Initiative helps communities share benefits of reforestation
By Dalila Mahdawi
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, January 19, 201
BOIRE, Metn: The Lebanese are traditionally a people who pride themselves
on their ties to the land. Their flag depicts this through its symbol of a Cedar tree and their diet through staples like thyme, dandelion and other wild greens handpicked from the mountain side. But in an era of climate change, urbanization and desertification, the Lebanese are quickly losing sight of their country’s once enviable biodiversity.
In an attempt to reinvigorate grassroots interest in Lebanon’s native flora, the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures (IBSAR), with help from the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service, each weekend invites volunteers to participate in its “Power of Planting” project. Planting in different locations throughout Lebanon, the volunteers join IBSAR experts and local residents in reintroducing a few of the country’s estimated 50-80 indigenous species.
The idea was born after massive forest fires wreaked havoc on Lebanon’s dwindling forests in 2007, explains Khaled Slim, IBSAR field coordinator and agricultural engineer. “We thought that we had to do something, and since we are a biodiversity research center, we decided on planting native trees,” he says.
The planting is achieved in partnership with the local municipality, who decide where to plant. So far, 40 villages have benefitted from some 10,000 trees or shrubs suited to the area’s soil type and terrain. IBSAR plans to plant about 40,000 more this year to coincide with the international year of biodiversity.
“There is a need for this kind of landscaping initiative,” says IBSAR outreach coordinator Arbi Sarkissian. “I’m calling it landscaping because we’re not [undertaking] reforestation. We’re planting within villages, not necessarily in rural and remote areas.”
Slim is more comfortable with the link to reforestation than his colleague, but notes it has to start at the grassroots level, with community involvement, rather than through government-led initiatives. “We are trying to decentralize reforestation activities to local villagers and inhabitants because they know their land,” he says. “If the people living in a place are not convinced that nature has to be protected, no one can protect it.”
With Lebanon’s forests today in dire straits, there has never been a better time for the IBSAR project. In the 1960s, forests covered more than 35 percent of the country.
Environmentalists now estimate that woodland stands at less than 12 percent, and with more people moving from rural areas to urban centers each year, further decreases look inevitable. As a result, more than 60 percent of the country is threatened by desertification, experts warn.
But ultimately, “it’s not just about planting trees,” Sarkissian says. “The power of planting is a concept about being aware of
nature in its dwindling state.” This is partly achieved through simply reconnecting volunteers, many of whom are city dwellers, with the land they are so dependent on, but so far removed from. IBSAR is also doing something government-led reforestation projects are not: planting native vegetation, such as judas, sweet almond or crabapple trees, rather than simply pine and cedars or introduced species like eucalyptus.
“There are five or six different species that are at the forefront of reforestation and a whole realm of other species that are left out of the picture,” Sarkissian says.
“If their populations dwindle even more, chances are they’re going to go extinct.”
Diversification is especially important, Slim notes, because it helps to create a natural protective barrier against fire.
This weekend, IBSAR was in the quiet Metn village of Boire, adding some much-needed green to the municipal hospital’s parking lot. After a few hours of weeding, the land was ready for the myrtle shrubs, carob, stone pine and maple tree saplings. After they were put into the earth, large rocks were placed around them to keep in the moisture and for protection, a process known as “mulching.”
The idea, Sarkissian says, is to eventually have the trees serve as natural seed banks for future planting projects. “We are looking to when these trees get big and bear seeds, to work with the communities who planted them in order to establish micro-nurseries,” he says.
The tree saplings planted in Boire are already one year old, and will start producing seeds in two or three years.
They, in turn, will be planted at the micro-nursery to be sold and replanted.
“We’re trying to help communities understand the importance of diversity and planting natives, and giving them an opportunity to partake in the economic incentives that come with it,” Sarkissian says.