A SHORT NOTE ON THE ECOLOGICAL STATUS
OF CEDARWOOD ATLAS: Cedrus atlantica (Endl.) Carr.
Copyright © Tony Burfield Dec 2004.
A small number of essential oil users have questioned the advice in Cropwatch 5 and in my lectures to the oil trade, that Cedarwood Atlas should be regarded as a potentially threatened species, and that the use of aromatic commodities from this tree should be actively discouraged. These queries apparently arise from a lack of easily located Internet references on the subject (in spite of the fact that deforestation in Morocco has proceeded at an alarming rate in recent times). In practice, many essential oil users may rely on more limited and potentially biased sales propaganda from their oil suppliers for ecological information – although it is often difficult to find a classically trained biologist or ecologist amongst their number. One such essential oil seller’s website somewhat vaguely states: “Cedrus atlantica from North Africa which does need careful watching but the Morroccan (sic) government is not stupid and the trees are under specific Royal patronage.” In my opinion, these latter remarks gloss over the real facts, since, as is explained below, the Atlas Mountains where Cedrus atlantica is naturally found, is the principal contender for the Mediterranean Red Alert areas (see http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no10/empire-task2.htm), 10,000 km2 of Moroccan forest having disappeared between 1940 and 1982 (WWF, undated). UNICED (1994) & Thirgood (1984) reported that in the last three decades 40% of Morocco’s forests had succumbed to desertification or degradation. So, it is even more inexplicable that certifying agencies such as Ecocert and the Soil Association have felt themselves able to endorse aromatic commodities such as Cedarwood Oil Atlas which originate from these critically endangered areas (see below) as qualifying for “organic” status.
The identification of Sites of Biological and Ecological Interest by the Water and Forest Directorate of the Forests and Water Ministry of Morocco, and the launching of a World Bank/Global Environment Facility project on biodiversity conservation by the Moroccan Government, are reported by WWF (undated). They further report “the enlargement of the national protected areas network, creation of new national parks, declare a number of these priority sites as nature reserves, and improve the management systems of 13 areas, by establishing management plans, improving local capacity, and involving local populations in nature resource management are amongst the goals”.
1. Cedrus species: background.
Cedrus genus itself is generally divided into four separate species, but
other classifications have reduced the number to two. For example Cedarwood
Atlas: Cedrus atlantica (Endl.) Carr is classified by some workers as
a geographical subspecies of Cedar of Lebanon, and so becomes Cedrus
libani subsp. atlantica (Endl.) Batt. & Trabut. We can briefly
summarise these classifications in a table as follows:
True Cedarwoods: common & botanical names and ecological status.
A detailed review of the Cedarwood oils has
been published (Burfield 2002, 2003a, 2003b).
2. Ecological status of forests containing
The disappearing Mediterranean conifer forests & eco-regions of N. Africa specifically extend over N. Morocco, N. Tunisia and N.W. Algeria. A non-peer reviewed, but informative paper by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF undated) describes the conservation status of these conifer forests as Critical / Endangered. The conifer zone of Morocco is described in the same article as consisting largely of Cedrus atlantica together with other species, according to location – indeed the Atlas Cedar in strongly associated with Morocco’s ancient forests in literature covering the last 5,000 years (Mardaga 1999). Many of the taxa found in the Moroccan conifer forests are amongst some two hundred included as threatened species in the IUCN Red List (2004) for Morocco; some additional species (WWF undated) are tabulated below. Tazi M. et al. present a modest program for the conservation of plant genetic resources of Morocco in the face of the present genetic erosion at http://apps3.fao.org/wiews/Morocco/Paper6.htm.
Forests (after WWF: undated)
The status of cedarwood forests is further explained in a 1997 document on Morocco’s Protected Areas Management Project which can be seen at http://www.gefweb.org/wprogram/mor-anxa.doc, which describes the Ifrane National park in the Moyen-Atlas central (54,000 ha) essentially based on Cedrus atlantica. (Benabid 2000 reports C. atlantica with Quercus faginea, Quercus rotundifolia, Pinus pinaster var. maghrebiana & Juniperus thruifera amongst the 600-700 endemic spp.)
