April 4th ,2000
Zayan Khalil Daily Star staff
The people of Jezzine are worried that their lush scenic countryside will soon cease to exist because excessive sand quarrying and excavation in the area is depleting its green hills and mountains, and areas containing rare plants. Environmental activists asked by residents to assess the extent of the damage believe their concerns are completely justified. “That’s how the mountains were before quarrying and sand excavations began,” said Salman Abbas, an activist, as he pointed to photographs of dense forest. “And that’s how devastated they are now,” he added, illustrating the damage with pictures of bare hills and newly opened service roads through the forests. Sand and topsoil are excavated, forming quarries in the villages of Snaya, Haytoura and Zhalti, to supply several construction sites and the Sibline factory, which is a government contractor. Ironically, most of the land where the quarrying is taking place is owned by community establishments such as the Haytoura municipality and Mar Antonios Convent, Abbas told a press conference held on Wednesday at the American University Alumni Club. The environmental devastation caused by quarrying includes stripped mountains, soil erosion and battered roads worn by the constant flow of heavily loaded trucks. Trees which survive the bulldozers are blanketed by vast amounts of dust. The environmental watchdog Green Line, in association with the Environment Ministry and the Global Environment Facility, is undertaking a Natural Reserve Project, which has allocated $3 million for the preservation of three of the country’s forested areas Palm Islands in Tripoli , Ehden Forest , and Chouf Cedars Reserve. The Chouf reserve, which is considered to be the largest pine forest in the Middle East and includes rare species of plants and trees, is located close to the area’s sand quarries. “The environmental damage to the area is enormous,” said Abbas. “It would take us decades to reforest the area to its original state.” Abbas explained that the land where quarrying is currently taking place cannot be cultivated in the future because a particular type of soil needed for that purpose has been depleted.
Even though quarrying in the south is nothing new, the extent of the damage could not be assessed until Jezzine was liberated in June last year. The government approved the Environment Ministry’s plan to regulate quarrying by closing some quarries and licensing others, but so far methods for implementing the plan have not been established. The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for issuing licenses for quarries, has often overlooked the ban on a number of closed quarries and allowed their owners to continue operating under temporary licenses. The Director-General of the Environment Ministry Berj Hadjian and the head of the Ministry’s Nature Preservation Department, Randa Sirawan, were not available for comment on Wednesday. Some of the region’s families attending the conference complained that quarries have already destroyed hundreds of pine trees, depriving residents of profiting from the resources. “What happens to people in an area which largely depends on income generated from tourism when its centuries-old trees are knocked down?” Said Haddad, a resident in the village of Roum , asked participants at the conference. “Our scenic green forests are what lured tourists. Once they’re gone, Jezzine stops being an attractive spot,” he said. He also said that many farmers make a living from selling pine seeds after collecting and drying the cones. “Pine forests could generate some $3 million annually for many generations to come while a quarry contractor only makes money for himself for a few years,” Haddad said. “Our officials boast about Lebanon being a country that encourages and protects long-term investments, but they never pay attention to how pine forests can be the longest investment they could ever make,” he added. Residents attending the conference were visibly frustrated. “Trucks carrying sand from a Jezzine quarry were allowed to pass through the crossing but a dead man’s funeral procession or a patient in critical condition never made it though the gates,” Antoine Merhi said on behalf of the Gathering of the Residents, a group comprised of residents from the three concerned villages. “The government hasn’t done enough to stop those who are making money out of destroying our natural riches,” he added. Acting on a tip-off from Merhi to the judiciary, the public prosecutor is investigating the mayor of Roum, Georgy Haddad, and his brother Milad, who residents claim are behind most of the environmental damage in Snaya, Zhalti and Roum, where they have allegedly excavated more than 40,000 square meters of land. Abbas contested an earlier decision by Interior Minister Michel Murr allowing the ministry to grant licenses to quarry owners, provided the concerned municipality approved the quarrying operations in certain areas. “Decisions made by mayors are often influenced by high-ranking officials who place their interests above those of everyone else,” said Abbas. “And, unlike environmental specialists, they don’t have the scientific knowledge to enable them to approve quarrying.” He also pointed out that none of the areas’ members of Parliament attended the conference.