09 September 2009
By Megan Bainbridge - Special to The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The recently issued 2008 Environmental Protection Index issued statistics ranking the environmental records of 149 countries. Lebanon was ranked 12th among the 17 Middle East and North African nations covered and 90th overall. With the spotlight on the environment, The Daily Star asked three of Beirut’s green groups how they are trying to improve the nation’s environmental performance. The Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures (IBSAR) is an inter-faculty center at the American University of Beirut that was founded in 1992 in order to research issues related to sustainable nature conservation. The organization combines scientific research with outreach and awareness raising programs in an attempt to sustain Lebanon’s rich biodiversity. IBSAR takes a very grassroots approach in its conservation projects. It uses the university’s research facilities to develop scientific approaches to nature conservation, but feels strongly that this knowledge must be decentralized and transferred to the wider public before it can have a significant environmental impact. “Conservation is about small steps, rather than mega-projects,” says IBSAR’s director, Salma Talhouk. “It is just people doing little things, but all the time.” “I do not think you can make a change by just making political changes,” she adds. “There is a lack of understanding and appreciation,” says Arbi Sarkissian, IBSAR’s outreach project manager. He argues this lack of appreciation is the most significant barrier to improving environmental conditions as it fosters a public unwillingness to become involved in environmental issues. “It is not just a matter of knowing, emotional attachment is also very important,” adds Talhouk. “Many people ‘know’ and they do nothing.” “We refer to this as a Nature Deficit Disorder,” Sarkissian continues, describing how young urban people may have a reasonable level of environmental knowledge but are losing any connection with nature. In order to reconnect the public with the environment, as well as to take significant steps toward reforestation, IBSAR has developed the “Seeds of Hope” campaign. This campaign intends to plant 10,000 native shrubs and trees in marginalized towns and communities by 2010. “We are trying to diversify and decentralize reforestation efforts,” says Talhouk. The program also involves the empowerment of marginalized communities as well as an improvement in their living environment. In contrast to the grassroots approach adopted by IBSAR’s academics, the Greenline environmental group works to balance awareness-raising activities with media campaigns and political lobbying. Speaking from his office in the activist center Zico House, current Greenline president and founding member Ali Darwish laments that the environmental movement has been greatly affected by three years of political upheaval. “People are less motivated now, although the interest may still be there,” Darwish says. “But we are hoping for a revival of our programs,” The organization is currently highlighting energy issues and campaigning for a more widespread use of renewable energy. Greenline believes a renewable energy plan could be an important factor in helping meet the nation’s basic energy demands, as well as mitigating the effects of climate change. While Beirut receives 21 hours of electricity a day, people outside the municipality only have electricity for 16 – or less. “This is because of a failing energy policy,” says Darwish. “Israel bombed the electricity plants many times, but it is also our dependence on obsolete technology – and our refusal to utilize renewable energy or even natural gas – that has led us to this problem,” he adds. While Greenline believes that awareness-raising issues are important, Darwish admits that there is a relatively good level of environmental awareness among Lebanese. He instead emphasizes the importance of law enforcement, rather than ideas, in modifying public behavior toward the environment. “This is why we truly need radical political reform, and not only at a policy level,” says Darwish. “People need to learn that the politician is an employee of the nation’s citizens,” he says, adding that the public should hold politicians responsible at the ballot box if they do not deliver on environmental reform. While the public remains unwilling to carry out this “electoral punishment,” Greenline works to target politicians themselves through direct meetings or media campaigns. “We use the media as a tool to force political change,” Darwish says, adding that they attempt to put politicians in a position where they feel they are unable to reject the environmentalists’ demands. While there has so far been only limited success in this area, Greenline feels it is important to continue the two-pronged nature of its campaign strategy. Taking this emphasis on high-level political change one step further is the environmental branch of the Movement of Reform and Environment Program (MOREP) association. This group focuses upon the importance of political change in bringing about improvements in Lebanon’s environment. “Our movement wants to see progress on all environmental issues,” says MOREP member Majid Abi Saab. “You can do some of this with money, but without national power you cannot do anything.” “We are trying to get into Parliament and make changes from there,” adds Saab. “Now, we fight a lot and get no response, just words and words and words, while we wait for years. “This is a problem.” One of the key tenets to MOREP’s environmental reform platform is a charter of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. Saab says that the drafting process of a CSR would bring together environmentalists, economists, industry representatives and members of the civil society. A CSR would recognize the link between the economy, the tourism industry and the environment and would attempt to create a sustainable structure that benefits all parties. MOREP also advocates giving the Environment Ministry greater powers to develop environmental regulations and prevent infringements upon this legislation, both through private companies and other ministries. Saab has also called on the Interior Ministry to be more rigorous in its enforcement of existing environmental laws and standards. While these green groups approach the goal of improving Lebanon’s environment in different ways, they all agree on one thing: There is a lot of work to be done.