Is Forest Use in the Balearic Islands the Result of an Environmental Conscience?
Climatology, Hydrology, Natural Hazards and Territory research group
University of the Balearic Islands, Spain
The Balearic Islands archipelago (Fig. 1) is situated off the eastern coast of Spain. It is made up of five islands (Mallorca, Menorca, Eivissa, Formentera and Cabrera) with adjacent islets. The islands’ total surface area is around 5,014 square kilometers and its population in 2011 was just over 1 million. (CAIB, 2012). The islands are a well-known summer destination throughout Europe, with millions of visitors each year. But before the expansion of touristic activities, the islands were isolated from the mainland and produced what was needed in an autarchic way of life. Among the natural resources, forests were used extensively.
Today, the main economical resource of the Balearic Islands is tourism, and environmental protection has become a major point of focus for authorities. This is a change from 30-40 years ago, and forest use has changed accordingly.
Forest area in the Balearic Islands makes up almost half of the islands’ area (Fig. 2), although the definition of forest area according to Spanish law includes uncultivated land, rocky areas and abandoned cultivated lands (Forest Law 43/2003; Gobierno de España, 2003).
The traditional forest is composed by two main species. One is holm oak (Quercus ilex) and the other is the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis). The third main forest is the one formed by wild olive trees (Olea europaea), which is most widely found in the recently abandoned cultivated lands (Life+Boscos Project, 2011).
The holm oak forests are located in mountainous areas with lower temperatures and higher humidity, especially in Mallorca and Menorca. The pine tree forests are located in dry, low-altitude zones of Mallorca, Eivissa and Menorca. Wild olive forests can be found on all the islands. Also notable are shrubs formations known as “garrigues” that appear mostly in Menorca and Eivissa but can be present in Mallorca as well.
There are some conditioning factors of forests in the Balearic Islands, with climate being the main one. The Balearic climate is Mediterranean, with a dry summer and rain falling in autumn. Highest temperatures are reached during the summer months. A gradient of humidity is found with altitude — the humid areas with holm oak forests in the highest points of the islands, while the dry zones are made up of wild olive trees and shrubs. Geomorphology and the proximity to the sea are influencing factors, too.
Forests in the Balearic Islands have undergone changes throughout history. Human activities have changed their extension and composition. Today, the area with trees (spaces with more than 5 percent tree cover) covers an area of 186,377.03 hectares (CAIB, 2011) (Table 1).
The percentage of forested area related to the total land area of each island shows that Menorca and Eivissa are the most-forested islands, while Mallorca has less forested surface (Table 2).
Historical forests uses
The arrival of men to the Balearic Islands initiated a continuous deforestation process, with wood being used as fuel and building materials, and land converted for cultivating and grazing.
The Roman dominance started the configuration of the forested spaces in the Balearic Islands. The Muslim occupation and the Middle Ages arrival of settlers finished to shape the structure of public and private forests until the 20th century (Gil and Díaz, 2003)
Forests were highly exploited. Wood was used to build houses, furniture, etc. In Mallorca, the Spanish Navy used wood to construct ships and had the rights to great extensions of forest from the 17th to the 19th centuries (Gil and Díaz, 2003). Branches were used as fuel for fireplaces and ovens and the forests were a place for hunting and collect fruits and mushrooms.
Another use, economically very important until the mid-20th century, was the charcoal and lime industries. Great forested areas with holm oak trees were sold each season to have the wood used to make coal ovens (Fig. 3); charcoal was used mainly to heat houses. The timber from pine trees was used to fuel lime kilns.
The impact of abandonment
Social and economical changes that started around the 1950s provoked a dramatic change in the forests.
On one hand, the arrival of fossil fuels suggested that the exploitation of forests was no longer profitable (Life+Boscos, 2011). On the other hand, the economic impact of tourism, located mainly on the coast, caused a depopulation of rural areas as people moved to cities and towns to work in tertiary activities. This resulted in a lack of forest management, and the abandonment of cultivated lands, which began to be substituted by wild olive forests and shrubs. Between 1960 and 2000, 80,000 hectares of cultivated lands and forested areas were abandoned (CAIB, 2011).
Three effects can be underlined:
1) Forest vision as a space was undervalued. The view of the forests is limited to the utility of trees in commercial terms (Sureda et al, 2011), and the forests were no longer an economical resource for wood. Many landowners tried to transform extensive areas into more profitable urban land. Another effect was the abandonment of forest activities, with an accumulation of dry wood and the expansion of the undergrowth that helped to increase the forest fires.
