Tunisia’s cork oak forest: Challenges and solutions

Tunis: Tunisia's cork oak forest area accounts for 4.3% of the global area ( ranking 6th ), while national cork production accounts for 3% of the global output, according to an "Analysis of the current situation of the Tunisian cork oak forest and development strategies to meet the challenges of climate change," published early May in the newsletter of the National Observatory of Agriculture (ONAGRI). The Tunisian cork oak forest has been continually shrinking due to fires (17,500 ha between 1970 and 2020), land clearance, overgrazing and tree dieback caused by climate change. The two forest inventories carried out in 1995 and 2005 showed a decline in the area of this forest, estimated at an average of 600 ha per year. Overgrazing is a major factor in the degradation of the cork oak forest and reduces natural regeneration. The cork oak forest is declining in quality and quantity, with ageing trees, a failure of natural regeneration and a worsening deterioration in cork quality. As a result, cork production has been down from 9,000 tonnes in the 1960s and 1980s to the current average of 4,000 tonnes per year. There is also a lack of skilled labour to exploit the cork, and the human and logistical resources of the regional services are limited when compared with the volume of work to be undertaken. //An area of 18 thousand hectares expected to disappear by 2050// The analysis also points to a cumulative delay resulting from the failure to harvest "large quantities of cork in recent years and the lack of expertise in natural cork oak regeneration techniques." It draws attention to the risks inherent in the current rate of degradation of the cork oak forest. The ecosystem of the Tunisian cork oak forest could have "negative impacts on the environment (fauna, flora, silting up of dams, etc.), as it is home to 8 protected areas and is home to an important biodiversity (made up of some 700 plant species, 70 bird species and 25 mammal species, etc.). The negative impacts of such a situation also affect the local p opulation, the cork industry, tourism and the national economy. The degradation of the cork oak forest will lead to "a major loss of fodder resources, higher unemployment among the local population, a reduction in the amount of sequestered carbon, a poorer soil organic matter and reduced water retention capacity." "Climate change simulations conducted in the suberaie suggest that, if current degradation conditions persist, an area of 18,000 hectares will disappear by 2050." //Involve all partners in the cork value chain // The ONAGRI document underlines "the impact of the cumulative delay in carrying out the annual cork harvesting programmes," leading to "large quantities of cork left standing and unharvested, thereby losing their technological qualities and lowering the unit price," in addition to non-compliance with harvesting regulations (plots of land either totally unharvested or only partially harvested). This situation means a loss of income for the State (lower foreign currency earnings), but als o for the forestry administration, whose revenues are falling as fewer corks are put up for sale. The local population will have fewer working days, with a loss of local know-how and profits will also drop for the cork-processing industry. Three workshops were organised on the cork oak, the last of which was held at the National Institute of Field Crops (INGC) in Bousalem on March 6, 2024, at the initiative of the Directorate General of Forests, to draw up an action plan dedicated to improving the cork sector, especially the harvesting stage. The ensuing draft action plan calls for a study of the cork value chain and a manual of procedures for awarding contracts for cork harvesting, as well as amendments to the specifications for forestry work. It also recommends gradually raising the loans earmarked for forestry work by the company. The ONAGRI document recommends that all partners in the Tunisian cork value chain (Administration, population, industrialists, civil society, etc.), each in their own field, should be involved in order to participate effectively in the implementation of the recommended action plan to ensure a new revival of this sector, the sustainability of natural resources and socio-economic development of the Tunisian cork oak forests. Source: Agence Tunis Afrique Presse