Government launches plan to prevent forest fires

Government launches plan to prevent forest fires

20 May 2015

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Lebanon — The Association of Forests and Conservation and the Agriculture and Environment ministries rolled out a new awareness campaign Tuesday to prevent forest fires this summer, but civil society activists say that it’s not enough. The campaign is a series of photos that indicate scenarios in which forest fires could be ignited, accompanied by a hashtag in Arabic that translates to: #Just_Don’t_Light_It_Up (a play on the phrase commonly used to describe having a big night out).

The pictures will be distributed through social media and advertised in the media as well as billboards.

The campaign was launched at a news conference at the Grand Serail and was timely due to the 38 degree heat which scorched Beirut Tuesday.

“The highest temperature has been recorded today,” Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk said at the news conference. “We heard this morning about two fires that broke out and we shouldn’t wait for such seasons to prepare … it’s the government’s, the citizen’s and the municipality’s responsibility [to tackle this issue].”

However activists remain skeptical over the government’s commitment to fully address the issue. Amira al-Halabi, an environmental activist with NGO GreenLine who wrote her master’s thesis on forest fire prevention at Balamand University, felt that the initiative was far too shallow.

“I would like the issue to be tackled at a policy level,” Halabi told The Daily Star.

Halabi highlighted the fact that a lot of land in Lebanon is owned privately and the government offers private land owners very little incentive to handle their land properly for the greater benefit of society.

Forest fires are a pertinent issue in Lebanon. Machnouk stated during his speech that 35 percent of land in Lebanon was covered by forests in 1965 but that number has dropped to less than 13 percent today. That decrease has largely been driven by forest fires.

Halabi also pointed out that the increase in civil society actors and environmental awareness has not stemmed the increase in forest fires over the past four decades.

According to the AFDC, 83 percent of the forest areas in Lebanon are under threat of burning, especially in dry areas such as Akkar, West Bekaa and Bint Jbeil.

AFDC’s General Director Sawsan Bou Fakhreddine said that Lebanon’s civil defense does not have the capacity to handle forest fires that spread throughout Lebanon. She hopes the awareness campaign will decrease the overall number of forest fires to prevent the civil defense’s resources from being spread too thin.

Paul Abi Rached, the president of Lebanon’s EcoMovement, an association of different environmental organizations, said that awareness alone was not sufficient to address the problem.

“I think we should do more serious actions, this is an NGO campaign. It’s not a ministry’s campaign,” Abi Rached said. “The minister should talk about more serious issues … for example giving materials to municipalities [to fight fires].”

Abi Rached explained that municipalities in Lebanon do not have sufficient resources to handle forest fires. The fund that is allotted to municipalities is often swallowed by the high costs of dealing with waste management, which is privatized, he said, leaving little for local governments to allocate to fire fighting.

A source at the Environment Ministry said that there were no upcoming projects to address the issues of forest fires this year.

He also highlighted the contradiction in the Environment Ministry’s actions as there is severe deforestation happening currently due to the building of the Janneh Dam.

“They [the government] are cutting 300,000 trees at Janneh Dam,” Abi Rached said. “So how do you tell us you are really serious about protecting trees and combating forest fires and on the other hand you are cutting trees to build a dam?”

Bou Fakhreddine recognizes that this awareness campaign is not enough by itself. She said that the AFDC has been working closely with the Agriculture Ministry to implement the National Strategy to handle forest fires that was endorsed by the Cabinet in 2009.

This strategy was inspired by the fierce forest fire in the summer of 2007 which wiped out approximately 2000 hectares of forest. It is made up of a five main areas to reduce the number of fires: research, prevention, readiness to fight fires, response to fires and recovery from the damage caused.

No part of the exhaustive National Strategy has been implemented – largely due to political deadlock – but Bou Fakhreddine said they are working toward an action plan to remedy this.

However, all actors agree that the most effective way to handle forest fire issues is at the community level.

“Nobody other than the community that is directly related to the problems it’s causing can push for the solution,” Halabi said.

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