Past, present and future perspectives


It is believed that much more of Northern Africa had forest cover originally, and that this has declined over several centuries because of climatic conditions and human intervention (CAMRE/UNEP/ACSAD 1996, Gilani 1997, Thirgood 1981 & AOAD 1998). However, only Sudan has experienced deforestation over the last decade, losing 10 million hectares of forest since 1990 (an average of 1.4 per cent of its forest per year) (FAO 2001a). By contrast, other countries have increased the extent of their forests and woodlands, mainly through establishment of plantations. Egypt has experienced the greatest increase-3.3 per cent per year (FAO 2001a).

The pressures resulting in loss of forest and wooded vegetation include extensive land clearing for human settlements and agricultural activities, overgrazing by livestock, overcollection of fuelwood and charcoal production. Frequent natural and man-made fires in the Mediterranean and tropical areas of the subregion have also contributed to the reduction of natural forests, and degraded the soils that support them, enhancing the desertification process.

The growth in Northern Africa's population has also increased the demand for forest products for energy and various domestic uses in the sub-region, especially charcoal manufacture. Although the majority of the subregion's energy needs are met through electricity generated by burning of fossil fuels, fuelwood and charcoal are still vital sources of energy, especially for the poor. Five per cent of all energy consumed in Northern Africa comes from biomass (compared to 86 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa), and total fuelwood use is currently 58 million m3 per year, predicted to increase by 20 per cent over the next 30 years (EIA 1999, FAO 2001b).

In the Maghreb countries, forests and wooded vegetation in uplands and on slopes play an important role in land stabilization, erosion control and regulation of hydrological flow. However, deforestation in these areas has resulted in increased flooding, erosion, desertification, and siltation of dams (FAO 1997). Recently the construction of roads, quarrying and mining industries, and building of dams and irrigation canals have fragmented remaining forest cover, leading to losses of biodiversity. In addition, mass tourism has increased in forest areas over the last 10 years, contributing to opening of forest canopies and disturbing natural processes and wildlife.

Large areas of the sub-region have also become infested or replaced by exotic species, introduced intentionally or accidentally. Other factors contributing to the decline in forest area and quality in Northern Africa include: ambiguity as to ownership; lack of technical personnel for research, monitoring, and enforcement of protection regulations; and lack of financial resources and development techniques.

Towards sustainable management and conservation of forests and woodlands in Northern Africa

Concerns about forest deterioration are reflected in the substantial afforestation and reforestation programmes and various local level measures that have been introduced recently to protect and increase forest areas (see Box 2d.3). The main method used by countries in extending their forests and wooded areas has been planting of forest plantations with the aims of stabilizing sand-dunes, rehabilitating range and steppe areas, managing water catchments, and protecting agricultural areas (FAO 1993). Morocco has large eucalyptus plantations (219 000 hectares), and coniferous (59 400 hectares) and dune fixing plantations (247 500 hectares). By 1990, the multipurpose green belt plantations in Algeria had mobilized a vast range of forest resources covering more than 150 000 hectares. Tunisia has reforested more than 312 000 hectares and has modernized its forest tree nurseries (Lamhamedi, Ammari, Fecteau, Fortin & Margolis 2000) and Egypt has planted about 34 000 hectares of trees. Forest plantation efforts in these countries have, however, not been able to compensate for the loss of natural forests (FAO 1996 & 1997).

Box 2d.3 Community-level forest conservation in Northern Africa

Commercial opportunities for cultivation of medicinal forest plants in nurseries are being realized in several countries. In Egypt three large nurseries and 20 small ones have been established in cooperation with local Bedouins, and have played a significant role in decreasing the collection of medicinal plants from the wild.

The Tree Lovers Association (TLA) in Cairo has been instrumental in raising awareness and protection of the Wadi Degla area, a desert valley of outstanding beauty and biological diversity. In collaboration with the governmental agencies, a local women's group has created a steering committee for managing the park, including measures to guard against further removal of woody vegetation. The Mediterranean coast countries are also expected to establish a policy of replanting, improving forestry management conditions, integrating trees in urban and tourism developments, and establishing conservation areas.


Forest reserves have been set up in some countries, ranging from 19 per cent in Libya to 4 per cent in Tunisia (Egypt does not have natural forests, only plantations) (FAO 2001a). Sustainable forest management has been adopted and is being implemented by all countries in the sub-region, through the Near East and Dry Zone Africa processes in the case of Sudan (FAO 2001a). Although forest legislation has been in place in most of the countries of Northern Africa since the nineteenth century, loopholes in the laws and lack of enforcement have limited its effectiveness in terms of protecting forests and wildlife resources (FAO 1999). The situation is made more complicated by ambiguity regarding ownership, lack of technical personnel and agricultural extension services, lack of financial resources and development techniques, poor forest management, underlying market and policy failures of forest resource pricing, and trade policies.

Reforestation and afforestation programmes are an essential part of environmental management in such an arid environment, and should be priorities for the next decade, as they will prevent or slow the rate of soil erosion, and will provide considerable benefits in terms of soil and water quality regulation.