June 07, 2011 01:48 AM
By Patrick Galey
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: The United Nations has ushered in its World Environment Day with a stark warning that the continued degradation of the region’s forests could have a disastrous affect on Arab economies.

Environmental campaigners added that Lebanon, as one of the greenest Middle Eastern states, was facing an unprecedented risk to its wooded areas.
“You are all aware that in this gorgeous country, forests, trees and green spaces are facing great and worrying challenges,” U.N. Information Center director Bahaa El Koussy told a panel of environmental experts at Beirut’s ESCWA headquarters Monday.

The U.N. has dubbed 2011 the International Year of Forests. A large advertising campaign, featuring the likes of naturalist Sir David Attenborough, has been launched alongside a series of global florae reports.

Research has revealed that total Arab forest cover has dropped from 7.2 percent in 1990 to 6.4 percent in 2007 – a decline that shows no sign of abated in a region beset by increasing water shortages and urbanization.

“Virtually every country in the region has failed to reverse the loss of forest cover,” ESCWA’s regional forest report said.

Koussy warned that fewer forests meant a host of future problems for the Arab world. “On this day and during the coming days, we will work on getting the largest possible number of individuals in Lebanon, the Arab region, and the world to have effective roles in order to change toward protecting and improving the environment,” he added.

Karine Zoghbi, advocacy and national campaign coordinator for the Association of Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC), said that the U.N.’s interest in preserving Arab greenery came at an important time for Lebanon, especially considering the regularly destructive forest fire season was about to commence.

“In this weather, anyone at anytime could start a fire that destroys several hectares,” she told The Daily Star.

In 2007, AFDC helped compile the first compressive study of the state of Lebanon’s forests.

The results were alarming: The total surface area of woodland in the country had halved since 1965.

The worrying decline has been in part due to forest fires, which Zoghbi described as the most pressing threat to Lebanese woodland areas. She estimated that between 1,200 and 1,500 hectares of forest – over one percent of all greenery – is being damaged or destroyed each year by the blazes.

“For the size of Lebanon, this [damage] is very big,” Zoghbi said. “Last year wasn’t as disastrous as previous years but we were lucky because of the weather and some precautions. This year we are training the Army and Civil Defense units – as well as municipality workers – because quick response is the best intervention.”

Lebanon has a handful of fire fighting helicopters, delivered in 2009, that have helped provide rescue teams with better access to remote blazes. But Zoghbi advised that better awareness was needed above all to heighten prevention measures.

“This year we hope for less fires but the best thing we could have would be to raise awareness and clearer education. That is why we need awareness among farmers so that they don’t start any fires during this season,” she said.

She echoed the U.N.’s stance that maintaining forests was more than just an ecological issue. A Parliament bill, passed in 2009 and outlining a national framework for preventing forest fires is far from fully implemented two years later, largely due to an apparent lack of funding and legislative urgency.

“Forests are places that are important not only because of the environment but because of the social and economic value that they provide. When people start to see the economic benefits of forests, it is then when they will move to protect them,” Zoghbi said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 07, 2011, on page 12.

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