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The Daily Star: Environmental activists are fighting against all the odds

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.”

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