The Lebanese cedar, under threat. Solutions

The Lebanese cedar (Cedrus libani) is one of the most important and significant tree species. Its symbolism can be traced to the important role it plays in the country’s iconography. The cedar is Lebanon’s emblem, it occupies a central position in the country’s flag, and it is frequently used as an identitary element. Nonetheless, its importance is broader than that. It is also a millennial species, one of the first ones cited in works and literary registers, whose existence dates back more than 4,500 years. Its beauty is cited in the Bible, and its wood has been used by many different civilizations on their constructions, such as the Sumerian, Egyptian, Phoenician, and even the Ottoman Empire, which used its trunks to build its railway system. So much so that its forests were known as the “Cedars of God”, and its wood was used by king Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem.

For a long time, these huge forests of cedars have characterized Lebanon’s green color and the nature of the country. However, on the last decades, its extension has been decimated by the constant action of men and the increasing impact of climate change. The forests that used to cover miles of square kilometers have succumbed to deforestation and, nowadays, they barely cover the country’s mountain areas.

Among the elements responsible for this deterioration, from the continued action of human beings to the impact of socio-economical developments on the Mediterranean, we must add the strong impact of climate change and the fast worsening of the environment it’s leading to: a rise in greenhouse effect, an intensification of climate conditions and environmental phenomena, and water scarcity. A few months ago, the New York Times pointed out that if global warming continued at this rate, by 2100 the Lebanese cedars would only continue growing in the North of the country, where the mountains are higher.

A consequence of these factors was the effect of the Cephalcia tannourinensis, an insect discovered in 1998, whose larva feed of new cedar sprouts. At the time of its discovery, at the end of the 20th century, an 80% of the Tannourine Cedar forest nature reserve was infected, and a 7% of its cedar trees were dead. This threat and sudden action was directly linked to global warming and a change in this insect’s life cycle, which, until that moment, hadn’t affected the growing of cedar trees. Its impact has been reversed due to the joint action of FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), the Lebanese government and the American University of Beirut.

This threat has generated a strong response from the country’s NGOs, the Lebanese authorities, and the private sector, overcoming ethnic and religious differences and uniting society in a common front for the fight against deforestation. Their initiatives have been aimed at the preservation of cedar trees and the reforestation of its forests. Unfortunately, in spite of this, this is not an easy task, due to this kind of trees’ slow growth.

Initiatives promoted

Three private and public initiatives have managed to make a positive mark on this problem. The most important one if the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI), launched by the United States Forest Service and financed by the US Agency for International Development. This initiative has promoted a set of tools for the prevention of fires and the reforestation of the damaged forests, while promoting social awareness, rural economic development, and a rapprochement of the country’s ethnic and religious communities. In the last seven years, more than 600,000 cedar trees have been planted. In this same line, the Agriculture Minister of Lebanon, in collaboration with FAO, announced a new reforestation plan in 2014, with the purpose of planting 40 million trees in the country, among them, many cedar trees.

Also very successful was the “Adopt a Cedar Tree” campaign, a social initiative for planting cedar trees, which has managed to involve more than 3,500 people. This project focused on the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve, located in the center of the country, and home of more than 32 species of wild animals, some of them at risk of extinction, such as wolves or wild cats.

This nature reserve, the biggest of Lebanon, has also been the target of the de “Byblos bank – Shouf Biosphere Reserve, Bio – Corridor, Reforestation Initiative”, a social work by the Lebanese bank Byblos that aims at creating a bio-corridor of cedar trees across the reserve. This pioneer project, launched in collaboration with the local authorities and Al-Shouf Nature Reserve administration has managed to reforest, so far, 47 hectares.

Even though there is still a lot of work to do in order to end this threat –a tangible reflection of the dangers of climate change–, the efforts highlighted throughout the article and the initial success achieved are a clear example of the need and importance of raising a political and social awareness on the importance of environmental issues.

Alfonso Casani – FUNCI

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