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Degradation and overexploitation

The region's forests and woodlands have suffered from a long history of degradation and overexploitation. Extensive land clearing for human settlements and agriculture in mountainous areas along the coasts of the Mediterranean in Lebanon and Syria has been carried out throughout history (Thirgood 1981). Traditional sheep and goat herding is still practised in Juniperus excelsa forest ecosystems in the Anti- Lebanon mountains and on the Syrian steppes where relics of Pistacia atlantica trees still remain (Nahal 1995, Abido 2000a).

Over the past 30 years, natural forest areas have been fragmented and isolated and turned into a mosaic with agricultural fields in Syria, and with urban dwellings in Lebanon and Syria (World Bank and UNDP 1998, GORS 1991, Government of Lebanon 1995). It is difficult to provide a precise estimate of the level of forest degradation in the region over the past 30 years due to the inaccuracies of earlier estimates and the problems associated with comparing data from different countries due to different calculation methods employed. However, the data that are available indicate a 44 per cent reduction in the region's forest cover from 1972 to 2000.

In Lebanon up to 60 per cent of forests were lost between 1972 and 1994 (Government of Lebanon 1995) while the small area of forest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories decreased by 50 per cent during the 1980s and 1990s (Palestinian Authority 1999, FAOSTAT 1998). However, in the past ten years the total forest area in West Asia has remained almost stable (see table below). Significant changes have occurred only in Yemen, where forest area has decreased by 17 per cent, and in the United Arab Emirates, where plantation forests increased the total area by 32 per cent (FAO 2001a).

Change in forested land 1990-2000 by sub-region: West Asia
  total land area
(1 000 ha)
total forest 1990
(1 000 ha)
total forest 2000
(1 000 ha)
% of land forested in 2000 change 1990-2000
(1 000 ha)
% change per year
Arabian Peninsula 300 323 2 292 2 281 0.8 -11 -0.05
Mashriq 72 069 1 383 1 382 1.9 -1 -0.01
West Asia 372 392 3 675 3 663 1.0 -12 -0.03
Source: compiled from FAO 2001a Note: numbers may not add due to rounding

Several countries have a high proportion of planted forests (100 per cent in Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, 97.8 per cent in the United Arab Emirates and approximately 50 per cent in both Jordan and Syria) (FAO 2001b). Afforestation programmes increased the forested area in Jordan by 20 per cent during the 1980s and 1990s (FAOSTAT 1998).

Population growth, urbanization, economic developments (including tourism) and conflict (for example in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria) are among the external factors that significantly affect forests. Fire, overgrazing and overcutting of wood products have contributed locally to forest degradation (FAO 1997). Poverty and inappropriate forest policies are overriding factors contributing to forest and woodland deterioration in the Mashriq countries and Yemen. Until recently, poor demarcation of public and private lands in and around some forests and protected areas has led to ownership disputes and conflicts, providing the opportunity for some people to increase their private land holdings at the expense of public forest.

Dragon's blood tree (Dracaena draco) growing in arid surroundings in Yemen; more than half Yemen's population depends on limited fuelwood supplies for cooking

Source: UNEP, Mohamed Moslih Sanabani, Topham Picturepoint

Rural communities, especially in mountainous areas, depend heavily on forest resources for their supply of timber, fuelwood, charcoal and non-wood forest products, putting enormous pressure on the limited resources available. It is estimated that 57 per cent of families in Yemen depend on forest resources to satisfy their domestic needs for fuel. The average consumption of 0.5 m3 per person a year far exceeds average annual growth in the country's forests (Government of Yemen 2000). Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria also use a significant proportion of their wood production for domestic fuel (FAO 2001a). Excessive cutting and wood collection have rendered fragile forest ecosystems prone to soil erosion and desertification (World Bank and UNDP 1998, Government of Lebanon 1995, Government of Yemen 2000). However, rapid urbanization and industrialization in West Asia are resulting in seasonal and permanent rural migration into urban areas (FAO 1997) and this trend is expected to reduce pressure on rural forests in terms of fuelwood collection and grazing.

The average area destroyed each year by forest fires has doubled in parts of the Mediterranean basin since the 1970s (Alexandrian, Esnault and Calabri 1999) and increased by almost 40 per cent in Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s compared to the 1970s (Government of Jordan 1997). In Lebanon, around 550 ha of forest area were lost each year between 1961 and 1997 due to a variety of causes including fire, cutting and urban encroachment. In Syria, as much as 8 000 ha of forests were converted to other land uses by burning between 1985 and 1993, and an additional 2 440 ha of forests were converted to farmland during the same period. Since the 1970s, more than 20 000 ha of coastal forests were burnt in northwestern Syria, resulting in soil erosion of up to 20 tonnes/ha/year on steep slopes (World Bank and UNDP 1998).