The Tunisian-Mediterranean Association for Historical, Social and Economic Studies is organizing its fourth international symposium on the theme :
MOUNTAIN AND FOREST AREAS IN THE ARAB-MEDITERRANEAN WORLD: THEIR TRANSFORMATION THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Beja (Tunisia), 25, 26, and 27 April 2013
Mountain areas are found in all Arab and Mediterranean countries, frequently occupying a significant portion of their territory –see for example Morocco or Italy. These mountains and mountain ranges vary in their geological structure and landforms, and it is possible to distinguish between the more ancient mountains and those of modern composition, as well as between small mountains and huge mountain ranges (like the High-Atlas and Ouanschariss mountains).
Climate and vegetation features vary from one mountain to another: there are forested and watered mountains, especially along the coasts of the Mediterranean (e.g. Greece), and bare mountains bordering the desert as Tassili (Algeria) and the range of Hajer (Oman).
These mountain sets show considerable variation in terms of human densities and forms of occupancy. Some are characterized by strong or very high densities (e.g. Kabylia in Algeria or Jebel Nefusa in Libya) while others appear under-populated or even almost empty, especially in arid areas (e.g. Jebel Ueslat in Tunisia and Musandam mountains in the north of the Sultanate of Oman). However, settlement patterns and resource management do not result from any physical rigid determinism, since neighbouring regions - with similar natural conditions - may present remarkable contrasts in modes of occupancy and exploitation of natural resources as well as in endogenous social dynamics.
In general, throughout the Maghreb a well as the whole Mediterranean, the main mountain ranges have historically been attractive and highly active areas, while the frequently unhealthy lowlands were rather designed for temporary occupancy or as reserves for population groups whose basic territory was located on the fringes of large political entities or territories. Finally, it should be noted that some very high mountain areas, despite their harsh natural conditions, were the centres of very old and rich civilizations (as illustrated by the case of Tibet or South American Andes).
Mountain regions have always been central in the history of the Arab-Mediterranean world. If the headquarters of state powers and the controlled territories were located mostly on the high plains or the coast, the mountains as such were strongholds of resistance – or dissent – and rebellion: “Bilad Assiba” (unruly areas or “insurgent lands”, according to different sources). They were also a safe haven for the fugitives or power contenders, and sites from where many uprisings were organised. It should be remembered that throughout the ages, these highlands were the focus of armed resistance against all types of invaders. History books and collective memories remind us of battles held there from the earliest times to present.
Certainly since the mid-nineteenth century, for many reasons (especially upheavals linked to colonial stranglehold in numerous countries of southern and eastern Mediterranean), the political and socio-economic functions of mountain areas have undergone major shifts. The focusing of developmental dynamics on the lowlands and urban areas resulted in a process of marginalization of the highland areas: mountains were gradually converted into workforce reserves and refuge for impoverished populations, most of these being doomed to survive only through an unsustainable use of natural resources (especially forests).
Governments and some international agencies and NGOs have stepped in since the 1950s to implement various development programmes and integrate these areas into national development policies; but most of these interventions have been inconsistent and failed to reduce poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and isolation. Consequently most mountainous regions have become till the present day marginal and repulsive areas, including countries of the northof the Mediterranean.
However, these regions also play an important role as migration poles: this is a factor of economic and social change, with the emergence of new endogenous strategies (because of the close ties between the migrants and their home region), that lead in many cases to local development initiatives. That said, the harshness of the situation and living conditions in some of these areas has probably boosted the proliferation of “terrorist” movements (i.e. the jihadi Salafi movements in Yemen and Algeria) using the mountains as strategic places or retreat bases.
Mountain areas have attracted the attention of many researchers in various fields and disciplines who seek to understand the specificities of their environs and the socioeconomic changes these underwent throughout history. Their various approaches tend to converge and integrate in the analysis of current transformations as well as in the evaluation of development programmes and monitoring mechanisms for mountain settings: all this through the perspective of a strategy to exit the downward spiral of impoverishment and marginalization.
Given the importance and complexity of these issues, it is possible to approach them from five thematic angles:
1. Main features of the mountain regions in the Arab-Mediterranean and their specificities from an interdisciplinary approach (history, geography, economics and anthropology) natural constraints and potential, social and political structures, insertion and position in the trade routes, relations with a central power.
2. The overall roles of the mountain regions and their populations throughout history –their economic, social and political characteristics since the eighteenth century: fiscal pressure, colonial oppression, decline or downfall of empires, wars and political change, industrial revolution and unequal development; responses of local populations (migrations, etc.).
3. Development policies and programmes for mountain areas since the 1950s: their conception, actual socioeconomic impact and contradictions…
4. Perspectives of an authentic sustainable and endogenous development for mountain areas taking account of the recent international, national and regional changes: conservation of natural resources and biodiversity, adaptation or transformation of the local systems of production, conditions of a real participation of people and local actors (rural producers, migrants, associations, etc.).
5. Main features of the modes of occupancy, exploitation of resources and space management in mountain areas outside the Arab-Mediterranean world, through a comparative approach: environmental aspects, economic and social logics, current trends
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