November 26, 2011 01:03 AM
By Rakan al-Fakih

HERMEL, Lebanon: With the beginning of winter, residents of villages and towns in northern Bekaa, many of whom are unable to afford fuel, are turning to wood from the area’s forests. While burning firewood is the only option for many to stay warm, the practice is driving deforestation and striking a blow to local conservation efforts.

With over 35 percent of the region’s families living below the poverty line, many residents don’t have the financial resources to buy fuel, especially as each family needs an average of 10 barrels, or 200 liters, of heating oil during the winter season, at a cost of around LL1 million a month, double the minimum wage.

As a result, residents are chopping down trees in the forests around the city of Hermel and the area’s villages, which already register the highest percentage of desertification in Lebanon.

Ali Hajj Hussein, a firewood dealer, said that selling firewood has become his permanent profession in the last three years as the majority of the area’s residents, regardless of their economic status, have begun using firewood for heating.

He blamed the switch on the significant rise in the cost of fossil fuels, especially diesel.

According to Hajj Hussein, “the poorest of the poor” secure their need by gathering fallen branches in orchards and fields and at the edges of the area’s forests or by buying them from the owners of the fields for LL150,000 to LL200,000 a ton.

Some residents also use motor oil residue, which burns for longer periods than diesel, despite the danger it poses to their health.

Others use olive pits by squeezing them into the form of small pieces of wood and drying them. The demand for this kind of fuel has increased as it is easy to use and burns for a long time. It is sold for LL250,000 and LL350,000 a ton and is available in large quantities due to vast olive orchards in the area.

More affluent residents are able to afford quality firewood, such as oak or fir, which is cut into pieces ranging between 20 and 25 centimeters in length for a regular heater and 50 centimeters for a fireplace and sold for LL450,000 a ton, according to Hajj Hussein.

But such activity is threatening the cedar, fir and cypress forests in the mountains of Hermel, Akkar and Dinnieh and, according to environmental activists, several ecotourism projects are now also under threat due to wanton cutting.

Salem Hmeidan, an environmental activist with a local youth organization, said that economic deprivation was driving deforestation in the area.

According to Hmeidan, poor conditions in the agriculture sector, which constitutes the main source of income for Hermel’s residents, as well as the government’s decision to destroy all illegal marijuana plantations in the region’s mountains without providing a substitute alternative crop, is prompting residents to chop down trees and sell their wood for heating or transform it into charcoal.

In addition to logging, Hmeidan said that mining activities in the mountains are also a threat to the forests.

Hussein Allaw, the owner of ecotourism resort Al-Jord and an environmental activist, emphasized the need to establish a comprehensive development plan to allow residents, especially farmers, to secure basic necessities.

He called on local authorities to provide residents of valleys and mountains with fuel they can use for heating instead of firewood and emphasized the municipality’s crucial role in preserving the region’s forests.

Allaw suggested that the municipality oblige anyone with a building license to plant a group of trees in the mountains, in an effort to reforest the area.

For his part, Mofleh Allaw, a municipal council member in Hermel and the head of the municipality’s environmental committee, argued that deforestation in the area has reached a very dangerous level due to lack of initiative from the government – but it’s an issue that dates back to the country’s independence.

He suggested reforestation take place in the plains and mountains of the Hermel region, as it would only involve planting tree seedlings which could grow on their own with the help of the area’s soil and high rainfall levels.

He also called for transforming the region into a large natural reserve with wide-open spaces for ecotourism activities to provide a source of income for residents and for increasing cooperation between the municipality and organizations that care for the environment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 26, 2011, on page 3.

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