2) Forest fires increased. For centuries, forest fires have been a common feature of Mediterranean forests. But the collapse of the rural system led to an increase of events starting in the 1970s (Fig. 4). Fires can be the result of natural causes (lightning) or human causes. In the case of the Balearic Islands, only 2.2 percent of forest fires between 1970 and 2001 had natural causes (CAIB, 2011). The remaining 97.8 percent were human-related fires. During the 1970s and 1980s, a majority of these fires were related to urbanization issues, to gain land to construct new buildings. Then the causes changed to accidents, related to an increase on the use of forest as a leisure space. Accidental fires from smoking or cooking were common during the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, the protection measures organized by the government have reduced the impact of fires on the Balearic forests. Highlights include the presence of 350 firefighters on 24-hour alerts from May to October, five airplanes and four helicopters on alert, and a prohibition to light fires in forested areas or in spaces less than 500 meters from forests from May 1 to Oct. 31. The Islands Government in 2005 implemented an emergency plan for forest fires called Infobal, which has three levels of emergency and provides organizational actions, evacuation procedures, and communication protocols.
3) A new conscience of the forest values emerged. The public concern for the forest degradation became a popular movement at the end of the 20th century as a result of a growing trend of urbanization in forested areas and the increase of forest fires. Popular pressure moved politicians to create protective measures such the Natural Spaces Law (Law 1/1991) (CAIB, 1991), which protected great areas of the islands from urban sprawl. Another action from the government was the creation of public estates: Controlled forested spaces where people could be in contact with nature without endangering the ecosystem. Today, 22 estates are located in Mallorca, Menorca, Eivissa, and Formentera.
New uses of forests
The environmental protection conscience provoked a need to find new forest uses. Public policies have been combined with programs from environmental groups to create forests that are seen as touristic, educational, and useful for leisure.
Leisure activities like hunting and mushroom collection are combined with touristic activities like trekking or mountain biking in reserved areas. A great increase of guided tours in the mountains is seen year after year, and some hotels have specialized in this kind of tourism (Ajuntament de Sóller, 2011).
Also, private forests are opening their doors to trekkers for a small fee. Previously, these owners had closed their estates due to an increase of visitors and related damages..
Public forests have been used since the 1990s as an educational tool. Primary and secondary school students have visited forests and studied the old activities developed in the forested spaces, therefore protecting ancient uses that were in danger of being forgotten. The public spaces have special areas where people can cook and enjoy the contact with the nature while some others have refuges available for overnight or weekend stays.
New issues regarding the value of forests as a sustainable tool against climate change are gaining force, as is the idea of forests as a new energy source, favoring the use of biofuels.
As of today, nearly half of the area of the Balearic Islands is covered by forests, mainly in Menorca and Eivissa. The environmental conscience created by the social impact of the urbanization effects in the Balearic Islands led to a protection movement that helped to preserve a great area of forests.
The forests are still an economical resource. They have become a resource with uses related to tourism and leisure activities. Public use of forests is increasing year after year, especially with the arrival of hiking tourists. The historical uses are no longer profitable, except in some cases, and new activities must coexist with the protective laws.
Forests are still in danger. In Mallorca and Eivissa, some urban projects in undeveloped areas can affect great extensions of forested areas. Despite the popular rejection, politicians are favorable to those projects, but the public pressure to maintain the protection of the Balearic Islands forests is very active.
Two lessons can be learned. On the one hand, popular environmental conscience and pressure can help to save natural areas as forests. On the other hand, the economic value of those lands, especially the private ones but also in public spaces, prevails and the search for benefits is growing. Both visions should act together to keep the forested space as it is today.
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Gil, M.; Díaz-Fernández, P. (2003): La transformación histórica del paisaje forestal en las Islas Baleares. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente. Madrid, Spain.
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Sureda, J. et al. (2011): Perception of pine trees among citizens of the Balearic Islands: Analysis and description of some mistaken ideas. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 10: 1, 31-42. DOI: 10.1080/1533015X.2011.549797.
Joan Rossello (Geography BA, Physical Geography DEA) is member of the University of Balearic Islands Climatology, Hydrology, Natural Hazards and Territory research group, and co-leader of Task Team 07 (Monitoring Vulnerability Factors) of the HyMeX project. The author’s main research interests include flash floods, risk and the human impact on environment.