Trees in Syria becoming lucrative business

Forests in war-ravaged Syria face double jeopardy as they burn as a result of battles or are being chopped down to be sold or used.

al-monitor Smoke rises from a forest fire near the city of Jisr al-Shughour, June 19, 2012.  Photo by REUTERS/Shaam News Network.

Topics covered

syria civil war, syria, business, bashar al-assad

Oct 26, 2014

The war raging in Syria for more than three years now has caused major destruction that has affected the Syrian civilization on all levels. It has spared no human, stone or tree component, be it directly or indirectly. The war has at times set Syria’s green forests on fire, while it has subjected them to woodcutting (for heating) at other times.

Even though there are no large forests in Syria (natural forests in Syria cover 232.8 hectares [575 acres]), the forests that existed before the start of the war served as a lung for this Mediterranean state. Syria sought to expand the forest area patches before 2011. It granted them major attention amid excellent security and prosperity that reached advanced stages and turned these spaces into one of the priorities of the government, as well as [the scene of] social and cultural events. Then war broke out and led this wealth to gradually disappear.

There are no statistics about the extent of the damage to forest areas in Syria, the agricultural country whose citizens appreciate the value and importance of trees. However, according to estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture, there is “major damage” in forest areas, be it caused by war fire or by woodcutting.

A source in the Ministry of Environment told As-Safir that the border areas with Turkey, where there were many forests, were the most affected, either due to the war or to arson. The largest fire broke out in the Zainiyeh forest on the western end of Jisr al-Shughour.

The source explained that even the initial loss estimates were colossal, knowing that the economic value of the trees is estimated at about $200,000. The source pointed out that the restoration of this forest requires hundreds of years.

Another fire broke out in Kassab, on the border with Turkey in the countryside of Latakia. The fire reached the 4,500-hectare [11,120-acre] Foronlok reserve and destroyed about 150 hectares [371 acres] of pine trees and old semi-virgin oak trees.

The Abu Qubeis area was victim to a fire that affected 60 dunams [15 acres] of forest trees, including Pinales and Pistacia atlantica. In Quneitra province, several fires broke out in 2012 in the areas of ​​Bir Ajam, Bariqa, Ayn al-Tineh, al-Hamedia and the Taranjah forest. Thousands of dunams of oak trees were burnt.

While initial estimates of the Ministry of Environment in Syria showed that losses due to fire had reached billions of dollars, the same estimates showed very substantial [losses] as citizens and some “gangs” cut down trees either to turn them into charcoal or to directly use them for heating.

According to estimates, a lot of reserves, forests and forest areas are exposed to excessive woodcutting, including the al-Belas reserve in the province of Hama, where hundreds of old forest trees, of about 100 years of age, were cut down, in addition to the forests extending from the Tel Kelekh area down to Tartous province.

The estimated number of trees that have been cut down in Hama and Tel Kelekh is about 7,000. In Hasakah, the number of trees that have been cut down is about 7,500 — most of which are from the Mount Abdul Aziz reserve — where there are two types of pistacia, the Pistacia atlantica and the Pistacia khinjuk. The infringements have also affected the Assad forest and other forest areas in al-Saraka area in Maghlooja, as well as afforestation sites in al-Shahidi.

In Quneitra, the Jbata reserve suffered woodcutting of entire trees. The initial estimate is 100-300 forest trees. About 100 stone pine trees aged 15-20 years were chopped down in ​​al-Shahar in south Jbata.

As the Ministry of Environment focuses in its estimates on forest areas and forests, it should be noted that public gardens and parks located within the cities are the hardest-hit areas, as most of the parks in the battle-ridden cities or outside government control are witnessing wood-cutting operations for heating purposes.

The source in the Ministry of Environment said that there were major fears of infringements this year, especially in light of the continuing war on the one hand, and given the fuel and electricity crises on the other. The government lost control over oil wells, and power transformer stations were subject to several infringements that caused power cuts and longer rationing hours. This portends a harsh winter that will prompt citizens to commit further infringements in search of warmth.

Cutting down wood to sell as firewood or charcoal is a profession practiced by a number of citizens, organized into “gangs” that cut down trees and sell them in the market in many ways. Chief among this is the fabrication of forest fires as a prelude to burning them, according to a source in the fire station.

The source asserted that Syria’s forests and forest areas had turned, amid the state of lawlessness in some areas and the absence of sufficient control in other areas, into lucrative “mines,” especially after the government had lifted the price of diesel to 80 Syrian pounds ($0.50). The cost of storing 1,000 liters (enough for a small family in winter), if available, has reached 80,000 Syrian pounds ($500), which is the equivalent of a four-month salary for an average employee who earns about 20,000 Syrian pounds. This will inevitably prompt citizens to look for heating alternatives. Firewood and charcoal are the most appropriate.

Although discussing the major environmental damage caused by the infringement on forests is futile in light of the ongoing war in Syria — with all its human, civil and cultural components — the source in the Ministry of Environment stressed that the effects [of such infringement] on Syria would be extensive.

The source pointed out that the return of forests and forest areas to the state they had been in before the war might require hundreds of years and affect various aspects of life. Meanwhile, desertification seems to be creeping in from the east to the center of Syria under black clouds resulting from the primitive oil extraction and refining. The source stressed the need for various sides to take action and end the disaster.

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