Home to rocky and sandy coasts, mountain ranges, arid and humid zones, the Mediterranean basin is one of the richest regions in the world in terms of flora and fauna. No wonder it comes third in the global rankings of biodiversity hotspots.
But relentless urbanisation, intensive agriculture and tourism, climate change and deforestation are putting it at ever greater risk, reinforcing the need for awareness-raising and conservation programmes more than ever before.
Mediterranean biodiversity, a thousand-year-old record
The richness of Mediterranean flora can be explained by the mild climate and wide variety of landforms and habitats. Around the Mediterranean Sea, from Spain to Syria, Italy to Egypt, there are 40,600km of rocky and sandy coasts, cliffs, plains, mountain ranges, arid zones and wetlands.
On the 5,000 or so islands and islets in the basin – most of which are sheltered from direct threats – several types of vegetation have developed, harbouring flora and fauna capable of moving from one ecosystem to another, facilitating exchanges throughout the region.
Originally, the Mediterranean basin was populated by deciduous forests, holm oaks and conifers. But as human settlements began to spring up, the forests gradually disappeared, replaced by scrubland, a collection of evergreen bushes and shrubs, often thorny, which arose from the depletion of forests. You’ll typically find plenty of gorse, rockrose, heather, Scotch broom, pistachio and juniper trees. This is the most common type of vegetation found around the basin, but it’s not the whole story! Garrigue, also found on the ruins of ancestral oak forests, consists of much lower, bushier vegetation. It’s brimming with aromatic plants that give it its distinctive fragrance. Rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano thrive in the dry, chalky soil.
Uses of Mediterranean plants: from tiny treats to cure-alls
Known as the cradle of civilisation, the Mediterranean basin has naturally shaped culinary and medicinal traditions for thousands of years. Now cultivated throughout the world, some of the region’s native plants are still mainstays of our diet and have cemented their place in Western pharmacopoeia:
- cereals, like wheat, oats, barley or rye;
- pulses, like peas, beans or lentils;
- oils, like safflower, olive or linseed;
- fruits, like carob, almonds, figs, pomegranates or grapes;
- vegetables, like asparagus, chicory, garlic, artichoke, cabbage, fennel or leek;
- condiments and aromatic herbs, like rosemary, thyme, lavender, mint, aniseed or cumin, from which we also extract many essential oils used in aromatherapy.
The Mediterranean basin is also rich in dye plants, used since ancient times to complement pigments from mineral or animal sources, including red madders, yellow acanthuses, Scotch brooms or figs, as well as orange junipers and blue woads.
Conserving Mediterranean flora
Although international, national and local regulations protect many of the local species, their effectiveness is limited by how difficult it can be to verify compliance. Based on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) criteria, so-called “red lists” make it possible to identify the most threatened species and therefore establish priorities and specific conservation plans. This can involve boosting populations whose numbers are too low, creating new populations in more favourable locations, or even reintroducing a species from scratch. Some rarer species are even cultivated in botanical gardens or kept in seed banks to preserve their heritage.
Most Mediterranean countries have established networks of protected areas (nature reserves, national parks, protected zones) to preserve pristine or ecologically representative areas. They help preserve genetic and species diversity, and contribute to maintaining ecosystem services. In many regions, they also play an important role in protecting the livelihoods of indigenous populations.
The number of protected sites in the Mediterranean has increased significantly over the last decade. There are now over 4,400 of them, even though they only cover 5% of the basin’s land mass. Environmental conventions and multilateral agreements encourage further development of these conservation areas (Ramsar sites, biosphere reserves, natural or mixed UNESCO World Heritage sites, specially protected areas of Mediterranean importance, etc.). Some countries, including the likes of Spain and Greece, have even set up micro-reserves, generally covering only a handful of hectares, to specifically protect threatened species.
Protecting landscapes is a key issue in regional development and planning policies. Agricultural policies play a very important role, given they can promote cultivation and breeding practices that respect nature and flora through financial incentives. National and regional nature reserves also help to conserve the landscape on a bigger scale.
Helping decision-makers and public become more aware of the urgency of the situation and informing them of the importance of the issues at stake is a key factor in the success of these policies. Preserving landscapes means getting those who live or work within them on board, because they form part of our shared heritage. Consultation between citizens, experts and public decision-makers is therefore crucial. Based on this interaction between science and society, a governance model emerges that can guide public efforts when it comes to landscape management.
Threats to Mediterranean biodiversity
All around the basin, a large number of threats loom over Mediterranean biodiversity:
- urbanisation, especially on the coast, where 40% of the population is concentrated. Building housing and infrastructure (roads, ports, airports, shops, industry) destroys ecosystems and isolates them from one another;
- water management and over-exploitation are drying out wetlands and leading to the disappearance of species that depend on them;
- overgrazing, the intensification of agriculture and, at the same time, the abandonment of traditional farming practices are profoundly altering these fragile ecosystems;
- tourism, given the region welcomes over 30% of the world’s tourists every year, this puts considerable pressure on the natural environment and accentuates the problems associated with urbanisation and resource management;
- deforestation, including for firewood and cooking fuel, especially in southern countries;
- invasive exotic species that compete with native species and hasten their disappearance;
- air, water and soil pollution caused by human activity;
- diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and insects that devastate olive tree populations, for example;
- frequent wildfires, whether accidental or deliberate, that destroy many species and exacerbate soil erosion;
- climate change, as extreme events become more intense (fires, storms, flooding, rising sea levels), they have a lasting impact on ecosystems and contribute to habitat loss for species that are unique in the world.
Biodiversity is all around us!
Find out more about forest biodiversity