forests are fire-adapted, they face severe fire problems, as a result of the disruption in traditional fire management methods and the higher frequency of fire occurrence resulting from social pressure13. Another example is the negative consequences of rural abandonment (in combination with other factors such as the introduction of intensive agriculture methods), on the quality of sylvo-pastoral systems.

Additional problems include overgrazing, hindering forest regeneration, unplanned tourism development, especially in coastal forest areas, and massive exotic species afforestation initiatives, such as the extensive eucalyptus plantations in Spain and Portugal.

Forests in southern Mediterranean countries face conservation problems of a different character: traditional forest management methods have become intensive as a result of fast population growth. The situation in Turkey and the Middle East is somewhere between the situation in the north and the south.

NTFPs and Mediterranean forest conservation issues

NTFP production of in the Mediterranean follows the double line defined by the regional forest conservation issues. The first line of problems comes from rural abandonment that has caused the decline of multiple management of forests that produced NTFPs. For example, in the past thriving rural populations took care of the forests, on which they were depended, resulting in less frequent fires than nowadays. Another example is the abandonment of sustainable human made ecosystems that resulted in the decline of associated biodiversity (e.g. as the case of Pistacia terebinthus shrub communities in Spain).

The second line of problems comes with the intensification of NTFP gathering and production modes. In recent years, the increase in non-local and foreign market demand resulted in unsustainable gathering of many NTFPs, mainly medicinal plants, herbs, bulbs and wild greens, or other produce such as pine nuts. Overhunting has become a major conservation issue14.

Additional problems arise with the development of foreign production centres and of chemical substitutes that have contributed to the collapse of certain NTFP production such as resin. Genetic decline is also an emerging issue: the destruction of natural habitats and the introduction of modern cultivation which neglects local varieties of certain species have resulted in narrowing down the genetic diversity of both wild and cultivated types of the species.

In the past, traditional NTFP production was taking place in Mediterranean woodlands, with the human presence and natural processes coexisting at equilibrium levels. Thus, enhancement of sustainable NTFP production can deliver positive conservation results and enhance proposed solutions related to forest issues in the region. Agenda 21, which was approved by the UN Conference on Environment and Development (1992) recognises the role of NTFPs in sustainable forest management. However, to integrate active NTFP production within current conservation efforts in Mediterranean forests, there are questions related to NTFP ecology and gathering that need to be answered.

Example: El Feija National Park and surrounding region, Tunisia

This case exhibits how production of NTFPs could result in creating positive attitudes within rural communities for the acceptance of protected area establishment.

El Feija mountain forest is located in north-east Tunisia and is the most important forest region of Tunisia. The forest is characterized by two endemic oak species of the western Mediterranean: the rare deciduous Quercus canariensis, and the cork oak (Quercus suber). More than 700 vascular plants exist in the forest, (including an important number of endemics), such as Myrtus communis, Arbutus unedo, Erica arborea, and Crataegus monogyna. The forest is also the only remnant habitat for one of the most threatened Mediterranean mammals, the endemic Berbery red deer (Cervus elaphus barbarus). El Feija is a natural «water tower» as the region benefits from one of the highest precipitation rates in Tunisia). The great biodiversity importance of the region is the reason that prompted the Tunisian government to create a protected area in the region.

The El Feija National Park was created in 1990 in a forest area of 2.632 hectares, 417 of which has been strictly reserved for the protection of the Berbery deer. Since its creation, little management has been applied to the Park. Access has been prohibited to the core area, which is surrounded by barbed wire. No major effort exists to integrate traditional forest management activities with the conservation practices within the Park and in its surrounding buffer zone. Also, the absence of sufficient personnel further aggravates the situation.

The population living in the buffer zone of El Feija National Park sums up to 11.500 individuals, relying on a subsistence economy of livestock breeding, small scale agriculture, fuelwood and plant gathering. The lack of sound management of livestock grazing and the intense and uncontrolled wood gathering for charcoal production have detrimental effects on the forest resources surrounding the Park. Employment is also provided to local people by forest authorities in a part time basis. The local population did not welcome the establishment of the Park, as some traditional forest activities (which were perceived to be an ancient right of the forest communities) were prohibited. After the establishment of the park, there was an increase of forest fires, with the largest one occurring in 1994.

Aromatic plant gathering and distillation production, mainly of myrtle and lavender, has always been traditional and activity in Feija. The authorities allow myrtle collection from a total area of 500 hectares per season. Lavender distillation meets local demands and only small amounts are gathered. Honey production takes also place within the forest mostly for household needs. Finally, charcoal is produced at a large scale in kilns surrounding the periphery of the protected area.

As NTFP production in Feija constitutes an activity that is easily compatible to forest conservation, a more organised approach could be designed. This would produce economic benefits for the communities and could help inhabitants accept the establishment of the protected area. The designed activities should be a component of a broader action plan targeting sound forest management.

The action plan should include a forest inventory and yield assessment with a focus on selected forest products, such as aromatic plants and fuel-wood, since intensification of NTFP production can impose threats to natural eco-system integrity. The assessments shall decide on the feasibility of infrastructure establishment, such as nurseries for medicinal plant cultivation, distillation and charcoal production units. Furthermore, the products could be sold not only to tourists visiting the park but also to other tourist destination locations within the country. A marketing plan could also explore the possibility of selling El Feija NTFPs outside Tunisia through international distributors that market similar products.

13 The issue of forest fires is complicated and depends on area specific socio-economic factors.

14 From a conservation pint of view, particular care should be given to the rehabilitation of wild fauna in the Mediterranean, as it constitutes an important step to the restoration of mediterranean woodland ecosystems.

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