August 10, 2011 12:35 AM
By Marie Dhumieres

BEIRUT: Half-a-century ago, over one-third of Lebanon was covered with forests. Now, they cover just 13 percent.

Located in a small forest in Ramlieh, a quiet town in Mount Lebanon, the Mediterranean Forest Development and Conservation Center of Lebanon has been fighting an uphill battle against forest fires for over a decade.

“We are a training center for activities related to forest management and especially forest fires. We train volunteers, people from the Civil Defense, the Lebanese Army … every institution that is involved in forest firefighting,” explains Jawad Bou Ghanem, who is the project coordinator at the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, which supervises the center.

All told, the center has trained 500 members of the Civil Defense, along with municipal police officers and local volunteers.

In Ramlieh, there are currently some 40 trained and equipped local volunteers, who are ready to intervene in the event of a fire erupting in the area.

Nour Salman, who started volunteering at the center as a teenager, says he decided to get involved because of his “great concern for the environment and forests.”

“We have a very nice village and we try our best to protect our forests,” the 27-year-old says.

In addition to training firefighters, the center launched an ecotourism program in 2000. It can currently host up to 50 guests and is a member of the Youth Hostel Federation.

“We offer several activities such as hiking, sky-walking, mountain climbing: all kinds of environmentally friendly activities that generate income for the local community and for the organization,” explains Bou Ghanem.

The center also sells local products, and those who work with tourists – preparing food and guiding them in the activities offered – are all from the local community, Bou Ghanem says, adding that last year, the center received around 1,200 visitors.

“This is one of our main purposes: to make the local community feel that they’re benefiting from nature … so they’ll know the value of natural resources and ecotourism, and the value of protecting these resources.”

Volunteer Fadi Salman, who also works as a guide for tourists visiting the center, says he sees his involvement as a way to “help my village.”

“I like helping others,” he says.

The volunteer firefighters agree that there is also an element of excitement in their job.

“It’s nice being near the fire … you can feel its power,” smiles Firas Abi Ali, “and when it’s finished, you feel like you actually did something.”

Bou Ghanem says that although there has never been a serious accident, being a firefighter in Lebanon can be quite risky, and not only because of fires.

In 2007, he says, a land mine exploded 20 meters away from volunteers fighting a fire in a nearby area.

“It was a miracle … no one was injured,” he says.

“Also last year,” he continues, “volunteers fighting a fire in a nearby village entered a landmine field. It was at night and they didn’t see the sign … until they left it.”

In a bit of irony, the center itself was almost destroyed by a fire in 2007, when all the volunteers were busy putting down a fire in a neighboring village.

“We saved it in the last moment,” Bou Ghanem says.

Apart from its training and tourism activities, the center has also started a tree nursery that produces around 200,000 saplings each year, which are later planted around the country.

Bou Ghanem says it’s still too early to estimate the impact of reforestation on the country’s green cover, but acknowledges that reforestation alone can’t be the answer to forest fires.

“The total area we have planted since 1993 is around 1,000 hectares. This is nothing compared to the areas destroyed every year,” he says.

According to statistics from the Agriculture Ministry and the U.N Food and Agriculture Organization, the country loses 1,500 hectares of forests each year, he adds.

“The planting efforts in Lebanon are still very weak compared to the impact of forest fires.”

That’s why the AFDC decided to focus more on prevention than reforestation, as “preventing forest fires and preventing loss of these areas is more feasible than just planting and doing nothing else,” he explains.

Eighty-five percent of the forested areas in the country are threatened by forest fires, and Bou Ghanem insists that all the forest fires are manmade.

Ninety percent of the forest fires begin in agricultural areas when farmers set fires to clear their land that then spread to forests, he says.

For that reason, volunteers spend a lot of time working to convince farmers in the surrounding areas not to start fires, or at least to warn the center so it can provide fire trucks in case an incident occurs.

Each year, the AFDC sends recommendations on preventing and fighting forest fires to the Interior Ministry, which then sends them to high-risk municipalities. Bou Ghanem says municipalities have a very important role in monitoring and patrolling during the fire season.

“The forest fires season is not that long,” he says, while arguing that with proper monitoring and patrolling, much damage could be avoided.

He also stresses the need for better enforcement of the forest law.

The forest law, which was implemented in 1949, prohibits starting a fire in a forest or 500 meters from a forest from June until November.

“It’s a perfect law, there is no problem … the problem is in the law enforcement. The law is not enforced,” Bou Ghanem says.

According to the law, forest rangers should be enforcing it, but Bou Ghanem says the lack of human resources prevents them from doing their jobs.

According to the Internal Security Forces, which is in charge of investigating forest fires, there were 249 fires between June and October last year. Only one person was arrested.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2011, on page 3.

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