, Volume 87, Issue 2, pp 151-173

Changes and disturbances of forest ecosystems caused by human activities in the western part of the mediterranean basin

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The development of socio-economic activity over the past ten years in the Mediterranean region has induced severe changes in the main natural forest ecosystems.

In the northern Mediterranean, rural depopulation has accelerated since the end of the second World War, particularly since the establishment of Common Market agricultural policies, and led to an under-utilization of species causing a strong biological resurgence of the forest, even at high altitudes. This means that, at the present time, the extension of expansion model coniferous forests is favored by their capacities for spatial, biological and ecological selection. Along with this, the under-utilization of sclerophyllous (resistance model) and deciduous (stabilization model) oak coppices has led to the establishment of new forest structures and architectures which are notably different from the main climatic groups defined up to now by phytosociological and synchronic methods. Two new forms of disturbances have appeared:

  • increasingly important wild fires have replaced disturbances caused by burn beating and are at the origin of the very strong spatial and temporal heterogeneity of current forest species.

  • In addition, the geographical continuity of the main groups of same-aged sclerophyllous and deciduous species, due to their non-use over the past ten years, has accelerated a phytosanitary imbalance by an increase in the action of pests.

  • In the southern Mediterranean, particularly in North Africa, demographic pressure and grazing have widely disturbed the main forest ecosystems which show a continual regression of their surface. Many forest tree species with a low spatial and biological selection, such as Mediterranean firs and black pines (Pinus nigra subsp. mauritanica), are threatened with extinction, as are the deciduous oak forests which, considering the climatic stress and edaphic constraints, are permanently in a state of imbalance. Human disturbances induce a complete modification of structures and architectures tending towards the installation of simplified forest models (trees-grasses) where tree regeneration is nearly impossible. The sclerophyllous coppices well-adapted to stress are also threatened by shorter and shorter cutting cycles and by the high usage of tree canopies for grazing.

  • The forest understory structures have witnessed a decrease in their characteristic sylvatic species and the matorralization of most of the forests can be seen by the replacement of typical forest groups by preforest groups (Tetraclinis forests, Aleppo pine forests).

  • New geopedological constraints linked to the removal of the surface soil layer combined with regular climatic stress (duration of drought periods) strongly decrease the resilience of these ecosystems which are under continual pressure (unbalanced models).

  • In diverse regions, particulary in semi-arid bioclimates, hyperdegradation affects the shrub cover which disappears for a time in favor of perennial grasses (forest steppization): Andropogon div. sp., Ampelodesmos, Stipa div. sp.

  • In all bioclimatic groups, the increase in grazing pressure throughout the southern Mediterranean ecosystems can even lead to the total disappearance of perennial species from the ecosystem with the exception of the dominant tree. Regardless of the altitude or ecosystem, invasive therophytes are then the only plants to occupy the understory and indicate hyperdegradation (forest therophytization).

    C.N.R.S.: U.R.A. 1152