AINATA/MEQNE, Lebanon: One hundred years ago this hill at the foot of Mount Makmel in northern Lebanon was covered in vineyards. But continuous rural to urban migration in the years since left the vines untended, and the trees died.
The hill was left bare. Ainata, the adjacent village, is one of the highest in Lebanon, located at 1,620 meters above sea level. At this time of year it is covered in a thick layer of snow. Invisible now, underneath this white blanket lie some 25,000 young saplings – cedars, oaks, wild almonds and wild pear – all planted last year.
Dormant for the winter, these young trees will breathe new life into the landscape of the mountain region, and help the government achieve its rather ambitious target of 20 percent national forest coverage by 2020.
Lebanon currently has 13 percent forest coverage, a number which has fallen from 30 percent in 1980.
Over recent years the government has given greater attention to the issue of reforestation, one which not only improves the landscape and honors the heritage of the country, but also helps reduce the dangerous effects of climate change.
One non-governmental organization working to reforest Lebanon is the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, which is active within every governorate in the country.
With an initial lifespan of four years, the $12 million program – funded by USAID and carried out in conjunction with local partner NGOs – works with reforestation and wildfire prevention.
In Ainata, the 2011 planting season, which falls in the autumn, saw around 25 local young residents working to repopulate their mountain with trees.
The steep hill made for arduous work, but each worker – men and women aged from 18 to 27 – planted around 40-50 seedlings each day.
The project came at a crucial time, said Johnpaul Hawa from the Center for Development, Democracy and Governance – LRI’s NGO partner in Ainata – as many families had been losing income normally gained from their apple crops, due to the loss of their main market, Syria.
At a meeting this week to discuss future cooperation, the Ainata mayor, Fawzi Rahme, thanked the U.S. and the American people for the aid which made the project possible.
“Many people dream of seeing the mountain green again,” Rahme said.
The workers also took great pride in their work, Hawa said: “We started with just 15 people, but word soon spread and we soon had 25 workers.
“This is their childrens’ land.”
On top of providing employment opportunities and regreening the land, the LRI project is also designed to involve the local community as much as possible, and to foster links between different areas.
Thanking the Ainata mayor for his commitment to the project, Richard Paton, project director at LRI, said that “The success of the program rests on the support of the community, and there is a strong sense of community here.”
He also stressed another stated aim of the LRI is “to show the linkage between reforestation projects and allowing the community to protect their lands.”
Last year, the LRI coordinated a planting day between the two communities of Kfar Zabad and Anjar in the Bekaa. Workers from the latter joined those in Kfar Zabad, where they worked alongside each other, before all going to Anjar for lunch.
“We want to link different communities and take into consideration their differences. When it comes to nature people tend not to argue,”said Joyce Bejjani, development and communications specialist at LRI.
This week, the mayors of Ainata and Maqne agreed to take part in the next such day. While Ainata is Christian and Maqne Shiite, the differences under the soil are what really make these days interesting.
While hilly Ainata is used to snow and rainfall, Maqne is flat, dry and arid, and here wild pines and oak saplings have been planted. Planting days thus allow workers from different communities to discuss these environmental nuances, the trees and crops they grow, and the various methods they use to do so.
LRI is also working alongside nine nurseries across the country, and introducing techniques from the U.S. Forest Service. At the Koroum nursery in Deir Al-Amar, where the LRI introduced a new system of growing seedlings, owner Georges Fakhry said he would never return to his previous method.
These nine nurseries have now applied to become a cooperative, which would allow them to purchase in bulk, and to share equipment.
Given approval, and with their new methods of planting, the target for reforesting Lebanon may slowly becoming more of a tangible possibility.