- The Shouf Biosphere Reserve is a living laboratory experimenting with degraded ecosystem recovery in ways that also boost the well-being of the human communities living there.
- Previous conservation efforts in the area involved using land mines and armed guards to stem illegal logging and reduce fire risk.
- Today, the reserve builds local skills and creates jobs in a bid to help the local community through Lebanon’s severe economic crisis.
- Managers are also employing adaptive techniques to build resilience in this climate change-hit landscape.
SHOUF BIOSPHERE RESERVE, Lebanon — Late afternoon light falls across Talal Riman’s weathered face as he stands under the ancient cedars he’s tended for almost three decades in Lebanon’s Shouf Biosphere Reserve (SBR). Riman used to defend these trees against would-be loggers and human-caused forest fires with a pump-action shotgun. Now, the SBR team protects what’s left of Lebanon’s iconic cedars and the surrounding landscape with community engagement and a new generation of sustainability-savvy conservationists.
“I did my part, but these days it’s good to make room for a new, educated generation,” the 64-year-old, who picked up his first retirement check just the day before, says as he smiles at Farid Tarabay, 19, the new forest guide taking his place.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserves around the world put innovative landscape restoration and conservation interventions to the test, exploring how to recover degraded ecological systems in ways that also boost human well-being. At the SBR, rangers like Tarabay now educate visitors instead of keeping them out, while the organization creates jobs and training designed both to improve the ecosystem and benefit local communities.
If the SBR is a living laboratory, many of its experiments appear to be succeeding, despite Lebanon’s current economic and political crises.
“The idea is to manage this landscape in full cooperation and involvement with the communities who are living here,” Nizar Hani, director of the SBR since 2010, told Mongabay over Arabic coffee on a sun-dappled November day last year in the mountain village of Maaser El Shouf.
The sparsely clad peaks of the Mount Lebanon range march across the SBR into the misty distance, topping a scattered patchwork of agricultural terraces and old stone villages populated mostly by Druze people, who settled the land in the Middle Ages. The rest of the estimated 228,000 people living within the reserve are Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Sunni Muslims, and people displaced by the Syrian civil war.
Thirty-two mammal species, more than 275 bird species, and 31 amphibian and reptile species also call the SBR home. These include wolves, hyenas, jackals, porcupines, chameleons, tortoises, badgers, eagles, hyraxes, snakes, storks and many more. Researchers have cataloged more than 1,100 plant species; 25 are nationally and internationally threatened, according to the IUCN Red List, and 48 are found only in Lebanon or the wider region.
At 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres), an area nearly 10 times the size of Manhattan, the SBR is the biggest biosphere reserve in the Middle East. Designated by UNESCO in 2005, it includes a 620-hectare (1,532-acre) nature reserve originally set up in 1996 to conserve ancient Lebanese cedars (Cedrus libani).
Joined up thinking
To balance the needs of its human and wild inhabitants, the SBR takes two main approaches, according to Hani.
The first is to manage and restore sites. This includes increasing the ecosystem’s resilience to climate change and protecting it from fires and other human activities that have degraded the region, such as logging, urbanization and quarrying.
The second approach encourages cultural practices that conserve nature while benefiting local communities, for instance by supporting ecotourism and agritourism and providing a slew of training options.
The reserve was hailed by Restor, an ecological restoration network, as an example of best practices from among 727 biosphere reserves globally, based on a case study by Sarah Wilson, a forest restoration expert and co-founder of Cities4Forests.
“This project was thought through from start to finish,” Wilson told Mongabay by email. “That sounds like it would be obvious, but it is so often not the case.”
Wilson said the SBR’s demonstration of economic and social value for locals and supporters is essential to generating the interest that underpins its success. Programs that provide locals with training and support for green value chains “from idea to sale” is also key, she said.
SBR communications manager Sarah Nasrallah told Mongabay this starts with local experts who teach farmers how to restore agricultural land, farm indigenous species sustainably, and sell their produce locally.
The SBR also trains small business owners to turn local produce into mouneh, traditional artisanal food products, and sell it. Furthermore, the program trains restaurateurs and guesthouse owners in hospitality skills. In turn, they buy mouneh and other local produce to serve to local guests and tourists.
“We are creating a circular economy,” Nasrallah said.
Times have changed
The Shouf has not always been so inviting.
