Forest fires across the world are becoming an unfortunate theme of 2019. From the Amazon rainforest to the wildfires in the Arctic to the Middle East and Indonesia, raging wildfires have engulfed entire regions of the world this year. They have not spared North Africa.
Since the beginning of the summer, Morocco and Algeria have lost thousands of acres of forests to multiple fires, drastic destruction that has received scarce coverage in global media. The authorities in both countries have struggled to contain and put them out.
Wildfires have burned more than 1,100 acres of woodland in northern Morocco since the end of August. According to Morocco’s National Center for Forest Climate Risk Management, last year 343 wildfires destroyed nearly 2,078 acres of Morocco’s forests.
Algeria has been even harder hit. Algerian authorities recently said that 923 reported wildfires have claimed more than 14,000 acres of forests just since June of this year. According to Abdelghani Boumsaoud, Deputy Director of Forest Resources Protection at the National Forests Department in Algeria, the fires destroyed a staggering 46 percent of Algeria’s forests and vegetation .
The authorities suspected coal traffickers for starting the fires in an attempt to sell burned bushes as coal for an Eid al-Adha celebration. However, coal traffickers are not the only culprits of wildfires in Algeria. Despite the central government’s efforts to crack down on illegal burning of trees and vegetation, many farmers and cattle owners have been behind burning pieces of land that set off major forest fires in this North African nation.
A source of pride of Morocco, the Berber thuya tree from the cedar family, which is exclusive to this country, is also under threat.
Both Algeria and Morocco are home to cedar, pine, and fir tree species that are unique to these countries. The latter two are considered endangered. A source of pride of Morocco, the Berber thuya tree from the cedar family, which is exclusive to this country, is also under threat. All these forest ecosystems host fauna that are endemic to Morocco and Algeria. Consequently, the loss of forests leads to the loss of native animals and birds. Human exploitation of forests and wildfires has already significantly reduced forested areas and devastated the soil, which is naturally thinner in Mediterranean forests than in other parts of the world. The soil of Morocco’s northern mountainous Rif region, a region that is already economically depressed, is particularly vulnerable to deterioration compared to other areas located along the Mediterranean.
Deforestation in the Maghreb is extensive. Similar to other regions of the world, climate change, population growth, urban development, illegal logging, overgrazing, expansion of agriculture and farming lands, and extensive forest clearing to plant other crops are threatening the ecosystem of the region. Much of the forest cover in Morocco and Algeria has shrunk in size to meet the agricultural and farming needs of the people.
While forest fires have been mainly man-made in Algeria and Morocco, higher than normal heat levels and droughts have made fires more likely and more intense.
While forest fires have been mainly man-made in Algeria and Morocco, higher than normal heat levels and droughts have made fires more likely and more intense. To make matters worse, forested regions along the Mediterranean Sea, including Morocco and Algeria, are highly at risk for repeated fires during the summer due to extreme flammability of local forest species. Soil degradation and overgrazing are known to have weakened the natural resilience of forests to droughts. In other words, trees can deplete their resources by trying to survive droughts. As a result, trees in North Africa now have a tendency to die quickly. At this juncture, afforestation (establishing a forest in a barren land) is not keeping up with the rate of deforestation in either Morocco or Algeria.
Nothing impacts the vulnerable, disadvantaged, and resource-poor populations of Algeria and Morocco more directly and negatively than the loss of forests. While forests cover only 0.6 percent of Algeria’s territory, they are important for the country’s economy, which is still heavily agricultural.
This summer’s fires burned across several provinces in north-central and eastern parts of Algeria, but they were the strongest in the northern Kabylie region, which is heavily populated by the ethnic Berber, or Amazigh, people. The scope of the disaster is yet to be calculated, but it has already devastated vast swaths of forests, endangered animals, and whole villages. While hundreds of acres of the Bouira forest burned, a response from the local government was inadequate and ineffective. Primarily dependent on growing olives and grain, the restive Berber population of Kabylie, which has been protecting its identity and culture for decades from the central government’s efforts to Arabize them, is increasingly at risk of losing its main source of income—agriculture—as droughts become more common, rainfall is less frequent, and wildfires are easy to start. The Amazigh people also worry about losing their goats and sheep if they cannot produce fodder to feed them.
Occupying slightly more than 11 percent of Morocco’s territory, forests are important both for its economy and people. While the forest industry produces 5 percent of the country’s gross agricultural product and 1 percent of gross national product, woodland is a crucial economic lifeline for the rural population. Farmers heavily depend on forests for fodder production. Forests provide more than 50 percent of the country’s firewood, which accounts for about a third of national energy consumption and is also a leading source of deforestation.
The loss of Morocco’s argan trees will be devastating to the economy of the Amazigh people, especially to the livelihood of women.
In some cases, development of rural areas at the expense of forests has increased the threats to the survival of the latter. A growing global demand for Morocco’s argan oil, derived from a thorny evergreen argan tree and used for culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes, provides economic benefits to its poor and vulnerable rural Amazigh populations in the southwestern part of the country. However, careless harvesting of argan trees has damaged many of them. People who make money from selling argan oil buy more goats, which now threaten argan forests by climbing the trees and grazing their leaves. The loss of argan trees will be devastating to the economy of the Amazigh people, especially to the livelihood of women, who collect argan fruits and extract oil from them to make money.
The struggling economies of both Algeria and Morocco, especially their Amazigh populations, are interconnected with the well-being of forests, which provide vital sources of income and sustenance to the people and animals. As the negative human impact and the changing global climate begin to alter the forest ecosystems in these countries, their economic development and social stability are on the line. This summer’s forest fires should serve as a wake-up call to Algerian and Moroccan authorities.