12 June 2001
Lana Captan Daily Star staff
What do Lebanon ‘s environmental campaigners want for International Environment Day next June? A lot more than they got this year. After week-long celebrations to commemorate International Environment Day and years of campaigning for the promulgation of basic legislation to protect the environment, Lebanon ‘s environmental activists have come to a conclusion. They don’t want to complain anymore. “Do you think we want to spend our lives protesting in front of buildings and being labeled as whining radicals?” says Greenpeace’s Lebanon campaigner Zeina Hajj. In the six years that she has been involved with Greenpeace she admits there have been some positive changes even though she contends that politicians still don’t care. “To them the environment is about planting a tree as part of an event and nothing more than that,” she says.
There is progress, “especially in the awareness of the public,” she adds with a bit of reluctance. Hajj says that although the progress has been slow, one of the positives is Greenpeace’s lobbying against ships which dumped chemicals in Lebanon . It took three years of consistent activism to initiate a response from the government. “Public awareness was so high that people were alarmed when they saw barrels in front of their homes,” she asserts. That, she says is the way to deal with the other environmental problems. “This was a huge step,” Hajj contends. “This is Lebanon after all, and it’s not just the environmental sector that needs an overhaul the whole country is corrupt.”
However, Rifaat Saba, president of the Lebanese Environment Forum, an umbrella association that groups 46 local environmental organizations, argues that the public is still apathetic. He says that even with constant reminders of the importance of the environmental issue in the form of celebratory holidays like Environment Day and Lebanese Environment Day, nothing has changed. “It is unfortunate that the Environment Ministry doesn’t represent environmental activists’ views, and it is more unfortunate that the Lebanese people don’t have the loyalty, nor the patriotism to want to improve the state of the environment,” Saba argues. On the contrary, he asserts, “the situation is getting worse because the public has not developed an environmental conscience,” which he argues is an essential prerequisite to achieving environmental policymaking. To mark Environment Day on June 5, the ministry opened its doors to the public and featured an open debate with Environment Minister Michel Musa.
Hajj asserts that the Environment Ministry doesn’t respond to Greenpeace’s correspondence, so the activist went to the debate. “I had to face them once and for all and speak my mind.” However, she says the ministry allowed her only one question and that she found the minister’s answer to be too vague. “They always say that we ask for too much. I asked a question about the incinerators in the middle of town and the minister simply said there is a proposal and that he would look at it,” she says. The proposal has been there for more than a year and nothing has changed and in the absence of proper legislation nothing more can be done. “We can protest and pressure politicians into answering our questions, but if there is no legislation to implement there will be no progress,” Hajj contends.
The local activist group Green Line didn’t attend the ministry’s open house “simply because we knew that nothing new would be discussed,” campaigner Ali Darwish says. Darwish describes Michel Musa as a “nice guy” but asserts that he hasn’t contributed anything substantial since he took office. On the other hand, Darwish stresses that the ministry is not totally weak. “They have prepared several years worth of papers and a database with information that could change the path of the environmental sector,” he reports. Darwish says he “feels sorry” for some ministry officials “who probably want to close down the incinerators and stop environmental damage.” He argues that they are lost in the “midst of the bureaucracy” and even if their intentions are good they can do very little. “The environmental problem is a political one and without legislation we cannot enforce it and without legislation you cannot enforce it,” Darwish argues.
Even legislation that has passed doesn’t make sense, activists argue. They cite as an example the new standards that the Environment Ministry passed early this year that stated that factories previously allowed to omit a certain level of chemicals were allowed double the number. Greenpeace held a conference to protest the decree. “Legislation like this takes us back 50 years, back to square one,” Hajj argues. Environmentally friendly legislation like the Environment Code, which consolidates and updates existing environmental laws, has been stalled in Parliament for more than a year. “The code has gone as far as politicians’ drawers since 1994. It’s the “biggest joke ever,” Hajj says. “Politicians use it as a scapegoat every time. On top of everything we have no access to data, and without a law we are powerless to pursue any action further than protesting and putting pressure on the government.” But Hajj will not quit.
“Sometimes we get disheartened, but if we don’t continue campaigning what will happen to the environment? We will be here as long as we see a tinge of success in our efforts,” she says. Darwish would love to have one piece of environmental legislation that has been in Parliament for five years passed once and for all. “I was hoping they would surprise us with something like that on Environment Day, but I guess I was asking too much,” he says. Passing the legislation would mean that non-governmental organizations and activists can take anyone who harms the environment to court. “That would mean several hours a day in court,” he says, half-jesting. Eventually, Darwish says they will be able to “nail the names” of those who have been obstructing the passing of the legislation.
“One day I hope the Lebanese public can have control over their future, but that can only happen when there are laws to be implemented and solid ministries to implement them,” he argues. The activists also argue that the environmental damage in Lebanon is contributing to the recession-plagued economy. “I don’t know why tourists would want to come to Lebanon ,” Saba says. “I mean, if they want to go to the mountains they will see half a dozen landfills and swimming in the sea can be hazardous to their health because it’s so polluted. “What do I wish for next year?” he says with a pause. “I hope the government takes the environment more seriously because we have to consider it’s the only thing we have to offer.”