Forests form one of the most important ecological structures along the Mediterranean. They help maintain biodiversity and are crucial to soil and water retention, the most precious natural resources in what is an arid, hot region. Understanding how forests can cope with – and perhaps even help mitigate – the effects of climate change is a major challenge that has the potential to bring huge benefits to the region.
"Many of the forests in Morocco and Tunisia have degraded in recent years due to climate change and local people cutting down trees," explains Marc Palahi of the European Forest Institute in Barcelona. "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.”
It is not known whether certain tree species will be able to adapt to these accelerated changes. This issue is also of critical importance to Europe, for the climate problems North Africa is currently facing will, on present forecasts, be experienced in countries such as Spain, France and Italy over the next 20 to 30 years.
This is why AGORA, a project funded through FP7’s Research Potential (REGPOT) programme and coordinated by the European Forest Institute, was launched in 2010 to initiate a coordinated approach to forest management throughout the Mediterranean basin. Involving six research institutions from Morocco, Turkey, Portugal, Tunisia, Italy and France, the project is scheduled for completion at the end of 2012.
“The main aim of AGORA is to improve the scientific knowledge and capabilities in Morocco and Tunisia, with regard to sustainable management of their forests,” continues Palahi. "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."
Central to the project’s success to date has been the encouragement of "twinning" between leading scientific organisations in Europe and similar institutions in Morocco and Tunisia. Here, the project has proved very successful. "AGORA has emerged as a dynamic platform, allowing communication among scientists from all these countries."
Although historically Germany was the role model for forest management, some techniques have not been 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," Palahi adds.
By doing so, new tools specific to managing the Mediterranean environment have successfully been developed. Unlike northern boreal forests, which are mainly exploited for timber, Mediterranean forests have a number of functions. "We get a lot of different products, from cork to mushrooms to aromatic plants,” says Palahi. “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."
AGORA has already proved its worth in Morocco and Tunisia, and has also opened up new horizons for young ambitious researchers in the region. "We found good young scientists,” Palahi explains, “and for the first time, 22- to 23-year-olds are going abroad to study and do research; for them it is an amazing opportunity.”
The long-term impact of the project will be coordinated forest research partnerships between centres of excellence in the Mediterranean and beyond, resulting in improved scientific relationships, networking and the exchange of know-how and experience. In fact, the scheme has been so successful to date that the Commission has already approved a follow-up programme, called Foresterra (Enhancing forest research in the Mediterranean through improved coordination and integration), which involves the other Mediterranean countries.