Mixed forest area in
Bou Iblane I area (12,000 hectares) is similarly described (part of site is
Cedrus atlantica mixed with green oak Quercus rotundifolia and
part with the juniper tree species Juniperus thurifera),
which is legally unprotected:
young cedar trees are uprooted to
provide winter grazing for livestock and
juniper forerst is degrading from overgrazing. The Jbel Tichoukt area
(12,000 ha), also with cedar forest
threatened by overgrazing by livestock, is
In many areas, in addition to overgrazing threats, the uncontrolled gathering of firewood/illegal logging by local peoples whose needs are not being met, is threatening the survival of Cedarwood Atlas trees; other threats include fire. WWF (undated) refers to the transformation in Berber life from a semi-Nomadic existence to a more settled permanence as putting an un-met requirement for fuel, as being a factor in illegal logging.
A Berber Village in the High Atlas
thesis on hearth fuel acquisition in the Imnane valley in Morocco’s High
Atlas at http://peacecorps.mtu.edu/DownsCM.pdf may provide some insight on
such communities that depend on wood fuels, to the reader. However these
problems are longstanding: a 1988 article on Toubkal National Park at
refer to these very same factors (uncontrolled herding, illegal timber &
wood extraction, fire) with little/no active conservation management being
evident. Ciani A.C. & Castillo P. (undated)
describe a dramatic increase in forest
degradation due to overgrazing since the
1970’s (including the cutting of vegetation from cedar trees by axe which
eventually kills the tree which causes very severe damage). The authors also
describe the effects of the 1991-1996 drought in the Middle Atlas, where the
water table dropped severely, and debarking of cedar trees by Barbary
macaques further degraded the cedar forest.
Specific information on illegal logging is difficult to obtain; Hmamouchi (2001a) refers to the illegal felling of trees and illegal clearing as amongst the principal obstacles to the development of plant medicine in Morocco. Ciani A.C. & Castillo P. (undated) report that the legal logging of cedar trees by Eaux et Forets Dept. of the Ministry of Agriculture proceeds according to management plans, but the rate of extraction is based on the over-optimistic capability of existing forest regeneration policies.
Benabid (2000) also documents the following areas as containing Cedrus atlantica trees: Bou Naucer (high mountain region in the Moyen Atlas Oriental covering 14,000 ha); Parc Nationale de Talassemtane (Rif Central Occidental covering 60,000 ha); Parc Nationale de Tazekka (northern part of Moyen Atlas Oriental 12,000 ha); Parc Nationale du Haute Atlas Oriental (49,000 ha). Whilst Cedarwood Atlas trees appears to be well conserved in specific areas of parkland, the ecosystem is very fragile - often the margins are subject to degradation by erosion, demineralisation, dehydration, desertification etc. resulting in areas of complete desolation [Pujos (1986); Benabid (1982) & (1985); M’hirit (1982); Quezel et al. (1987) – all through Benabid (2000)]. Benabid (2000) for example describes the areas of the Moyen Atlas Plissé and High Atlas Oriental regions as ecologically fragile, subject to desertification, and unfavourable for Cedars, those present often being found dead or damaged.
3. Cedarwood Commodities: Cedarwood Oil Atlas
is produced by steam distillation or high pressure steam distillation of the
wood at a yield of 3-5% from the branches, waste wood, and especially the
sawdust of the pyramidal Cedrus atlantica tree itself, which has not
been described in detail here so far. It is an ascendingly branched tree,
with evergreen needles, which can grow up to 50m. or exceptionally to 65m.
at an elevation of 1400-2500m. in humid and cold subhumid zones. It survives
on several different types of soil in the 133,653 hectares of Cedar forest
(according to Mardaga 1999) in the Middle Atlas, Rif central and Grand Atlas
Oriental, and the Middle Atlas Oriental areas of Morocco, where Cedar forest
might constitute some 2.8% of the total area of Moroccan forest (Mardarga
1999). The tree also grows in N.W. Algeria, scattered widely over 300 km2
in the Tellien Atlas. Cultivars of the tree have been imported into N.
