By Patrick Galey

Friday, May 21, 2010

BEIRUT: The Qadisha Valley could lose its World Heritage status if the government fails to curb illegal construction and waste dumping on the ancient site, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) confirmed on Thursday.

“The world heritage center has warned [Lebanon],” a UNESCO source told The Daily Star on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject. “The next step would be to put this site on the endangered list.”

The Valley, for centuries the home to Maronite sanctuaries and host to some of the most important Christian sites in the Middle East, has been ravaged by commercial ventures and pollution. On Thursday, An-Nahar newspaper reported that UNESCO was considering removing it as a World Heritage site. The source confirmed the report’s content.

“It’s all valid,” the source said, adding that the removal of World Heritage status “doesn’t happen often.”

But the source said that the state of Qadisha warranted severe action. “The principle behind the conservation program is to preserve things for generations to come and keep them natural,” the source said.

UNESCO would not sit idly by “when you have countries turning these sites into commercial projects and allowing people to violate the sites,” the source added.

An-Nahar reported that the issue of Qadisha’s deterioration was raised by Culture Minister Salim Warde, who sent on Wednesday letters to President Michel Sleiman and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfier – who resides at nearby Bkirki – advising them to take suitable measures to safeguard the Valley “as soon as possible.”

“This issue concerns all Lebanese; officials, citizens and religious figures,” Warde was quoted as saying. “The violations should stop completely and the Valley should preserve its uniqueness or else we will lose it and regret when regression leads to nothing.” Warde was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

UNESCO gives sites World Heritage status so that countries may protect man-made and natural sites of outstanding beauty. There are currently more than 850 such sites across the globe.

The Qadisha Valley – one of Lebanon’s principal tourist attractions – was granted World Heritage status in 1998 for containing the “most significant surviving examples” of early Christian monasteries.

The organization confirmed that illegal construction – including restaurants contributing to noise pollution – rubbish tipping and people entering the Valley unrestricted constituted “violations” of what is required from a World Heritage site.

Sawsan Abu Fakherddine, general director of the Association for Forest Development and Conservation, said that the threatened state of Qadisha was all too common in Lebanon.

“We are seeing this happen, not just in the Qadisha Valley,” she said. “Changes are happening faster than any intervention, despite the fact that when you talk to the ministers concerned, they all agree that such actions are illegal.”

UNESCO’s World Heritage Center (WHC), which is charged with monitoring sites, in a letter sent to relevant ministers, advised that immediate action was required at Qadisha.

“Lebanese authorities should put in place a working plan and manage the site to preserve it and run it effectively,” An-Nahar quoted the WHC as saying.

Fakherddine called for greater action from relevant ministries – as well as greater public vigilance – in order to prevent the Qadisha Valley becoming another forgotten treasure.

“It’s really frustrating to see construction taking place illegally in front of the eyes of everyone,” she said. “Who gives these people the go ahead to start this work? We should stand up and try to raise this issue. If we lose the Valley, we are risking all important sites in Lebanon.” – With additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::