AGORA – Saving the forests of the Mediterranean
We all know about tropical rain forests and fir trees from Northern Europe. But when we think about the Mediterranean, our thoughts turn to beaches, not trees. Now thinking about the forests around the Mediterranean is becoming a top priority because this region is one of the hotspots where the effects of global warming will be exceptionally high.
Forests are especially sensitive to climate change and they are the most important ecological structure in the Mediterranean region. Not only do they play a role as an energy source and in maintaining biodiversity but they are also indispensable in maintaining soil and water resources, which are the most important natural assets in the region, says Marc Palahi of the European Forest Institute, the coordinator of the project. “Many of the forests in Morocco and Tunisia have degraded in recent years due to climate change and local people cutting down trees.”
AGORA, a three-year project funded with close to € 1 million by the European Commission, started at the beginning of 2010 and will end at the end of 2012. Six institutions from Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, Tunisia, Italy and France joined the project. “The main aim of this project was to improve the scientific knowledge and capabilities in Morocco and Tunisia, with regard to sustainable management of their forests,” says Palahi. The project does not focus on the science itself, but on its implementation. “We are not training people in how to manage forests, we are preparing the scientists to be able to instruct decision makers and managers in how to manage a forest,” says Palahi.
An important research capability that must be developed is the understanding of how forests can cope with climate change. “We have evidence that the temperature in North Africa has risen on average two degrees Celsius, and rainfall is also decreasing and changing its pattern,” says Palahi. One of the questions is whether tree species will be able to adapt to these accelerated changes. “We don’t know yet, and we need to understand the genetic component very well,” says Palahi.
A second need is the development of new “tools” specific to the Mediterranean environment. Unlike northern forests, which are mainly exploited for their timber, forests in the Mediterranean are much more multifunctional. “We have a lot of different products, from cork to mushrooms to aromatic plants. Forests also play an important role in the control of land erosion and water resources, and therefore we need a new approach to forest management,” says Palahi.
Germany is the role model for forest management, but their techniques are not readily applicable to the Mediterranean. “The challenge is to change this paradigm of forest management and really address the nature and specificities of the forests in our region.”
But the need for expertise developed in Europe will remain very important. Therefore, a key role of AGORA is the stimulation of “twinning” between the best scientific organizations in Europe with institutions in Morocco and Tunisia. And here the project has been very successful. “Agora has emerged as a dynamic platform allowing communication among scientists from all these countries,” says Palahi.
AGORA has been so successful in setting up a scientific infrastructure that the European Commission approved a follow-up programme, called FORESTERRA (Enhancing forest research in the Mediterranean through improved coordination and integration). Started at the beginning of 2012 it involves the other Mediterranean countries.
Pahali stresses the importance of such a programme: “North Africa is now facing climate problems that we will have in Spain, France and Italy in the coming 20-30 years.”
The project proved its worth in Morocco and Tunisia, and for these countries it was also an eye-opener, according to Palahi. “We found the good young scientists and for the first time 22-23 year olds are going abroad to do research. For them it´s an amazing opportunity.”