Lebanon — BEIRUT: Fairouz first performed Lebanon the Beautiful Green back in 1957, singing, Lebanon o beautiful green on your hills, My hearts story and nostalgia of my mind, O stars that stay up late with me.
Over half a century later and the landscape of Lebanon is a much changed vista. Forest coverage has fallen 35 percent in this time and while in 1980 forests still covered 30 percent of the land they now cover just 13 percent.
While Lebanon may be one of the most forested countries in the region, many factors from chaotic urban construction to mismanagement, war, and forest fires have contributed to the decimation of Lebanons green spaces.
Campaigners have recently increased efforts to protect the countrys forests, and last week saw the launch of the countrys first ever national forest strategy, under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry and in cooperation with the German Development Cooperation Agency.
Over the course of one year, experts, nongovernmental organizations, and officials from various ministries and municipalities will meet with the aim of constructing a National Forest Program a first-of-its-kind coherent strategy designed to halt and even reverse deforestation efforts.
The Agriculture Ministry in 2010 set a 20 percent target for nationwide forest coverage by 2020: equal to a rather ambitious-sounding addition of two million new trees each year.
Funded by the U.S. development agency, USAID, and overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative was launched last year to help Lebanon reach this target, and Friday inaugurated the start of the NGOs fall planting season in Tannourine in north Lebanon, in the presence of Batroun MP Butros Harb and the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Maura Connelly.
The LRI has now begun planting in five sites around the country, with plans to plant 120,000 seedlings representing 25 native species, including cedar, pine, wild almond, juniper, fir and oak this year alone.
The focus of the LRIs work is to ensure the survivability of these native trees once they have been planted, according to Richard Paton, project director at LRI.
Various reforestation efforts over the years have failed, Paton said. Looking at previous projects, he said, One of our major concerns has been the low rate of survivability of these species once theyre planted.
Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine, director at the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, an NGO working alongside the government to coordinate the national strategy, explained why so many previous efforts to re-green Lebanon have not succeeded.
A lack of coordination between various stakeholders has jeopardized efforts, she said, as has the fact that newly reforested areas are often soon destroyed by savage summer wildfires.
A lack of knowledge on the ground prevents the correct preparation and maintenance of seedlings, Bou Fakhreddine added. But, she said, The main failure has been because most activities lack of monitoring you need to monitor seedlings for several years.
As such, the LRI is working with local communities on a grassroots approach to reforestation. Over the last year, in the run up to the launch of this seasons first planting season, the NGO has been working with nine native tree nurseries in Lebanon to help them modernize their methods and promote better practices in terms of how seedlings are planted.
Crucially though, the LRI is working to ensure that the seedlings are sufficiently cared for after they are planted, which is up to three years, with sufficient irrigation, and that they are not damaged through grazing, Paton said.
As part of the LRIs policy of engaging with the local community, the NGO is aiming to hire 25 people in each of the five sites in which it is working, from full-time guards on each site to part-time planters and seasonal workers.
At the grassroots level, thats where we think we can have the most impact, Paton explained. To make a difference and promote change from the bottom up.
Aside from teaching new methods and employment, the LRI is also working with local schools and communities to boost awareness of reforestation efforts, and the benefits that forests provide, from protecting biodiversity and economic worth.
The NGO is also working alongside the Lebanese Army to highlight the dangers of forest fires and to help mobilize local volunteer fire fighting groups.
And while the NGO has funding for four years, Paton hopes that by 2014 it will become an independent entity capable of bringing in funding, from private donors, the diaspora and USAID and European partners to help protect Lebanons forests for generations to come.
Nehme Harb, head of the Tannourine Cedar Forest Nature Reserve Committee, speaking at Fridays launch, highlighted the importance of Lebanons forests. The forest stands witness to Gods greatness and the frailty of people. We have been entrusted with this precious gift and we must preserve it.
Bou Fakhreddine, at AFDC, is quietly confident Lebanon can meet the 2020 target of 20 percent coverage.
Theres a lot of work still to be done, she said. But she believes the National Forest Program will be a key step forward.
At Fridays launch of LRIs project, Bridging the Ancient Cedar Forests of Tannourine and Bsharri, Paton recalled comments made by the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, over a century ago.
He invoked the majesty and threats to the ancient cedars of Lebanon in arguing for the conservation of forest resources in the United States, he said.