Lebanon is one of the most forested countries in the Middle East, especially known for its cedar tree, which is featured on the national flag. Human activities such as harvesting trees for fuel wood, clearing land for urban and agricultural development, livestock grazing, and wildland fires have decreased Lebanon’s forest cover by more than 20 percent since 1960. This has left the country with approximately 13 percent forest cover.
“There are many towns in Lebanon that have extensive barren lands,” explains Dr. Maya Nehme, director of the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI). “Natural regeneration hasn’t been happening there because of the biological conditions, exposure to the sun, the condition of the land, overgrazing and other factors.”
That loss of natural forest cover has led to the common repercussions of soil erosion and loss of water quality and quantity, as well as leaving communities more vulnerable to climate change.
Started in 2010 as a $19.6 million partnership between USAID and the U.S. Forest Service, LRI’s goal is to promote long-term sustainable reforestation and forest management in the country. By planting more than 770,000 native trees on more than 1,000 hectares of land across the country, it is the largest contributor by far to the national 40 Million Tree Campaign launched by the Lebanese government in 2012.
The project uses a scientific approach to its reforestation work, carefully selecting areas that could in the future act as natural corridors to increase connectivity between remaining forests and LRI’s newly forested areas, making them more biologically viable. “We’re trying to ensure that when we’re planting, we’re actually ensuring their survival,” says Nehme. “We know how to monitor those seedlings, we know why we’re planting them there, the species we’re planting, and how we’re going to develop them in the long term.” As a result, seedlings planted by LRI teams have a 70-90 percent survival rate, well above the previous 25 percent average. In addition, the project introduced a new approach for wildfire management to communities with high risk of forest fires.
The first phase of the program, which ran from 2010 to 2015, focused on improving production standards and developing an infrastructure of nurseries capable of supplying the more than 40 species of native trees that LRI uses in its planting campaigns. “We ended up stitching together a network of nurseries,” says Kathleen Sheridan, Africa and Middle East program coordinator at the U.S. Forest Service. “They are now a cooperative that is supplying most of the seedlings used in the government’s 40 Million Tree Campaign.”
The other major task in LRI’s first phase was to help establish community natural resource committees, who help plan, implement, monitor and maintain the planted sites. Once potential sites had been identified, the LRI team approached the local municipalities to develop and sign an agreement outlining both LRI’s and the community’s responsibilities in the process. “Ultimately, we’re going to help get these trees in the ground,” says Sheridan, “but they’re going to need to monitor and protect them from grazing and everything else for years to come.”
With sustainability in mind, a critical part of the second phase (2015-2018) has been registering LRI as an independent NGO with the Lebanese government. An agreement was signed between the U.S. Forest Service and LRI-NGO to further establish the organization as the in-country partner of this activity. In 2016, LRI NGO began receiving grants (more than $6 million to date) from other donors, including UNDP, WFP and FAO in addition to USAID. “We’re so proud of the fact that they’re an independent and highly successful NGO, valued as both a technical resource and a neutral convener across Lebanon,” says Sheridan. “They are playing a critical role to bring sound science to the community level for sustainable reforestation efforts.”
Reforestation campaigns also improve local governance and community dialogue. As they developed the reforestation corridor concept, the LRI team realized that they would need to collaborate with all the communities along those corridors and make sure they jointly set the strategic plan of their corridor and work together. “We found the need to bring communities together,” explains Sheridan. “And also the benefit of using trees as a way to bring communities together, which in Lebanon, with its stark sectarian divides can be challenging.” LRI provided leadership and conflict resolution training for members of three corridor planning committees, including diverse communities that otherwise have few interactions.
It is this sort of collaboration that will likely lead to LRI’s long-term success. “Everybody wants to work with us because they can see the sustainability of the actions that we’ve been doing,” says Nehme. “Everybody’s engaged and everybody is walking with us on the same steps and wanting to get to the same goal with us. And that gives us hope to actually get to that goal because, obviously, alone we’re not going to be able to make it.
Christine Chumbler is a communications professional with more than 20 years experience in writing, editing, and publications design. She has expertise in every stage of publication production, from concept and writing to editing, design, and printing. In the mid-1990s, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. This experience led to a career using her writing and editorial skills with international development and foreign policy organizations, many of which worked to directly support USAID’s efforts. She has worked in a freelance capacity full-time since May 2016. Chumbler has a Master’s in journalism from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in environmental studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz.