Chouf, Lebanon — The cedars of Lebanon are much loved, but they have had a difficult time lately. Last year, 4,700 hectares of forest were destroyed in fires, including 1,500 hectares as the worst blazes raged on October 2. There is no national plan for managingforest fires in an emergency, and driving through Beiteddine into the mountains, the view is not of forests, but of hundreds of burnt trees.
But on Thursday, the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC) showcased several new reforestation programs and prevention measures which have been funded by the EU.
AFDC director Sawsan Abou Fakhreddine hopes that with the 350,000 euro ($550,000) grant the AFDC can not only buy equipment for their firefighters and 300 volunteers but, more importantly, set up a central forest fire operations room to co-ordinate action in a crisis.
“We will never be able to prevent fires,” she said at the Chouf cedar reserve, “but we hope to be able to limit their impact a little bit, and to control the times when they can break out.”
She championslocal campaigns to raise awareness that fires can start when broken glass is left as litter and focuses sunlight, although she adds that not all fires are accidents. Even nature in Lebanon is not immune to politics. “People here are sometimes politically opposed to a municipality,” she said, “and so they start a fire in the area.”
The main objective of the project is to set up an early warning system. The operations center will be based in Beirut and will be managed by the Civil Defense forces who will work alongside staff from the Lebanese Army, the Internal Security Forces and representatives from the Environment,Agriculture and Interior ministries. They will work to monitor fires, to warn of outbreaks and to co-ordinate volunteers and troops to fight them.
The AFDC also has long-term plans to create a large water source near the areas most susceptible to fire, and they are working on reforestation alongside their prevention plan.
EU Ambassador to Lebanon Patrick Laurent was given a tour Thursday of the reservations where work has begun. Laurent expressed his love for the region, saying has has been to the reserve 15 times. “The cedar,” he declared, “is a great symbol for Lebanon, and it’s a great tree. I planted a Lebanese cedar in my garden in France.”
As an economist, Laurent stressed that maintaining the forests of Lebanon has significance beyond the environment. Covering 13 percent of the country, they are a unique green area in theMiddle East, and attract tourists from around the world.
“These things take a long time,” Abou Fakhreddine said. “This is a project that needs a lot of work.”
Her biggest challenge, she said is co-ordination. According to her, getting the representatives of the many ministries and organizations to “speak a common language” on the problems of forestry is the biggest hurdle to solving the problems.
Cecile Abadie, head of local development at the EU delgeation in Beirut, agreed that encouraging ministries to work together is a perennial problem. “But what appealed to us about this project is that before, forest management was the responsibility of too many ministries. What we are supporting is that a committee has now been formed to set up a plan for a crisis,” she said.
“It’s good for the political process for ministries to work together like this ,” she added. “If they can work with each other for this small initiative to solve a concrete problem, we hope that perhaps they will start to make a habit of it.”