Past, present and future perspectives


Arab cultures have traditionally practiced biodiversity conservation, as evidenced by 'Hema', the traditional Bedouin practice of rangeland conservation and management of grazing areas. Return to traditional control of rangelands has proven successful as a conservation and rehabilitation strategy, for example in Syria, where a programme of cooperatives was implemented over several years. Applications by tribal units for control over their former traditional grazing lands were granted by the government, and now approximately two thirds of Syria's Bedouin population are member of hema cooperatives and associated schemes. The members benefit from greater security and incentives for conservative practices, and the natural resource base benefits from reduced pressure (Chatty, D. 1998). Other traditional conservation measures include the forest reserves, known as 'Harags', dating from Mediaeval Egypt, and protection of oases in Morocco and Andalusia (Draz 1969, Kassas 1972, Ghabbour 1975, UNESCO 1996). In Islam, hunting is prohibited during certain months of the year, 'Al-Ash-hur Al-Hurum'.

In more recent times, schemes have been introduced to establish protected areas and biosphere reserves such as those set up under the Arab Man and Biosphere (ArabMAB) Network. ArabMAB reserves are areas of terrestrial and coastal ecosystem in which solutions are promoted that reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. There are 12 such reserves in Northern Africa, covering an area of around 13 million hectares.

At present there are 72 terrestrial protected areas in Northern Africa, with a combined area of more than 15 million hectares and 50 marine protected areas (World Bank 2001a). Details of nationally protected areas are given in Table 2b.3, internationally protected areas are shown in Table 2b.4. Many more sites are proposed for protection (Hegazy, Fahmy & Mohamed 2001). However, in spite of such efforts, the total area officially declared as protected in Northern Africa remains less than the international target of 10 per cent, although some countries are aiming to increase their protected areas to more than 15 per cent within the next three decades.

Table 2b.3 nationally protected areas in Northern Africa
  Terrestrial Marine
Country Number Area (000 ha) % land area Number
Algeria 18 5 891 2.5 8
Egypt 16 794 0.8 18
Libya 8 173 0.1 5
Morocco 12 317 0.7 10
Sudan 11 8 642 3.4 2
Tunisia 7 45 0.3 7
Total 72 15 862 7.8 50
Source: World Bank 2001a
Table 2b.4 internationally protected areas in Northern Africa
Biosphere Reserves* World Heritage Sites Ramsar Sites
Country Number Area (000 ha) Number Area (000 ha) Number Area (000 ha)
Algeria 3 N/A 1 N/A 13 1 866
Egypt 2 2 577 0 0 2 106
Libya 0   0 0 2 N/A
Morocco 2 N/A 0 0 4 14
Sudan 2 1 901 0 0 0  
Tunisia 4 32 1 13 1 13
Total 13 2 >13 22 >1 999

*Some Biosphere Reserves are also World Heritage Sites or Ramsar sites

Source: Ramsar 2002, UNDP and others 2000, UNESCO 2002.

Between 1993 and 1999, more than 30 regional meetings were convened to promote inter-Arab cooperation on biodiversity conservation, with regular participation by most of the countries involved. In 1996, the IUCN sponsored a regional programme for Northern Africa and, the Arab League produced a comprehensive policy programme for the Council of Arab Ministers of the Environment meeting, in November 1997. Trans-border conservation is an issue that has received recent attention, and plans for protection are underway between Egypt and Sudan, and between Morocco and Algeria.

Conservation measures through sustainable use of resources include four pilot projects by Algeria's National Agency for the Conservation of Nature. One project aims to protect, document, and establish nurseries for medicinal plants, another aims to conserve and manage cheetah populations and two are designed to raise awareness among local farming communities in and around protected areas. Working with communities has resulted in more widespread use and cultivation of hardy species, and less intensive harvesting of endangered species from the wild.

In Egypt, researchers and conservationists have been working with Bedouins to document and conserve medicinal plants. So far, they have published a book on the wild Medicinal Plants of Egypt and have established nurseries with the Bedouins to provide a source of income from sustainable use of these resources (IUCN 2000b).

The Moroccan Association for the Protection of the Environment has established a project with women in rural areas, to relieve the pressure on the environment from fuelwood collection and to lessen the burden on women of searching and collecting firewood. As an interim measure, all women in a village have been provided with cookers, and regular workshops are held to showcase their traditional knowledge and promote the apprenticeship of their skills (IUCN 2000b).

A recent GEF-funded project in Dinder National Park, Sudan, aims to preserve biodiversity by encouraging species conservation and the sustainable use of resources through the integration of local communities in the utilization and management of natural resources. Dinder National Park lies along Sudan's border with Ethiopia and serves as a vital habitat for terrestrial migratory species which spend the dry season in the park. The park's extensive wetlands also provide refuge for a large number of migratory birds. The project will develop and implement an integrated management plan, in partnership with the impoverished surrounding communities and with equitable sharing of conservation benefits (IUCN 2000b). The fauna and flora of the park will receive protection and there are plans to re-introduce certain species which have been exterminated, such as the Nile Crocodile.

It is imperative that biodiversity conservation efforts in Northern Africa incorporate modern knowledge as well as traditional protection systems if they are to be acceptable and successful. The pressures of urbanization, industrialization, growing population, abuse of agrochemicals, and uncontrolled fishing and hunting are expected to increase in Northern Africa over the next decade. Protection of critical sites and creation of national parks are therefore needed urgently, together with more sustainable agricultural, forestry and fisheries practices.