Money doesn't grow on trees: How the economic crisis in Lebanon is threatening its cedar forests
For many Lebanese, the cedar tree is an emblematic symbol of their homeland. Yet, for decades, the country’s forests have been neglected, polluted and exploited almost to the breaking point.
Now, Lebanon’s biodiversity is in real danger as mounting pressure from the troubled country’s economic crisis, combined with a large influx of refugees from neighbouring Syria, drives more and more people into the forests.
Without [Jouzour's Loubnan's] efforts, there is a very real possibility that the country’s iconic natural beauty may slip away entirely, another casualty of Lebanon’s interminable and all-consuming state of crisis
Founded in 2009, Jouzour Loubnan is just one of several groups working to safeguard and restore some of Lebanon’s greatest natural treasures.
“Ignorance and greed are having terrible effects on Lebanon’s environment,” Professor Magda Bou Dagher, President of Jouzour Loubnan and Director of the Biodiversity & Functional Genomics Laboratory at Saint Joseph University, told The New Arab. “Places that [are] the last refuge for plant and animal species are [being harmed by] thousands of local [visitors]. Preserving the forest and helping them regenerate is our priority.”
Legally, many forests in Lebanon are considered protected, but in reality, this does not always mean they are safe, as these protections are rarely properly enforced by state authorities. Others are considered private land, making efforts to monitor and safeguard them difficult without the consent of their owners.
Even simple littering can have a devastating and dramatic effect on the local environment. Items like discarded glass fragments can easily start forest fires – especially during Lebanon’s hot, dry summer season – because they act as lenses, intensifying the bright sunlight. In remote wooded areas, a blaze can quickly rage out of control before firefighters have a chance to respond.
“It's crazy,” said Communication Coordinator Stephanie Al Ahmar. “It's a huge cultural issue, [people] throwing trash everywhere [and now], with the crisis, people are cutting the trees [for] fuel.”
Because of this, one of Jouzour Loubnan’s most important objectives is to get local communities actively involved in the protection and management of their planted forests.
“We take on a lot of volunteers,” said Ahmar. “Once we take [a piece of] land and we are going to work, we take the project supervisor from the same area. We take the volunteers from the same area and the workers – if we are going to hire workers – also from the same area.”
“We want the people who live around this district to love the trees and know the importance of not just how to plant, [but also] how to protect the area,” she added. “During the plantation season, we ask anyone to come with us and get involved in the whole process.”
In addition to its planting initiatives, Jouzour Loubnan also provides educational sessions in schools and universities to raise awareness of Lebanon’s environmental issues and how to address them. Meanwhile, other projects – such as their ‘Adopt a Cedar’ programme and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme – offer alternative ways to support Lebanon’s vulnerable ecosystems through charitable donations that allow the organisation to continue to fund their activities.
Because each tree typically requires at least 10 years to fully mature, reforestation is a difficult and time-consuming process. Groups like Jouzour Loubnan have their work cut out for them, especially when it comes to maintaining the delicate ecological balance of Lebanon’s woodlands.
“When we founded our NGO and decided to implement reforestation programmes following scientific programmes, we faced a major challenge: the lack of native tree species in the nurseries,” Bou Dagher said.
“In order to build resilient forests that are healthy, we should plant different species of trees and shrubs that usually live together,” she continued. “Planting one kind of trees – very often cedars or stone pines – is helpful to carbon sequestration, but not very helpful to preserving the biodiversity of insects, mammals and birds.”
To overcome this problem, Jouzour Loubnan created and developed a new seed bank. Wild seeds are collected from different species across Lebanon, using specialised protocols to ensure the preservation of genetic diversity within local plant populations. Some seeds are stored at the bank itself as an emergency reserve, while others are distributed to local nurseries and cultivated into new plants that will go on to support future reforestation projects.
“We don't want to plant any not native trees,” explained Ahmar. “We should really be taking care of the cedar trees specifically because they are our symbol and [a part of] our identity. If we lose that, we lose Lebanon.”
With the support of universities and other NGOs, Jouzour Loubnan is beginning to shift the perceptions of many Lebanese. Where once there was apathy and disinterest, now there are many who want to do their part to contribute to the fight for Lebanon’s precious forests.
When it comes to state actors, the response has been mixed. On the one hand, some organisations – such as the Lebanese Directorate General of Antiquities and some local municipalities – have taken steps to create new protected areas for the safeguarding of endangered plants.
At the same time, both the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture remain largely inactive due to the same sectarian infighting that has come to define Lebanese politics.
Until the situation in Lebanon improves, it falls to groups like Jouzour Loubnan to educate and mobilise the general population, reinvigorating a sense of national pride that has been sorely tested over recent years.
Without such efforts, there is a very real possibility that the country’s iconic natural beauty may slip away entirely, another casualty of Lebanon’s interminable and all-consuming state of crisis.
“Our programme of cedar adoption [remained] a success even when the economic situation reached its worst stages,” said Bou Dagher. “People kept adopting cedars, allowing [us] to pursue [our] mission, but [they are] only part of our civil society. [We need] others need to get on board, but [many] are overwhelmed by everyday economic struggles.”
“There is actually only 13 percent of our [natural] forest left,” lamented Ahmar. “Volunteering [like this is] how you connect more with nature. When you get involved with nature, you form a sort of bond with it and you want to do it again. [If you] don't want to plant, just be aware.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist and culture writer based in Lebanon.
Follow him on Twitter: @RCMcKelvey