BEIRUT: The cedar at the center of Lebanon’s national flag may indicate a country filled with luscious forests, and while that once was the case, the symbolic tree belies the toll that decades of mismanagement, conflict and urban development have taken on the landscape.
And it’s not just the cedar forests which have suffered, but all native species, from pine to oak and wild almond and fir, among others. In 1980, forests covered 30 percent of the entire country, but by 2011 this figure had fallen to just 13 percent.
In 2010, the Agriculture Ministry set the rather daunting target of achieving 20 percent forest coverage by 2020, which would represent the addition of some 2 million trees each year.
There are various organizations working alongside the ministry to develop Lebanon’s forests, but is this 20 percent target achievable?
“The campaign to reach 20 percent forest cover is clearly an ambitious goal,” says Richard Paton, project director for the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, an organization funded by the U.S. development agency and created in 2010 to help the country reach this target.
Commending the recognition which the government has awarded the issue of reforestation, Paton believes the success of this “laudable reforestation goal” rests on the ability of the government to ensure critical financing.
“Mechanisms must be identified to attract longer-term funding – from the public and private sectors as well as from varied bilateral donor sources – that can finance future reforestation efforts and provide ongoing technical support,” he says.
More effective coordination between the myriad reforestation efforts is also needed, Paton says, if the country is to reach this goal, as is greater work on the sustainability of such programs.
Elias Chnais, program assistant at the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, a non-governmental organization which worked alongside the government to create a National Forest Program, echoes this sentiment.
Important work is being undertaken to ensure the success of the various reforestation initiatives, but “more efforts are needed to set specific reforestation standards and priority areas as well as to avoid duplication of efforts,” Chnais says.
It is essential, he says, for the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment to work together, alongside local municipalities, NGOs and donors to ensure cohesive reforestation is realized.
Chnais is not overly confident that the 2020 target will be met, labeling it a “huge task to accomplish.”
If the current reforestation standards continue to be applied, without being developed and updated, “I believe it will take more time and money to achieve this target,” he says, and that the same areas will need to be reforested time and time again, until the young trees survive at an acceptable rate.
Chnais also questions the 20 percent target itself. “Instead of spending so much time and effort to reach the supposedly ideal forest cover, why not allocate as much effort to better manage our existing forests and woodlands?” Chnais asks.
If the target can indeed be met, he also questions, “If we are not able to protect the forests we have now, will we be more efficient when this percentage increases significantly?”
While Paton admits that other obstacles to reforestation exist, such as, “adequate resource mobilization, greater administrative coordination, and effective responses to the ongoing threats of wildfires will continue,” he is optimistic about the LRI achievements to date.
One of the biggest challenges involved in reforestation efforts in the past has been the survival rates for new seedlings, historically hovering at around 25 percent, Paton says.
But after just one year of growing efforts, which has seen LRI plant more than 200,000 native tree seedlings, the organization is seeing survivability rates of between 60 and 80 percent at its reforestation sites around the country.
The LRI’s forestry specialists are, Paton says, “confident that the survivability rates will increase significantly country-wide as nurseries and reforestation groups continue to perfect the new approaches to seedling production and planting.”
Benefitting from over 100 years of experience of the U.S. Forest Service, the LRI has introduced new growing technologies which promote the development of long-rooted seedlings, “that are well adapted to the harsh growing conditions of the region,” Paton adds.
The organization is also working to create forest mapping applications, which, once completed, will be made freely available online, allowing all those involved in reforestation efforts in Lebanon to “help coordinate the future selection of priority reforestation areas,” he adds, and to enable better monitoring of the different programs, which should help increase long term survivability, “one of the deficiencies of current reforestation efforts in Lebanon and elsewhere.”
Regardless of individual successes in re-greening Lebanon, Paton, like Chnais, stresses that a long-term policy is essential.
“Reforestation is by its nature a long-term effort; early successes in planting and nurturing tree growth must be complemented by longer-term financing, coordination, and technical assistance mechanisms.”