The seeds of the reserve were sown in strife during Lebanon’s civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. Back then, politician and local Druze leader Walid Joumblatt took drastic measures to conserve Shouf cedar forests near his home village. Joumblatt told Mongabay that his father, the socialist politician and civil war opposition leader Kamal Joumblatt, had instilled in him the value of nature, often quoting environmental movement matriarch Rachel Carson during his childhood.
Following his father’s assassination during the war, Joumblatt took over the Progressive Socialist Party, which had set up “a sort of mini state” called the Civil Administration in the Shouf region, he explained. He wanted to make sure cedar forests under the Civil Administration survived the war unravaged by logging for firewood, or uncontrollable fires accidentally started by smokers and picnickers in the arid region, he added.
“I decided to intervene and stop people coming in,” Joumblatt said. “But not everybody listened. So, I blocked the roads and I had to put landmines.”
In addition to laying explosives and earth berms across roads leading to the forests, Joumblatt employed armed guards to further deter would-be entrants and keep landmine accidents to a minimum. Occasionally goatherders would venture in illegally, resulting in at least one death, according to Joumblatt.
After the civil war ended, Riman became one of those forest guards in 1992. He spent his days keeping people out with his shotgun and issuing fines to trespassers alongside five other armed men.
These defensive tactics continued until the government declared the forest a nature reserve in 1996 and the army removed the mines. By then, the Shouf’s cedars had been left undisturbed for decades.
“From one side we were killing each other, but from other sides we were building something,” Joumblatt said wistfully of his wartime decisions. He has backed the development of less grim conservation initiatives in the Shouf ever since.
The shift from brute force to a new model began “with full focus on the cedar trees.” Hani said.
Cedars hold a special place in the hearts of Lebanese people. Lebanese art, music and business logos feature the majestic tree. It’s on the national flag, and even the country’s most popular cigarette brand is called Cedars.
Conservationists call a species that underpins a community’s identity a cultural keystone species. Such cultural keystones are useful starting points for community engagement. The strong connection between the Lebanese people and cedars helped build momentum to restore the whole Shouf landscape, on which both the cedars and local humans depend, Hani said.
The IUCN’s designation of the Lebanese cedar in 2013 as vulnerable, moving the species into the “threatened” category of the Red List, also helped raise awareness abroad, according to Hani.
Since Hani took over the SBR in 2010, more than 1.5 million people have poured into Lebanon from Syria, displaced from their homes by the ongoing civil war. Now, around 58,000 Syrian people live within the reserve.
A civil uprising toppled the Lebanese government in 2019, swiftly followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. By Aug. 4, 2020, when the Beirut blast damaged 40,000 buildings and injured nearly 7,000 people, the country was already gripped by an economic crisis, since billed as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s.
This economic fallout threatens the SBR’s funding. Backing is secured until 2024, largely from international partners, Hani said. But many sponsors have vanished, including Lebanese banks, big business donors and the Ministry of Environment. The latter used to contribute around 80 million Lebanese lira (around $53,000 USD at the time) annually, but hasn’t paid anything in three years, Hani noted.
Today, Lebanon struggles with currency depreciation of more than 90% and rickety governance hobbled by fractured leadership. The nation doesn’t feel a likely hotbed for ecological best practices, but to date the SBR’s 60 permanent staff are rising to the challenge nonetheless.
“You have to be resilient to crisis,” Hani said. “You can’t fall down with the rest of the country.”
Providing an alternative to deforestation for the desperate
Prices for diesel and other fuels used to heat homes rose by around 1,800% in 2021. Bitter winter temperatures can force desperate people to resort to logging when priced out of other options.
“They need to keep their children warm, compared with that they don’t care if they ruin nature,” said Nasrallah, the SBR communications manager.
The SBR’s response: Eco-briquettes. Previously, these fuel blocks sold for around $200 per metric ton, but this winter the SBR is providing briquettes for free to vulnerable locals who might otherwise turn to logging to stay warm.
Workers turn the residue, or pomace, from local olive oil production and shredded material from tree thinning into briquettes people can use in wood-burning stoves. The SBR pays production costs with international aid money.
The eco-briquettes also create employment opportunities, helping the struggling local economy. According to the U.N., Lebanon’s unemployment rate is around 40%, while more than three-quarters of the population live in poverty. To combat the dire situation, the SBR focuses on creating short-term jobs in sustainable agriculture using “cash-for-training” and “cash-for-work” schemes run in partnership with the World Food Programme.
