ASHOOF CEDAR FORESTS: A BRIEF RISE THEN A LONG FALL (II)
In an earlier article titled “The Wounded Cedar Forests of Lebanon”, I presented to our readers a general and condensed historical review of the Cedar Forests covering several millennia and ending by the end of War World II in 1945. The overall picture of the forests during this long stretch of time was gloomy – being characterized by endless exploitations by foreign invaders who cut the trees to build majestic structures such as, palaces, temples, churches, and warships, that would reflect power and prosperity on their regimes. The aggressive depletion of the forests resulted in irreversible damage and culminated in significant shrinkage of the forest size and decline in growth and health of the surviving trees.
By 1943, foreign invasions to Lebanon came to a halt and the country became a self-governed democracy. The newly elected government had to face the overwhelming task of taking care of the most pressing issues relevant to the security of the land, the people, and the natural resources. The Cedar Forests were not among the “top priorities”, and taking care of them had to wait a little longer. The new Constitution was drafted and approved. It designated the Ministry of Agriculture and the local municipality of the village where the cedar forest was located, as the “Joint Custodians”. Bsharre Forest was an exception. It had been in good hands under the guardianship of the Maronite Patriarchy since 1554. The new joint custody did not offer any additional protection to the forests from before. Old violations were re-introduced, and the conditions of the forests continued to decline.
In this article, I shall review briefly the issues that hindered, or even blocked, any progress by the new joint management using Ashoof Cedar Forest as a representative forest management model for all the cedar forests of Lebanon.
Ashoof Cedar Forest is an aggregate of three well-defined, yet connected forests covering an area of 550 square kilometers (50 km long by 11 km wide). Its elevation ranges from one thousand to two thousand meters above sea level. The three forests that comprise this aggregate, from north to south, are: Bmohray-Ain Zhalta Forest, Barouk Forest, and Maaser Ashoof Forest. Each forest carries the name of the town/village in whose “Kharaj” the forest is located. The “Kharaj” is the official boundary that separates the adjacent villages, established for taxation purposes. The land occupied by the forest within the “Kharaj” is classified as “the village Mashaa”, i.e., the land and forests collectively, are common property belonging to everybody in the village. The implication is “for everybody to use properly but not to abuse”. The Barouk Forest is the largest of the three, and comprises 77% of the aggregate forest area. Maaser Ashoof Forest is the smallest.
The new joint custody failed to offer even the least protection to the forest. The first custodian, the Ministry of Agriculture, located in Beirut, was far from observing the daily violations. The second custodian, the local municipality officials, was aware of every violation. In fact, they were the major violators. The simple reason was that the forest offered several basic needs for every individual in the village, including the municipal officers. These needs included firewood for heating up their homes in winter, grazing grounds for their goats – a major source of milk and meat for the families, and recreational areas for hiking, picnicking and hunting.
The neighboring villagers justified leaning heavily on “their” forest based on the following reasoning. One: The vast mountain slopes around them were bare and offered no firewood or grazing grounds. Two: The majority of the villagers were poor and could neither afford the modern, expensive alternatives to heat their homes nor buy feed for their goats. And, of course, the forest belongs to them. So, why not make use of it?
What made the problem more complex was the high unplanned increase in population and an alarming unemployment rate in these villages. Consequently, a concomitant increase in their need for firewood and grazing areas was expected. Unless this heavy demand for firewood and grazing grounds is met by initiating new forestation programs, the surviving trees will soon be depleted. Unfortunately, up to the mid – 1950s, no forestation plans were seen on the horizon while the existing forest followed the path of decline.
In 1958, Mr. Fouad Chehab was sworn a President of the Lebanese Republic. He was energetic and eager to move the country forward. A new Cabinet of Ministers was formed and Mr. Fouad Najjar, a graduate of “École Nationale Suppérieure Agronomique de Montpellieur, France”, was appointed to the Ministry of Agriculture. Mr. Najjar, a son of Mount Lebanon region, knew Ashoof area and its Cedar Forest since he was a child, and was well aware of its major problems. He believed in forestation programs that would introduce genetic diversity to the new forests. His ambitious plan was to connect all the forests along the western slopes of Mount Lebanon Range to form one forest by planting the bare slopes between the existing ones. He prepared a Master Plan that would start with the Barouk Forest. The first phase of his plan was to expand the existing Barouk Forest by planting tens of thousands of cedar trees next to the old stand.
Minister Najjar presented his plan to the President and the Cabinet of Ministers. They viewed it favorably. However, funds were not available due to budget limitations. Through his genius, he modified the plan to cut down expenses as follows:
- An extension to the old road was needed to enable labor, machinery, plants, and water reach the newly designated planting sites. The road was a number one priority. Mr. Najjar sought the help of the Director of the Green Plan “Al-Mashroo Al-Akhdar”, a project within the Ministry of Agriculture dedicated to extend roads to rural agricultural areas to improve agricultural productivity. The road was built as requested and paid for by the Green Plan.
- Planting the cedar seeds and taking care of the seedlings in the greenhouses for two years before transferring to the forest site was the next step. Mr. Najjar assigned this job to the Forestry Department, within the Ministry of Agriculture. Those employees were capable of doing that task and producing tens of thousands of cedar seedlings, using greenhouses belonging to, and operated by, the Ministry of Agriculture. Being the Minister of Agriculture, this operation was within the domain of his authority. So, it was accomplished with minimal hardship.
- Digging holes for the new trees and watering them during the first two summers after transplanting was also a job the Ministry of Agriculture personnel could do. Once again, it was assigned to them and accomplished at no additional cost to the government.
- The only costly job left, one that needed large number of hands, was planting the trees in the site. Mr. Najjar thought: Who would be more deserving of the honor of planting the nation’s “Cedar trees” than the new young Lebanese Army? He requested the approval of the President and the Minister of Defense to have the army do the planting, and he got it. The young army accomplished the planting within five years by working four weekends during the month of May every year. The project was started, as planned, in 1958 and completed in 1962. Tens of thousands of cedar trees were added to the Barouk Forest at a very modest cost to the Lebanese Government. Mr. Najjar’s project now ranks as the first project in modern times that gave life to Ashoof Cedar Forest.
In 1964, Mr. Fouad Najjar’s mandate as a Minister of Agriculture ended. His big dream to forest the whole Mount Lebanon Range ended prematurely and was never extended to the other cedar forests. Soon, the old destructive violations in Ashoof Forest were resumed and the commitment to water the newly planted trees for two years after planting was not honored. Once again, the newly planted cedar trees became the main source of feed for goat herds. Their growth ceased due to severe defoliation. Ashoof Cedar Forest plunged into a long dark period of decline and the great effort of Mr. Najjar was sadly forgotten by most of the people but not by Ashoof Cedar Forest.
Will Ashoof Cedar Forest have a second chance to see the dawn again?
By Aref Abdul-Baki, Ph.D.
NB:In the next article, I shall cover events that gave rebirth to a new Cedar Ashoof Forest and Reserve as well as to a new awakening to rescue the other Cedar Forests of Lebanon.