April 26, 2012 01:32 AM
By Stephen Dockery

BEIRUT: To grow a tree in Lebanon’s semi-arid soil, roots must be long and dense, and carefully pre-grown in a nursery so a young seedling can leech the deeply buried nutrients from the ground.

The fragile seedlings must be hardened during a period of drought before being sunk into the dry earth. Once buried, the wild plum, wild apple and juniper trees need to be totally covered with just the right soil mixture, then weeded and watered for months before a young tree has the strength to grow on its own.

For years, one or all of these steps had been neglected by many environmental activists who had more enthusiasm than know-how. Thin and shallow root structures starved the seedlings before they could take root while weeds and overgrowth choked off sunlight to the few that did.

Of the hundreds of thousands of seedlings that were planted over the past 20 years the majority died, says Maya Nehme, a tree growth specialist who works at the USAID-funded Lebanon Reforestation Initiative.

For years, projects run by a number of groups spread out around the country continually yielded underwhelming results.

“It’s less than 25 percent coverage,” Nehme says.

LRI and a handful of other environmental groups are trying to change that. They are determining the best growth conditions for dozens of species of seedlings in a wide range of areas and hope to work with other NGOs to standardize growing practices.

Last year, the American University of Beirut backed a number of reforestation efforts with better practices. Other NGOs have launched better-sourced projects yielding higher results. But the money and energy wasted on low yield projects have been considerable.

Private firms have staged feel-good environmental trips and cedar plantings in the summertime, the worst time for a fragile seedling to try and take root. Other organizations simply didn’t have the funding to finish their projects.

In-country knowledge has also been limited. Until recently, universities did not offer environmental-studies training, and most reforestation workers studied agriculture, which does not address wilderness environments.

On a mountainside in Bsharri, less than a dozen trees have taken root in terraces intended to hold hundreds.

Across the country, hundreds of hectares of land that environmental groups envisioned becoming lush new forests are bald just like in Bsharri.

“In most cases there’s been no follow up,” Nehme says. “Most of the work that has been done, from most groups, has been volunteer work.” She notes the lack of funding and persistence necessary for the work to be successful.

The low success rates have created a backlash from local governments. Municipalities were promised forests and got empty fields. Activists say it’s been difficult to establish projects in some areas because of a lack of trust.

But carefully cataloging the best growth conditions and tending to seedlings is starting to yield results. LRI has planted 88,000 trees so far with a success rate of around 75 percent. They hope to reach nearly 90 percent for the next round of seedlings, planting 300,000 trees in all.

“It still is trial and error,” says Karma Bouazza, a nursery specialist. She adds that the trials and errors are routinized, cataloged and learned from.

The group is standardizing growing practices in partnership with other environmental activist groups across the country and getting nurseries to change the way they handle seedlings to get a more robust seed.

Bouazza says they are looking for the right practices but also ones that are cost-efficient.

The organization has five planting sites currently active, including along the border in the south, in a former Syrian base along the southeast border and near Tannourine in the north.

LRI is also planning on following up on projects for three years after planting to make sure the trees are growing. They are coordinating with local shepherds to move grazing sites away from plantings, as well as paying for irrigation and weeding.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 26, 2012, on page 4.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Local-News/2012/Apr-26/171439-ngo-tackles-wasteful-reforestation-practices.ashx#ixzz1tGvRBbz7
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)