I wrote earlier this week about my friend Nizar Hani, Scientific Coordinator for the largest nature reserve in Lebanon. A release by the IUCN dated July 27 quotes him extensively, but the relief I feel for his well-being is tempered by his dismay at the impacts of war on the extraordinary place he and others have worked so hard to conserve.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the Al-Shouf Ceder Nature Reserve. 40% of Reserve income comes from eco-tourism and rural development programs aimed at creating sustainable livelihoods for people living in the area while preserving its resources. The disruption of war has dramatically impacted both, although Nizar says tourism was already on shaky ground with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri last year. Still, they had upwards of 28,000 visitors in 2004 and had high hopes for this year. The war has shattered those hopes.
You can hear the frustration and heart-sickness in his words as Nizar describes the situation at the Reserve after three weeks of War in Lebanon.
“Israeli aircrafts are constantly roving in the sky and they don’t hesitate to shoot at any moving vehicle...(The Reserve) was bombed three times, and the continuous shelling targeting the highways linking Lebanon to Syria is only 100 meters away from the Reserve...People are sometimes desperately running away from the shelling taking shelter anywhere they can especially those who find themselves attacked on the road. Pretty soon we won’t be able to keep the gates closed...The wildlife of the forest is already stressed from direct attacks, the very loud sounds of shelling and military airplanes and the air pollution resulting from the explosions.”
Along with truth, the environment is an early casualty in war. Displaced people are quite rightly concerned about their own survival, the international aid community about humanitarian priorities, and warring forces about their strategic objectives. The cedars of Lebanon are extremely vulnerable to fire and should a forest fire ignite in this chaos there will be little to stop it from spreading.
Community-based conservation is a cumulative process, incremental steps that build a stronger foundation. When the smoke clears and Lebanon stabilizes, Nizar and his colleagues will inventory their losses and begin the process once again of conserving what remains. I yearn for them, and the anguish they feel today at being unable to safeguard the extraordinary environment under their stewardship.