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Macaronesian Region

Macaronesia consists of four archipelagos — the Azores, Madeira, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde [aka Cabo Verde]. These volcanic islands were all shaped by wind and fire, creating dramatic black lava landscapes surrounded by wild, luxuriant vegetation. And, while the islands belong to different countries (two to Portugal, one to Spain, with Cape Verde the only independent state), each of them boasts an impressive array of flora and fauna.

The word "Macaronesia" comes from the Greek and means "fortunate islands", the same name commonly used to speak of the Canary Islands, but also shares with its neighboring archipelagos, who also enjoy an enviable climate, as well as a flora and Similar fauna in many occasions, biodiversity that arrived to these islands by air and by sea.

The Macaronesian region consists of the Azores and Madeira in Portugal and the Canaries in Spain. The three archipelagos share regional features: a volcanic origin, a contrasting landscape and a gentle climate. These features have created an ideal environment for a particularly rich biodiversity. To best protect the Macaronesian region, the relevant Member States and key stakeholders team up to devise nature protection measures, tailored to suit the particular needs of the entire region and to target its specific pressures.

Pliny mentioned the Fortunate Islands, giving Canaria as the name of one of them, and declares them xininhabited. Plutarch also mentions the Fortunate Islands, but with inhabitants, who believed them to be "the seats of the blessed." Ptolemy goes so far as to name the Capo fronting the Fortunate Islands, "Canaria Extrema".

Within the EU, the Macaronesian Region consists of three archipelagos: the Azores, Madeira (both belonging to Portugal) and the Canaries (Spain). Cabo Verde, an independet state, is the fourth Macaroneian group. All are of volcanic origin and this fact is reflected everywhere in the landscape. Large calderas, jagged mountains and vertiginous cliffs contrast sharply with wide valleys and sheltered bays.

All the archipelagos are outermost regions that are far from the countries or the continent to which they belong, which requires special treatment to achieve the connection and the development of the economy of these territories. They enjoy a very pleasant climate all year round. The beauty of the archipelagoes and their climatic conditions makes tourism the main source of employment and income for the inhabitants of the islands.

These alternating landscapes, combined with the gentle climate, create an ideal environment for a particularly rich array of species and habitats, many of which are endemic. Despite representing only 0.2% of the EU territory, the Macaronesian Region hosts over a quarter of the plant species listed in Annex II of the Habitats Directive. The surrounding seas are equally abundant in wildlife. Many marine animals, from whales to seabirds, seek shelter and food in the deep inshore waters and nutrientrich upwellings emerging from the sea floor.

Looking at each of the island groups in turn, a number of distinguishing features stand out. The nine islands that make up the Azores, are, for instance, located far out to sea, a third of the way between the Iberian Peninsula and Newfoundland in Canada. They have a relatively wet climate and a different species composition than the other archipelagos, being more heavily influenced by Northern European, rather than Mediterranean, species. The islands also have a relatively gentle topography with undulating hills and peaks rather than abrupt precipices.

This makes them ideal for dairy farming. In fact, the Azores produce around a third of Portugal’s dairy products, which in turn provides employment for over a fifth of the islands’ inhabitants. The archipelago of Madeira is situated 750 km further south and is much closer to the Portuguese mainland. It is made up of two main islands and a series of smaller uninhabited ones. Unlike the Azores, the topography of Madeira is precipitous and jagged. The highest peak rises quickly to 1,861 m. As a result, half the slopes have a gradient of 25% or more. This abrupt landscape has a strong influence on the local climate making it much wetter on the north facing slopes than on the southern ones. The tops of the mountains are also regularly shrouded in clouds. The smaller islands manage to escape these influences as they lie below the cloud belt.

Agriculture is the mainstay of Madeira’s economy, although its rugged landscape means that this is mainly small-scale subsistence production. Tourism is also of major importance generating 10% of the island’s GDP and employing a significant proportion of the quarter of a million islanders.

The third group, the Canaries, is by far the largest, covering a total surface area of around 7,000 km² and supporting over one and a half million inhabitants. These islands are also the most easterly, situated just 115 km away from the African continent. As a result, the weather is generally much warmer and drier, creating arid, almost desert-like, conditions on the low lying islands like Lanzarote or Fuerteventura. The more westerly islands by contrast have a more dramatic topography with high mountain peaks reaching up to several thousand metres. At 3,718 m. El Teide, on Tenerife, is in fact the highest mountain in Spain.

Tourism is the most important economic activity for the Canaries. With over 11 million tourists, this sector continues to expand, mainly along the coast. Mixed and terraced farming is still practiced inland but it is rapidly disappearing as more and more people abandon their land in search of better income elsewhere. In its place come the tropical and forced crops (pineapples, bananas, mangoes…) destined for the export market. Today, this accounts for almost three-quarters of today’s agricultural production.

The insularity of the Macaronesian Islands makes them very fragile. Human activities have already destroyed and significantly transformed large areas. It is estimated that up to 20 million people visit the islands every year. As a result, tourism developments have sprung up almost everywhere around the coast. This in turn brings other problems like water shortages and pollution, forest fires and damaging recreational pursuits.

Further inland, the tourism pressure is reduced but large-scale deforestation, especially of laurel forests, has brought its own set of problems. Because these belts of evergreen forest are almost permanently shrouded in mist, they act like sponges soaking up the rain and moisture from the clouds and filling the islands’ aquifers, rivers and streams. They also prevent erosion which is an essential function for such steep sided islands.

This dual function of capturing rain water and preventing landslides, is particularly noticeable on those islands that have lost their forests. Here, rainfall is significantly lower than usual, leading to water shortages. When the rain does come, there is nothing to stand in its way so it sweeps down the mountainside gouging out huge scars and washing away much of the surface soil.

The islands in the Azores in particular suffer from heavy pollution and eutrophication due to the large numbers of cattle used for dairy production. Livestock grazing in general is a problem for the islands as indigenous plants have not had time to evolve appropriate defence mechanisms against such pressures. As a result, even ‘normal’ levels of grazing can have a very negative impact on the survival rates of many endemic plants and animals.

Agricultural practices are also changing rapidly across the region. Mixed subsistence farming in the form of terraces was once common place but is now being abandoned and replaced by more lucrative, intensive and industrial style exotic fruit production.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:08:15 ZULU