While Mediterranean forests play a vital role in the livelihoods of Mediterranean communities, they are vulnerable ecosystems threatened by increasing water scarcity, forest fires and destructive human activities. What are the root causes of the challenges facing these ecosystems, and what is the forecast for forests around the Mediterranean?
Differences in cultures, policies, and economic situations divide the Mediterranean region into two broad areas characterized by their own challenges in achieving sustainable forest management other than the usual pressure from population growth and lifestyle changes that pushing rural residents to move to cities and abandon their lands. In northern Mediterranean countries, forests are mainly threatened by rural land abandonment and coastal tourism infrastructure development that result in severe forest fires and forest fragmentation. Southern and eastern Mediterranean forests are confronted by over-grazing, extreme extraction of fuel-wood, and clearing forest land for agriculture, which are worsening desertification. When countries, such as Spain, initiated reforestation projects at the beginning of the 20th century, some communities that used this land for grazing cattle, sheep, and goats even resorted to violence by intentionally igniting forests to clear land for pasture. However, a newer strategy that has been gaining popularity amongst southern European countries is payment-targeted grazing, which is more cost effective, reduces biofuel waste, earns shepherds more respect and a paycheck.
2% of the world’s forests are found in the Mediterranean Basin where natural resources, including those provided by forests, are estimated to be used 2.5 times more than their ecosystems’ carrying capacity.Source: Plan Bleu. State of Mediterranean Forests 2018. FAO, 2019.
Global climate change impacts such as temperature increases, longer drought periods, precipitation level changes, and frequent extreme events exacerbate these challenges. The unpredictability of these factors is especially devastating in the Mediterranean region, since this part of the world is a transition area between arid and humid regions which makes forests more prone to diseases and wildfires. Higher temperatures force trees to lose more water in respiration/evaporation and to compensate by exhausting their carbohydrate reserves, which weakens the trees and makes them more vulnerable to pest invasions. 90-95% of wildfires in the Mediterranean region have been linked to anthropogenic activities. Forest ecosystems do not have enough time to recover naturally between recurring human-caused fires, which leads to irreversible damages. The question is: what is allowing such large-scale threats to forests to persist?