By Enora Castagne
The Daily Star
Cedars in the Chouf region of Mount Lebanon. (Photo: Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star)
Cedars in the Chouf region of Mount Lebanon. (Photo: Mahmoud Kheir/The Daily Star)

BEIRUT: The first National Forest Program was launched Thursday, by the agriculture minister in cooperation with the German Development Cooperation agency (GIZ) in order to tackle the urgent issue of deforestation.

Over the course of one year, workshops will gather experts, non-governmental organizations, ministries and municipalities, with the aim of creating a national strategy that will be put before the Cabinet for approval.

Lebanon’s percentage of forest cover has decreased rapidly in recent years, with a 2004 study from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization revealing that the figure had fallen to 13 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1980. In 2010 the Agriculture Ministry set a target to increase coverage to 20 percent over a period of 20 years.

According to Ludwig Liagre, an environment economics expert for the GIZ project, the problem of deforestation is largely due to people’s attitudes.

“People do not realize the huge value brought about by forests,” he said at Thursday’s official project launch.

Aside from material gains, forests have hidden value, he said, which “should be integrated into the economy.” Ecotourism, erosion prevention or water purification are also positive elements for the country’s development, he added.

The program is part of the GIZ project Silva Mediterranea, which tackles problems associated with climate change in six countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

GIZ will bring financial and technical support, and help “instil a new view and a new behavior of people toward nature,” Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said when he inked the financial agreement.

“Those who live and work in forest communities and civil society groups should not see us as enemies that prevent them exploiting the land, and neither should we consider their activity as essentially harmful, Hajj Hasan said. “There is a misunderstanding.”

Another key obstacle hampering reforestation efforts is the cost, according to experts.

Chadi Mohanna, director of Rural Development and Natural Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture, told The Daily Star that “40 million trees must be planted over 20 years, which requires us to come up with $400 million.”

Another main challenge lies in confusion over the roles of different official departments in reforestation work, Mohanna said.

According to the law, the Agriculture Ministry has the appropriate human resources to tackle reforestation, such as engineers and forest rangers, he said. “However, legislation in 2003 gave the funds assigned to reforestation to the Environment Ministry,” Mohanna said.

“It is very difficult to implement projects as the actions of ministries and organizations are at odds.”

As a result, the Environment Ministry usually contracts the implementation out to firms or municipalities.

The main problem with companies is that, like NGOs, “they follow trends,” Mohanna told The Daily Star.

“While there has been important media coverage about forest fires, [areas such as] maintenance and exploitation are almost abandoned,” he added.

“Most private donors don’t really care about the follow-up aspects. They get photographed while planting the trees, but will not stay to water and take care of them,” he said. At the end of the day “except for very few well-run projects, the survival rate is catastrophic.”

The final strategy will have to reach compromises and balance the varied priorities of different government bodies, Mohanna said.

While the Defense Ministry is primarily concerned with tackling fires, the Environment Ministry sees the forest as an area that must be protected, and the Agriculture Ministry is more interested in the social aspects of forests, he added.

“At the Agriculture Ministry, we want to protect the forest for the lumberjack, the hunter … We are concerned about how forests are used, and this doesn’t only mean the wood and charcoal we can derive from it.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2011, on page 3.

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