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Natural forests used to cover much of the north of the region but there has been a long history of overexploitation and degradation. Extensive land clearing for human settlements and agriculture, grazing by goats, sheep and other animals for thousands of years, illicit felling, burning for charcoal production, fires and inappropriate agricultural practices have now virtually exterminated the natural forests, including much of the former forests of pistachio, oak, juniper and cedar trees that were found in the north of the region. The greatest loss was during World War I, when the best trees from Lebanon and Syria were felled to construct and operate the Hejaz railways. Lebanon alone lost nearly 60 per cent of its forest trees during the first three years of the war to provide fuel for the railways (Thirgood 1981).
Most forests are now classified as 'other wooded land' but there is still a small percentage of closed forests in the hills and mountains in the north of the region and in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Total forest area is now estimated as 4.657 million hectares (FAOSTAT 1997), 1.25 per cent of the total land area.
Mangrove forests in the United Arab Emirates have been rapidly depleted by overcutting to feed camels and other livestock, but there have recently been intensive conservation and rehabilitation efforts. On the other hand, the forests in the Dhofar Mountains of southwestern Oman are being damaged by overgrazing, uncontrolled tourism and rapid development of rural communities.
The search for new agricultural land has also led to the clearing of forest areas on sloping terrain, causing severe soil erosion in the mountainous watersheds of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. Hostilities, road construction, quarrying and mining, and the construction of dams and irrigation canals have further reduced forest areas and destroyed forest habitats in several countries in the region.
Tourism has begun to affect forest areas in the past ten years. Unplanned activities and the haphazard development of forest sites for recreational purposes have reduced the capacity for regeneration, produced solid waste problems, polluted forest water resources and created new threats to forest ecosystems.
Increases in oil prices in Jordan, Lebanon and Yemen have forced nearby rural communities to depend heavily on forests for fuelwood supplies. The affluent communities of the Arabian Peninsula also use large amounts of fuelwood for cooking and water heating to satisfy their traditional preferences.
Forest areas of the northern part of the region were reduced by 5.8 per cent, from 863 000 to 813 000 hectares, during 1965-75 but reached 852 000 hectares again by 1994 (FAOSTAT 1997). Although the change seems minor, it is often the best stands that are felled. However, the problem is acute in some countries. For example, forest land in Yemen was reduced by nearly 50 per cent during 1980-85 (FAOSTAT 1997). Over the past ten years, however, forest areas have not changed significantly in most countries (see figure).
Wood forest productivity is rather low, in the range 0.02-0.5 m3/ha/year, except on the coastal mountains of Lebanon and Syria (Nahal 1985). All countries depend on timber imports to satisfy their local needs. The value of imported forest products exceeded US$1 000 million in 1994 (FAOSTAT 1997).
Substantial afforestation and reforestation programmes have been launched to increase forest areas. Forest reserves have been declared in Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Work on sand dune fixation, green belts, roadside plantations and urban forests has been intensified. One result is a significant increase in afforested areas in some countries. For example, Lebanon's long-term programme aims at the afforestation of 200 000 hectares (some 20 per cent of its total area). The rate of afforestation in Syria has increased from 159 ha/year during 1953-70 to more than 24 000 ha/year during the 1980s (Ministry of Agriculture, Syria, 1996). These measures were enough to slow but not arrest deforestation.
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