By Dalila Mahdawi

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

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Environmentalist uses music to educate, raise awareness

Dalila Mahdawi

Daily Star staff

BAABDA: Some people try to change the world through violence, war or activism. Environmentalist Paul Abi Rached is trying to change the world through music, one song at a time.

An instantly amiable man with a gentle voice, Abi Rached started his career as a lawyer. After reading up on the damage being wrought on Lebanon’s countryside, he decided he’d rather be an environmental educator. He says: “How could I defend the rights of humans when much more urgent problems were taking place?”

Abi Rached’s approach to environmental activism differs somewhat from those of many of his colleagues – rather than appeal to the upper echelons of government with draft laws or chain himself to trees, he hopes to change people’s everyday behavior through singing. After all, he says, nothing will change unless people set the example by changing how they consume.

“I was a scout chief,” he says, recalling nights around the campfire signing songs. He soon found himself abandoning old folk tunes and performing his own guitar melodies on climate change, waste disposal, deforestation, healthy eating and environmental responsibility.

Songs can reach out to people in ways that books or lectures can’t, Abi Rached says. “The guitar was my weapon because it was very efficient” in persuading people to change their consumption patterns. “A song is really something that can go straight to the heart, and when you go to the heart, you can convince the head easily.” Abi Rached has over 100 original songs in his repertoire, annually performing to over 150,000 students in Arabic, French and English. “In some of the villages I go to, people still have my tapes from 14 years ago,” he laughs. “They still listen to them too!”

In 1994, Abi Rached established the TERRE Liban. TERRE NGO, meaning “earth” in French and which is an acronym for “Let us try together to realize a dream for our children,” represents Abi Rached’s commitment to responsible living.

“It’s the meaning of sustainable development … you are working for other generations.”

Besides being a platform for Abi Rached’s signing, TERRE has also helped implement “at source” recycling programs at schools across Lebanon and runs a conservation program at Baadba forest, the only park open to the public in Greater Beirut. He hopes such projects can create a sense of eco-citizenship among future generations and reform bad habits like throwing garbage out of car windows.

So far, it looks like his appeals are working – a number of Abi Rached’s songs have been incorporated into Lebanon’s school curricula. In 2009, he was selected as an Arab World Social Innovator by US NGO Synergos. The award grants training and financial aid to “pioneers of change” to help them have an even greater impact.

Now that Lebanon’s real-estate market is booming and environmental degradation is at almost catastrophic levels, Abi Rached acknowledges his organization will need to rethink its tactics and become a more aggressive lobbying group.

In the last few weeks, TERRE has been hanging banners across Baabda voicing its concern over how rapid construction is transforming, or rather “destroying” the area’s once cherished greenery and architectural heritage. The outspoken banners are addressed to contracting firms and real-estate brokers and lament their greedy transformation of Baabda “into a cement block.” TERRE points to the fact that the new glass tower blocks are coming at the expense of trees and leading to a dramatic demographic change where only the upper-middle classes and very rich can afford to buy a home. One banner reads: “Are you planting trees in place of the ones you have cut?”

Abi Rached sighs when he contemplates Lebanon’s environmental woes. “The only goal of this construction attack is profit,” he says. “We are working for money and losing important things like the air, the water, the land, the animals, the biodiversity, and then we will disappear after them. We must convince government a Lebanon without nature is worthless.”