America (especially into milder parts of British Columbia) & Canada as
ornamentals - the cultivar C. atlantica f. glauca (Blue Cedar)
is especially admired for its blue foliage. It is used as a reforestation
tree in France, Italy, Bulgaria etc., but it is susceptible to pest attacks
when grown in Europe [Ciani & Castillo (undated)].
Essential oil production in Morocco was estimated at 7 tons per annum by Lawrence (1985) but levels of Cedarwood Atlas concrete production tonnage (solvent extraction of the wood by cyclohexane or other solvents – benzene was formerly used) are unrecorded. Cedarwood Atlas concrete (anomalously called a “resinoid”) does find some use in perfumery because of its good fixative properties and finer odour than the oil (Arctander 1960). The more valued “absolute” is produced from the concrete by fractional distillation. The essential oil nowadays has limited uses in perfumery because of its strong detracting urinic odour compared with the finer notes of the oil of Cedarwood Virginian. However, a 1936 edition of Poucher (Poucher 1936) desribes a mimosa aspect to the oil, and indicates that the double rectified oil of Cedrus atlantica was, at the time, considered of use in soap perfumery, the terpeneless oil useful in perfumery and the solvent extracted resinoid useful in soap fragrancing in spite of its dark colour. A Moroccan medical plant reference book (Hmamouchi M. 2001) only describes the traditional use (wood, leaves) as an anti-inflammatory for rheumatism, but warns of neurotoxic effects. Gattefossé reports on Massey’s therapeutic study of Cedarwood Atlas and its uses in venerology a centaury ago (Gattefossé 1937); the oil has since been successfully marketed into aromatherapy, where it is employed for its’ antiseptic, anticatarrhal, circulatory stimulant and expectorant properties.
The Cedarwood Atlas tree has been important in the socio-economy of Morocco, being suitable for furniture making, carpentry, construction work, and by dry-distillation, for tar-making. Benabid (2000) also mentions that the leaves (needles) are using in tanning. Like all cedarwoods, the wood it is fragrant, insect repellent and rot-resistant due to the essential oil content. However it is not known with any certainty, what level of extra pressure on the shrinking conifer forests, or the wider environmental impact implications that the continued extraction of essential oil & resin from the tree has had. Further, the skin sensitivity problems associated with the production of fragrant lichen products from oakmoss (Evernia prunastri) & treemoss (Pseudoevernia furfuracea mixed with Usnea spp.) qualities which are used in perfumery, have led to an much-increased demand for Moroccan Cedarmoss extracts (from the lichen Evernia furfuracea), which grow on, and are gathered from, Cedarwood Atlas trees.
growth of Cedarmoss on a
The author has not been able to find any damage/impact data relating to the increased rate of gathering of Cedarmoss from Cedarwood forests; however Ciani A.C. & Castillo P. (undated) describe the economic production of this activity- and other cedar forest activities such as essential oil production, honey-bee breeding and ethno-medicinal production - as being low.
Margot (1999) in a major work on the Moroccan forest
system describes the explains the necessity for silviculture in Morocco’s
natural forest and describes schemes of regeneration for Cedarwood Atlas in
plantations stretching over 120 years and involving thinning developing
trees down from a rate of 5,000 per hectare down to an eventual 100 per
hectare - by which time the trunk diameter is 30cm (at 120 years plus). As
we have seen in previous Cropwatch reports with similar long-maturing tree
schemes (Sandalwood East Indian, Rosewood Brazilian) (see
these plans for sustainability may be commendable in some respects, but may
have too much built-in vulnerability to be relied on totally.
It is apparent that stricter management of the critically endangered and rapidly diminishing conifer forest areas of Morocco, in conjunction with meeting the basic needs of local people, is still an urgent priority. Meanwhile the exploitation of shrinking conifer forests for Cedarmoss, Cedarwood oil Atlas, its resinoid and absolute, by the aroma trade should be halted right now, in my opinion, until a comprehensive environmental impact study is available, the area is adequately conserved, and adequate resources for natural regeneration are available.
Click here for printer friendly version
acre = 4,046 square metres (m2)
= 0.405 hectare
hectare = 10,000 square metres (m2)
= 2.471 acres = 0.01 square
A square kilometre =
1,000,000 square metre = 100 hectares = 247.105381
Acres = 0.386102 square
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