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Lebanese turn to wood logging in preparation for winter

Lebanon’s woodlands are at risk as the poor are cutting down trees as an alternative for fuel to heat their homes in the coming winter, and with such desperate measures experts fear the loss of precious and old trees.
Snow blankets the area of Mdeirej, in the mountains east of Beirut, Lebanon, Feb. 18, 2021.

BEIRUT — In the face of rising fuel prices and scarcity in Lebanon, residents have become increasingly dependent on cutting down trees from nearby forests and woodlands to stay warm, and while the increased logging is causing fears of deforestation, many in Lebanon say they are left with little choice.

Ziad al-Ayysami, a 32-year-old primary school math teacher, wakes up at dawn and wears his rugged ranger boots for a long day with his electric axe to cut down trees up in the mountains of Haramoun, in preparation for winter.

“I’ve been doing this for the past two months. We live in the Bekaa Valley and winter here is unbearable if the woodstove is not on all day long,” he told Al-Monitor.

Lebanon, known for its ancient trees and green mountains, is now filled not with wildlife but with men and women cutting down trees to gather wood.

The looming threats of these woods are not just from locals with access to chain sources, forests in different parts of the country have been burning down, allegedly because Syrian refugees have been using them for cover.

The authorities have seen a huge rise in illegal logging, as people try to prepare for winter, according to Hassan al-Hujairi, a policeman in the Bekaa Valley. He told Al-Monitor about the rising number of cases against people illegally wood logging, which is mainly done on private and protected lands.

“We have been receiving daily calls from residents reporting cases of wood logging on their private lands as people have become desperate to collect the maximum quantity of wood,” Hujairi said.

He noted that people sometimes get caught and are fined and restricted from entering the area.

Reham Abdel Khalek, a mother of four from Hasbaya in southern Lebanon, recently joined her husband, Maher, in wood logging. She told Al-Monitor, “They left us no choice but to destroy our woodlands with our own hands.”  

Maher told Al-Monitor on condition his last name not be used, as he is a member of the Lebanese army, “How can people afford another heating alternative if one barrel of fuel is worth more than a month’s wage?”

He said as a family with four small children, they have to be prepared for the winter months since living in the mountains means having to cope with freezing temperatures.

Cutting trees may help put food on the table, but this is taking a toll on the environment as huge forest areas are disappearing.

Wood markets are booming, while other markets are bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. Wood seller Omar Safa told Al-Monitor that the government is to blame for the financial crisis and rising inflation, and that as a result citizens cannot afford energy supplies.

He said that this year had witnessed the highest demand for wood logs as people plan to use wood not only for heating but for cooking, too, a throwback to the past that many are finding hard to accept.

Safa noted that the prices of wood logs depend on their type as the quality differs. For instance, oak tree wood is more expensive compared to orange or pine tree wood, because they last longer when burnt.

“One meter [3.3 feet] of wood costs between $90 and $150, and most households in cold regions need at least 7 to 8 meters [23-26 feet] to be on the safe side,” Safa said.  

As the number of trees dwindle, so do the food resources for animals like sheep and goats that graze on these trees.

“Precious trees are ripped away from different areas in the mountains as people gather as much wood as possible. As a result, our goats are left with little green to graze on,” Syrian shepherd Ahmad Ibrahim told Al-Monitor.

According to Ibrahim, there have been rising tensions between Syrian and Lebanese wood loggers as they are competing for the available space and the best trees to cut for wood logs.

He noted that Syrians are faced with an unwelcoming attitude and are constantly reported in order to restrict their access to wooded lands.

In the district of Akkar in northern Lebanon, challenging living and financial conditions have prompted residents there to cut the trees on their private lands with old olive and pine trees.

Several villages in Akkar have witnessed fires in forests and, Amer, a resident there who wished to not give his last name, told Al-Monitor that the cause of the fire is probably manmade and driven by the interest of later cutting the trees that have caught fire.

As diesel fuel has become a luxury commodity among most households in the country, people are transforming their heating systems into ones that instead use wood.

According to Rachid Ghanem, member of a municipal council in the Bekaa Valley, the number of people who are cutting wood has increased drastically as many cannot afford to purchase them from sellers, so they have to independently do it.

For environmental protection and alternatives to forest destruction, concerned environmentalists have adopted new sustainable methods that replace firewood and diesel, and instead turn local raw materials into a source used for warmth, known as eco briquettes.

Nijad Saed Eddine, agricultural engineer at Shouf Biosphere Reserve, the largest nature reserve in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “The eco briquettes are made using three main components including woodchips from the forest, woodchips from agriculture waste and olive pomace as it has a remarkable season in Lebanon.” 

This sustainably produced source promotes an economically viable use of the agriculture and forests biomass whose excessive load or post-harvesting burning by farmers increases climate-related risks in the rural landscape.  

The organization has implemented this main initiative locally, in the Shouf region, but has influenced many people from different areas in Lebanon to purchase the eco briquettes as it is cheaper than both wood logs and diesel fuel and can be a reliable source for warmth.  

Hanadi Monzer has recently purchased dozens of eco briquettes to use instead of wood logs.

“Sellers are taking advantage of this situation and people are constantly looking for cheaper alternatives, so for us the eco briquettes were one of the few and cheapest options we had,” Monzer told Al-Monitor.

The lack of finance among municipalities in Lebanon, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture has been the main barrier to supporting such initiatives in implementing them on a large scale around different regions in the country to reduce the cutting of trees.  

Nizar Hani, manager at the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, told Al-Monitor, “The cooperation between municipalities and ministries is present, however the struggle today is the lack of finance to support the expansion of such projects.”   

Experts urge the importance of a healthy ecological system and warn that any interventions from residents such as cutting trees would have a damaging and long-term effect on the environment. 

“The unconscionable cutting of trees harms the environment in the long run, especially old trees such as the oak trees that are targeted by those looking for stable woodfires as they provide good warmth,” Hani noted.  

With daily life almost being paralyzed in Lebanon as fuel is running out due to the crisis of supply and the price of the materials when available, trees that have shaped the history of Lebanon’s mountains continue to be in danger.

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