Fatmi Ramadan El-Saleh, who came to Lebanon from Syria after an airstrike destroyed her home in 2013, was midway through a 10-day cash-for-training workshop on animal husbandry when Mongabay caught up with her.
“I wish I had registered for this workshop a long time ago!” she said. “I’m here to learn about how to look after chickens and also because they pay us.”
She plans to use what she’s learning to breed chickens for sale.
The cash-for-training program worked with 376 trainees in 2020, two-thirds of them Syrian. Graduates are encouraged to start their own small business or seek employment in the cash-for-work program.
“Anyone can attend these courses for the money that they pay,” the SBR’s reforestation supervisor, Salar Ghassan El-Shoufi, told Mongabay while waiting on a remote mountainside for a battered four-wheel-drive vehicle to deliver tree seedlings to a restoration site near the village of Niha. “Villagers who attend start gaining so much more than the money.”
His workers agreed, enthusiastically explaining how to dig holes and plant using techniques learned from the SBR to protect seedlings from the wind and conserve moisture in the soil.
“I’m going to be very happy and proud when I see these seedlings grow up,” planter Marwa Selmenmeh said at break time, sipping sweet tea brewed in a smoke-blackened kettle on the mountainside.
Combating climate change
El-Shoufi’s tree-planting project, funded by the French government’s international development agency, the AFD, is tasked with planting 40,000 seedlings. The aim is to increase native tree cover and biodiversity by planting Mediterranean hawthorn (Crataegus azarolus) and Lebanon oak (Quercus libani), as well as pine nut trees (Pinus pinea) for their high value, while employing local people for planting and maintenance.
The seedlings need all the help they can get. Temperatures, increasing faster in Lebanon than the global average, are expected to rise by up to 3.2° Celsius (5.8° Fahrenheit) by 2100, with rainfall decreasing by 11%, according to the Ministry of Environment.
Working across the head of the spectacular Ain Nameh Valley, the planters carefully select where to plant each seedling, according to soil type, depth and water sources. The seeds are sourced locally and grown using a root air pruning technique to maximize resistance to the warming climate.
“Changing from poly bags to air pruning pots, we were able to raise seedling survival rate from less than 15% to more than 90%,” said Khaled Fouad Sleem, an agricultural engineer and native tree nursery owner.
Sleem, Shouf-born and bred, has been advising the SBR for 17 years, and supplies it with seedlings from his nursery in the reserve. He said he hopes the higher degree of genetic diversity found in seed-grown plants over clones will help the restoration projects withstand the changes predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But he added, “I really don’t know. I mean, with this rise in temperatures and getting less and less water and less and less snow, it scares me. It scares me a lot.”
Warming is already having a visible effect in the Shouf.
“Twenty years ago, the tree line was very clear at 1,800 meters [5,900 feet],” Hani told Mongabay, tracing a straight line across the mountainside with his hand, where straggling patches of young trees now sit in an uneven wiggle. “Climate change is pushing the forest to higher altitude — we call it forest migration.”
If the forest reaches the mountaintops, many endemic species living above the tree line will be lost because there’s nowhere for them to go, Hani explained.
A good return on sustainable cultural practices
“If we want to sustain these protected areas … for the long term, we need to look at cultural practices and adapt them to suit our current needs and time,” Hani said.
Most of the SBR’s drystone wall terraces lie abandoned, even though they’ve been used to grow crops here for around 5,000 years. To remedy this, the SBR is restoring 600 hectares (1,500 acres) of terraces for growing crops more sustainably and reducing fire risk.
For the Abou Saad brothers, this is a game-changer. They began farming their grandfather’s abandoned land in 2019.
With training and support from the SBR, they not only restored the farm’s terraces, but also learned how to make compost, use companion planting, and grow plants to attract beneficial insects for increasing yields and fighting pests. And they run a sustainable agritourism business where visitors pick their own vegetables and learn how to cook them traditionally on site.
“We were sick of using chemicals and pesticides on our plants. It was costly and we realized we were harming ourselves and harming people and nature,” Ramzi Abou Saad told Mongabay.
When they were selected to receive training from the SBR, “We felt we were the kings of agriculture!” Ramzi said.