Ghinwa Obeid| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: There was a time when Lebanon was well-known for its green spaces, but over time, high-rises have taken the place of gardens at an alarming rate, according to the Agriculture Ministry, which launched a project Monday to reverse the disappearance of the country’s forests.

The ministry announced its revival of a plan to plant 40 million trees across Lebanon, after Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb met with the administrative committee tasked to oversee the project.

Green spaces currently make up about 11-13 percent of the country, according to Chehayeb. The project, with its stated aim of increasing total green space in Lebanon to 20 percent, marks the largest reforestation attempt yet in the country.

The minister singled out illegal logging on a grand scale as the driving factor behind the deforestation in Lebanon.

“Despite the charging of numerous ‘forest criminals’ by the Lebanese judiciary, the crime is still an ongoing issue,” Chehayeb said.

The planting project is a local and international collaboration, which will also see the public and private sectors working together.

The committee, which is headed by the minister, was appointed by the Cabinet and includes representatives from the government, the private sector and NGOs, as well as a number of academics.

“The project was thought up two years ago, but has only now been launched,” said Nabil Boughanem, the minister’s media adviser.

“Maps and other information provided by municipalities will help us determine the areas suitable for planting,” he added.

At the moment, work on the project is focused on determining which public and municipal areas are best suited for planting. Boughanem stressed that private spaces would be incorporated too, but at a later stage.

“We have begun working on defining a set of land areas [suitable for forestation]. From now until the end of November we will identify more spaces so that we can start the reforestation process in December,” Boughanem said.

“The committee will start its work in November,” Chehayeb said. “The committee will launch the project road map on Dec. 10 at the governmental palace during a national conference to celebrate Tree Day.”

“What’s more important than planting is [providing necessary] care and following-up [on reforestation],” added Boughanem, who said the project would be implemented by a unit from the ministry.

“[The unit] is responsible for monitoring and following up on the project’s implementation, in collaboration with municipalities, organizations and clubs,” he said.

An environmental expert explained that the ministry’s project would certainly face setbacks.

“Are we going to find the space required to plant these 40 million trees? Are we going to be able to protect these lands from grazing [by farmers]?” asked Hisham Salman, nature conservation program coordinator at the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation.

Salman explained that the areas suitable for forestation were located between 300-1200 meters above sea level. “There is suitable government land located between 1,500-2,500 meters [above sea level], but grazing is a problem [in these areas],” he said.

Salman said finding the funding to finance the project would also be a problem.

“Forestation is very expensive,” he said. “Planting, taking care and protecting each plant costs $8-$10. With this in mind, it’s impossible to plant 40 million trees.”

Chehayeb said the project had yet to receive the necessary funding.

“A chunk of the funding is not available yet, but international organizations and donor states are ready to add funds to the state budget and that of the Agriculture Ministry to ensure the necessary funding for this project,” he said.

But Salman isn’t quite convinced. Increasing green spaces in Lebanon requires a thought-through strategy, he said.

Among the things that need to be taken into consideration, he said, are: “determining the lands to be planted, working on a mechanism with municipalities to protect these lands and to prevent shepherds from entering, finding a means to finance the project and focusing on plants that don’t require much care and hence don’t require much money.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2014, on page 4.

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