III. THE CEDAR FORESTS OF LEBANON: TORCHES THAT WILL GLOW FOREVER
By Aref Abdul-Baki, Ph.D.
The 1960s and 1970s were two politically rocking decades in Lebanon characterized by unrest and uncertainty for the several Lebanese successive governments and the people alike. Waves of political tension swept all over the country, some originated from within its borders, such as, the conflicts among various religious sects, and problems related to the Palestinian Refugee camps; others were imposed on the country from outside. Just to list a few, the control of Lebanon by Syria, the Iranian interference by supporting the Lebanese Sheiates, the political turmoil in almost every Arab country around Lebanon, and last but not least, the numerous invasions by Israel, the latest of which took place in the summer of 1982.
By the early 1980s, Lebanon found itself divided into several zones of politico-religious influence each being controlled by a religiously political group. In the absence of a national government, each zone created a militia in order to provide protection for citizens within its own political zone of influence. Ashoof and Aley Districts, where Ashoof Forest is located, fell within the political zone of influence of Minister Walid Jumblatt, Head of the Socialist Progressive Party (SPP). Like others, Mr. Jumblatt formed a Provisional Government to oversee the mundane affairs of the citizens within his region.
In June of 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon from two fronts: One, from South Lebanon heading north along the main coastal highway toward Beirut; the other from southwest Bekaa heading westward through the Barouk Cedar Forest to ultimately control the main Beirut-Damascus highway. When the Israeli forces were forced to retreat from Lebanon, the citizens of Ashood and their Provisional Government were anxious to find out how much damage to the Forest was inflicted by the Israelis. In 1983, Mr. Jumblatt asked Dr. Aref Abdul-Baki, a Science Advisor on Agriculture and Environment at the Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research (NCSR) in Beirut, to visit the Barouk Cedar Forest and assess the damage, especially any new damage inflicted on it by the Israeli invasion and report it to him. Dr. Abdul-Baki accepted the assignment, visited the Forest, and presented his observations to Mr. Jumblatt. His report included two major observations: One, the Israelis caused no damage to the Forest during their invasion to Lebanon; the other, the Forest was in its worst condition ever due to a long period of mismanagement before the Israeli invasion. Mature trees of all species were cut down by local residents for use as firewood and handcraft souvenirs. Tens of thousands of small to medium-size trees were severely defoliated by starving goat herds to a height of two meters (the height mature goats can reach from the ground). The Forest floor was also stripped from every green vegetation by overgrazing, and became an easy target to soil erosion especially on the steep slopes. There were absolutely no signs of birds or animals that comprised an essential living component of a healthy forest. And, last but not least, all the young cedar trees that Mr. Fouad Najjar planted in the late 1950s exhibited no signs of growth for the past several years and were destined to die.
Upon hearing the negative report, Mr. Jumblatt asked Dr. Abdul-Baki to work on a plan that would put an end to this rapid decline and save the ONLY forest in Ashoof area. Within a few months, Dr. Abdul-Baki prepared a plan and presented it to him. The main components of this rescue Plan were:
- Absolute prohibition of cutting trees of any species and for any reason.
- Prohibition of grazing by goats and/or any other animals.
- Prohibition of collecting wild flowers and cedar cones.
- Confining barbequing fires to designated areas away from trees.
- Rebuilding walls around old trees where soil erosion and grazing animals destroyed the walls.
- Pruning and mulching hundreds of thousands of trees, fifty years old or younger, many of which were planted by Mr. Najjar in the late 1950s and have been neglected since then.
- Fencing the forest area and establishing two entrances — one from the south end at Maasir Ashoof and the other at the north end at Barouk.
- Building a lake to be fed by the melting snow to irrigate newly planted trees, provide water for birds and animals, and water to put out forest fires.
- Building a Visitor’s Center, toilets, and walking trails to lead visitors to major points of interest with minimum effort.
- Seeding bare areas with forage species of grasses and legumes to provide feed for birds all year round.
- Appointing guards to insure that regulations are adhered to by everyone and at all times.
The estimated cost of the essential parts of the Plan was US$1.2 million. The bulk of the proposed budget was earmarked to cover three major items: (1). Salaries of 800 laborers to work for two summers three months each summer. (2). Daily transportation of laborers from Barouk up to the Forest in the mornings and back to Barouk in the evenings. (3). Money to buy working tools for pruning and mulching young trees, and for repairing damaged walls around some old trees.
After reviewing the Plan, Mr. Jumblatt told Dr. Abdul-Baki “I can help with anything you ask for, except money.” Realizing that Plan A reached a dead end for lack of funding, Dr. Abdul-Baki immediately introduced Plan B, which was much less costly than Plan A, yet it contained all the essential elements listed in Plan A. He requested Mr. Jumblatt’s approval on three major modifications:
One: If Dr. Abdul-Baki could use, as labor, the 800 soldiers of the Socialist Progressive Party (SPP) which Mr. Jumblatt Headed. These soldiers were stationed at a military headquarters in Ain Zhalta and charged with the task of protecting the region from any invasion from outside. The men came from farming backgrounds and were fully acquainted with farm work. They were paid a modest monthly salary and fed daily from a kitchen within the headquarters.
Two: If the above request was approved, could the soldiers camp in the Forest? This modification not only eliminates the time required to transport them daily from Ain Zhalta to the Forest and back, but it will also reduce to minimum the cost of transportation. Camping in the Forest would require tents to sleep 800 people. Dr. Abdul-Baki suggested contacting the FAO/UN office in Beirut to provide the tents – a commodity the UN offices distribute to refugees and people who lost their homes in disasters.
