There’s more to Lebanese trees than cedars, but they’re not a bad place to start. So says conservationist Arbi Sarkissian, who marked Mother Earth Day by leading a team of volunteers over the weekend on a muddy trip to plant seeds, build an irrigation system and replant dozens of baby Lebanese cedar trees at the American University of Beirut’s farm in the Bekaa Valley.
Sarkissian, the outreach project manager at the university’s Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures (known as IBSAR), and Catherine Salzinger of the conservation charity Michelle’s Earth Foundation, left the smog of Beirut on March 20 with a bus full of seed-planters they mustered from AUB and the community for the university’s farm.
The farm, known as AREC, is the site of an IBSAR project, which cultivates trees native to Lebanon and plants them within communities. It was with this project that the amateur spade-wielders were helping, and by the end of Saturday nearly 3,000 seeds had been planted, and, crucially for the organizers, awareness of the work of IBSAR had been raised.
But both Sarkissian and representatives of the farm were keen to emphasize the many dimensions of environmentalism in Lebanon. Politics and patriotism both elbow their way into discussions of trees. For example, the volunteers who spent Saturday helping on the farm may have felt a certain patriotic pride in planting Lebanon’s iconic cedars, of which there are only a few hundred left. But they are just one of many native species of Lebanese trees that need conserving and propagating.
“When I first came out here [to Lebanon],” said Sarkissian, “I wanted to preserve the cedars, and Dr. Salma Talhouk, the director of IBSAR, has studied everything to do with cedars.” But, he went on, “she felt that there was so much focus on this one tree… that has just taken the limelight because there is a patriotic value to it. So we are trying to encourage diversity.” IBSAR is now cultivating 30 tree species native to Lebanon, including 18 only found here.
Catherine Salzinger, who volunteers with Michelle's Earth Foundation and helped to organize the event
It is vital to encourage these species in places like the Bekaa area particularly, as water resources become more of a problem. Lamiece Jamil, a landscape design student working on projects at AREC explained that “the water table has gone down because of over-exploitation,” and as residents have dug deeper and deeper wells, the ground water in the region has been eliminated. “Native species are very important,” she said, “because they are adapted to this kind of weather. They do not need irrigation.” Environment Minister Antoine Karam expressed similar views during a recent interview with NOW Lebanon.
The political aspect becomes apparent when talking to Rami Zurayk. People are, to this professor of Ecosystem Management at AUB, inseparable from plants. Zurayk was overseeing events at AREC and said that if the volunteers were to take one thing away from their day at the farm, it is that, “AUB is a place that feels very strongly that it has a social responsibility. It is not only a teaching institution; it also contributes to human wellbeing… Today we have planted seeds,” he said, “literally and figuratively.” He explained that the trees cultivated on the project are used in joint projects with municipalities in which communities agreed to look after trees in exchange for some green space in their village. This was important because, although environmental awareness is increasing in Lebanon, “environmental concerns alone do not create a country… Environmental justice is part of social justice. We cannot create large green spaces that are not available to everyone.”
For lots of reasons to do with business and warfare, Zurayk said, “there are so many things in Lebanon that don't offer a long-term reward. But here we invest in the long term, rather than going after a quick buck. Because we can afford to do it, this is what we should do.”
The figurative seeds seemed to be germinating already on the bus back to Beirut. AUB freshman Tara Fischbach, suitably dusted with compost said, "I was interested in the environment before, but it really drives the point home that the environment is being depleted and it takes a lot of work to grow it back."