BEIRUT: Canada without the maple leaf. The United States without the bald eagle. More than mere symbols, they are so much a part of those nations’ identity that their extinction would be considered a national catastrophe. But that could be the fate of the cedar of Lebanon, as deforestation and global warming threatens to wipe out the iconic tree which is depicted on the national flag and has been linked to the country for thousands of years.
The cedar is a symbol of durability and steadfastness that cuts across Lebanon’s religious communities. Its image is shared by the national airline, government agencies, the Lebanese currency and innumerable commercial logos.
Many Lebanese speak almost reverently of the cedar and what it means to the country.
“The loss of the tree would be a tragedy to the Lebanese citizens,” says Rami Sleiman, a student at the American University of Science and Technology. “It is a symbol that gives us a national identity and unites us – much needed in an otherwise divided country.”
The cedar has withstood past threats. It was nearly wiped out through deforestation several times thousands of years ago, first as the wood of choice for Phoenician merchant boats, later for Roman war ships.
Strong, light and sturdy, it was used to erect the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in 964 B.C. The ancient Egyptians used the resin of the tree in the mummification process, and Hebrew priests used the bark of the Lebanese cedar in circumcision ceremonies and the treatment of leprosy.
But it has never been as endangered as now.
The tree relies on plentiful snowfall in the mountain regions, covering 16 percent of Lebanon. Global warning has meant less snow in its natural habitat, forcing the cedar to migrate to higher altitudes. There, the tree faces colder and drier climates and risks drying out.
The cedars, once abundant in the country, now only cover some 2,000 hectares of land, huddled together in about a dozen high-altitude locations.
Awareness campaigns funded by the government and Lebanese corporations have pointed to the threat facing the cedar for decades. But environmental conservation, often highlighted during events like Tuesday’s World Environment Day, has had to compete with pressing political and economic issues.
“Lebanon has other priorities and other, more urgent problems,” says Kamal Abou Assi, communication officer of the Chouf Cedar Reserve, which is at the center of government-led reforestation efforts.
“But we are trying our best, with the means available to us, to fight for our cause,” he adds.
The Lebanese cedar is now listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “Red List.”
The world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization categorizes it as a “heavily threatened” species, due to global warming and extensive deforestation.
“We need Lebanese people to be more aware of the importance of the cedar tree, and the importance of biodiversity and how much we are losing everyday,” says Elias Mdawar of Cedars Forever, an organization dedicated to saving the tree.
The government has been active since the effects of global warning and historical deforestation started becoming visible.
The Agriculture Ministry has led reforestation campaigns at the Chouf, Ehden and Tannourine nature reserves with tangible results that counter illegal cedar harvests, even if they cannot reverse the effects of global warming and the tree’s upward migration.
Abou Assi, of the Chouf reserve, says not all are indifferent to the cedar’s plight.
“Local stakeholders such as guesthouses, restaurant owners and local guides understand that the conservation of the cedar forests and the reserve function as means of protecting their source of income for themselves and their families,” he notes.
However, campaigns seem to have had difficulty in gaining momentum and raising public awareness of the threat to the dwindling cedar forests – Lebanon’s natural national heritage.
When Cedars Forever was established 11 years ago, there was widespread public support, says Mdawar. But enthusiasm has waned.
“We make ads, we have a website, [we are] advertising through putting awareness posters up in the different Liban Post branches, but I don’t think it’s doing much” Mdawar acknowledges. Sadly, he appears to be right.
“I didn’t even know they are endangered,” says Sleiman, the university student. “I really had no idea.”