Three: If Dr. Abdul-Baki could solicit some financial support from a few companies that were doing business in Ashoof region at that time in order to buy work equipment, such as, pruning shears, gas chain saws, and so on…. Approval of these three modifications will take away the financial burden from Mr. Jumblatt. He approved all three requests. The UN office donated tents, local companies donated money to buy tools, and the SPP soldiers at Ain Zhalta headquarters became the main labor force to camp at the Forest. Food and water were provided by the headquarters’ kitchen and delivered to the camp site daily on time at no additional cost to the Project. The green light to start the “Project” was turned on and the Borouk Cedar Forest was declared a “Work Camp” for the next three summers.
The first summer (1984) focused on finalizing the work plan, prioritizing the tasks, and collecting information on tree growth at different ages of trees and different locations of the forest, soil erosion, soil type and fertility, major species of beneficial insects, and major diseases. Last but not least, was the need to establish a practical procedure to harvest viable seeds from mature cones, dry and plant them at Hammana Nursery and use later as part of a large scale production program. In accomplishing these tasks, Dr. Abdul-Baki reached out for support from a team of expert Scientists at NCSR. By the end of summer, the information became available. The results of these studies suggested that, by far, the most urgent task was to rescue hundreds of thousands of young trees (ages 5 to 35 years) that stopped growing for many years and were on the verge of death because they were targeted daily by goat herds that defoliated them.
The next two years, were devoted to pruning and mulching these trees. All branches to the height of one meter above ground were removed, chopped into pieces and laid down on the ground under the tree canopy to recycle nutrients, add organic matter and reduce water evaporation from soil. This job required a large number of hands. In the summer of 1985, the work force consisted of the boys and girls scouts of the SPP, college students, and citizens from the region who volunteered because they realized the importance of the Project. They camped for the whole summer in the Forest and made a very significant accomplishment. Yet, there was much more to be done to meet the objectives.
The third summer resulted in a miracle. The 800 young SPP soldiers at the Ain Zhalta headquarters joined the 1985 work force, camped at the Forest and, together with the earlier team, formed the most impressive workforce, in number, skills, and enthusiasm to finish the tasks. They worked all summer long seven days a week from 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM.
The evenings were full of social activities around a camp fire. By the end of the third summer, the major objectives of the Project were met. The crew pruned and mulched about 650,000 cedar trees – ages 5 to 50 years and repaired some damaged walls around old trees where erosion and grazing animals damaged part or all the walls. Needless to say that during the whole Project duration, the Forest was a dynamic working area open only to Project participants and closed to everybody else including tourists. When the project came to an end, the gates were open to visitors but kept all violators outside the newly established boundaries of the Forest.
The writer of this article paid numerous visits to the Forest between 1986 and the present time with the objective of assessing the impact of the Project on growth and health of the trees, re-growth of ground vegetation over the Forest floor and keeping violators and grazing animals away. Two observations were striking: One was the rapid resumption of growth and vigor by the young trees that had been on the way to death before the Project started; the other was the rapid recovery of vegetation over the Forest floor and, in particular, the infinite number of naturally propagated cedar seedlings which would never have had the chance to grow and become trees because they were targeted daily by grazing animals. In summary, Ashoof Forest, which represented the aggregate of three Forests, (Maasir Ashoof, Barouk and Ain Zhalta forests) regained its full strength, vigor and beauty.
The 1984 – 1986 Project was so successful that Mr. Jumblatt pledged to do everything he could to protect the Forest. In 1984, a five – member committee, headed by Mr. Jumblatt himself, submitted a request to the Ministry of Agriculture to recognize officially Ahoof Forest as a National Forest and Reserve. The request was granted. It gave the managing committee the legal stature needed to solicit and accept donations from international organizations that provided support to protect the environment, and from countries friendly to Lebanon.
Improvements by the successive management committees never stopped. Just to mention a few: A Visitors’ Center was built in Maasir Ashoof at the southern entrance; a lake was built through a donation from the Italian Government; visitors now enter the Forest only from two entrances, as the Plan called for; hiking trails were constructed to lead tourists to the most attractive points of interest; and guided tours are offered daily during the open season.
Today, almost thirty years after the Project was completed, Ashoof Cedar Forest can truly be ranked as the largest, healthiest, and most impressive ecological and national resource in Lebanon. Thanks to the loving care and support of Mr. Walid Jumblatt and to the devoted SSP soldiers and scouts, college students, and local residents who devoted two summers of their lives to save the Forest. The writer of this article was very privileged and honored to be chosen to develop the Plan, execute and lead those dynamic and strong participants to accomplish this national task in the most difficult times and with minimum financial resources.
This article is a very special invitation to every reader to visit Ashoof Cedar Forest and share with the citizens of the region its beauty, and the pride in what Lebanon offers.
As for the other Cedar Forests in Lebanon, the environmental awakening of the 21st Century has reached all of them, though in varying degrees. Special appreciation is long overdue to the Maronite Patriarchy for providing protection and care to the “Mother” of all cedar Forests – Bsharre Forest, for over five Centuries. During the past fifteen years, and under the management of its various able committees, Bsharre Cedar Forest had witnessed great improvements that extended beyond daily care for the oldest trees in the world, to initiating pest control programs, and planting over a quarter of a million cedar trees in an area of over 800 hectares. In addition, a pool was built to provide water for irrigating newly planted trees in a new area that serves as an extension to the old Forest.
Let us all thank God for choosing Lebanon as the home for the cedar tree and for designating all of us as its custodians. Let us prove that we are worthy of this honor.