Saving Lebanon's cedars


(Image by Wikimedia user Olivier BEZES (cc:by))

This story was originally covered by PRI's The World. For more, listen to the audio.

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The cedar trees of Lebanon are an ancient treasure. They were mentioned in the 8,000-year-old Gilgamesh epic, and are often mentioned in the Bible. They even adorn the middle of Lebanon's flag. But problems, both old and new, are threatening Lebanon's cedar trees and forcing people to take drastic actions to save them.

"The cedar is not just a slogan for the Lebanese people," says Hassam Hanim, a guide to the Shouf Cedar Reserve in central Lebanon. "It's our father, our mother, our sister, our brother and our friend."

Some 500,000 hectares of land, about half of modern Lebanon, was once filled with cedar trees, according to Nizar Hani the scientific coordinator for the Shouf Cedar Reserve. He told PRI's The World, "Everyone was cutting the cedar trees and transfer the wood through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, to Egypt, to everywhere. It was a huge work."

That logging took an enormous toll on Lebanon's cedar population. Today, less than 1 percent of Lebanon’s original cedar forest remains. Much of that is inside the Shouf Cedar Reserve, a green oasis covering 5 percent of the country's area and containing a quarter of its remaining cedars.

Climate change has also emerged as a new threat to the survival of Lebanon's cedars. The trees require two months of snow-cover to be able to germinate. But warmer temperatures mean shorter winters and fewer saplings. It also causes dry cedar cones, more attacks from insects and a growing risk of forest fires.

To grow new saplings, NGOs have been forced to create large refrigerated warehouse, where the trees can be cradled through the first years of their life. Organizations are also trying to reach out to the community to foster greater environmental stewardship.

The Lebanese government currently recognizes the value of the country's cedar trees. Most of the remaining trees grow on public land where cutting is prohibited. But Hani believes that the government is still not doing enough. He points to a massive watershed that's protected by the trees to drive home the importance. He told The World:

This is the importance of this reserve. Not to just to protect the cedar trees and to protect the birds and whatever, it’s to protect our life. It’s to protect our drinking water.

You can watch a video of the Shouf Cedar Reserve below:

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.