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18 June 2010

The Mediterranean: Landscapes lost

"It's the landscape that defines the Mediterranean region," says Paolo Lombardi, director of the WWF Mediterranean Programme Office. "And we are treating the Mediterranean region's landscape badly."

"This is not only damaging the region's vast storehouse of natural resources," he adds, "but it's also posing a direct threat to the economic and social well-being of current and future generations."

Lombardi made his remarks at the 2010 Footprint Forum, held in Colle di Val d'Elsa, Italy. More than 200 scientists, economists, business leaders and public officials were in attendance.

The Mediterranean region is home to 460 million people. It is comprised of 21 countries. It spans three continents. It is densely populated and has a vast treasure of cultural and natural diversity. Indeed it is one of the world's biodiversity 'hotspots'. With just 1.6% of the world's land area, the Mediterranean has more than 8% of the world's plant species.

As Lombardi notes, the Mediterranean is also a region that has some of the world's most iconic landscapes. But these landscapes are being threatened by extensive habitat loss and fragmentation. "The Mediterranean," he says, "is depleting its natural beauty and natural capital at an alarming rate."

The region has lost more than half of its wetlands, including an estimated 97% of the wetlands in the Middle East, and 87% of its primal forests. Some 45% of the region's coastline has been paved over. Half of its fish species, mainstays of the world-famous Mediterranean diet, are at risk of extinction. Climate change, moreover, is likely to exacerbate many of the region's resource and landscape challenges.

Each of the Mediterranean's 21 countries, says Lombardi, is running an ecological deficit that cannot be sustained. For example, the demands placed on water in Mediterranean have doubled over the past 50 years. Lombardi also observes that the region accounts for 30% of the world's international (cross-border) tourism, thanks largely to its iconic landscapes, history, ancient cultures and cuisines. Visitors – and the money they spend – will be jeopardized if the region's natural assets are compromised. Yet, just 5.3% of the region and 1% of its coastline is protected.

Despite the challenges it faces, Lombardi hopes that the region has the potential to work collectively to improve its prospects for the future. He cites its deeply rooted history and points to a common set of ecological challenges related to water, climate and ecology that could serve as the basis of a broad regional agenda. Moreover, as a region that contains both developed and developing countries, the Mediterranean could become a model for global initiatives to address common resource challenges.

Specifically, Lombardi calls for more comprehensive planning that allows for the effective management of multifunctional landscapes. He is particularly concerned about the need to protect marine ecosystems and coastal zones because of their importance to the region's history and economy. He also calls for policies that help to restore pastoral and forested landscapes and that begin to reverse the decline of the region's water resources. Finally, he believes that the number and size of protected areas must be increased and sustainably managed.

Such an agenda for renewal will require an emphasis on scientific capacity building and exchange that can help create a framework for evidence-based assessments of the extent of the ecological damage that has already taken place and outline viable options for long-term sustainable economic growth.

The 2010 Footprint Forum took place from 7 to 12 June 2010. Representatives from more than 120 institutions participated, including TWAS. For additional information, see www.footprintnetwork.org.

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