16 March 2001
Samar Kanafani Daily Star staff
Tensions ran high Thursday between environmental activist Salman Abbas and Beirut MP Ghinwa Jalloul when they debated the question of how to make the capital a greener place.
Invited by the American University of Beirut ‘s Student Representative Committee, Jalloul and Abbas maintained opposing positions during the debate, which focused on the government’s will and ability to increase green areas in Beirut . Abbas, who is the secretary-general of the environmental NGO Green Line, advocated transforming every piece of sizable public property remaining in the city into public parks.
The disputed areas included the hippodrome near Mathaf, a 213,000 square-meter area, and the former 12,000 square-meter UNRWA property in Verdun . “We agree with you on planting trees and small areas,” Abbas said, but “do officials agree with us on the right to make the large areas parks?” Jalloul’s answer was no. “Why all the fuss over the hippodrome and Verdun , as though there were no other space in Beirut ?” she said emphatically. Although Abbas presented a list of ways to generate income for the municipality through public parks, Jalloul argued that these plots were too valuable to be used only as parks and had the potential to be used as tourist attractions. Abbas’ suggestions included building open-air sports and recreational facilities, cafes or an experimental theater. “And if all that is not enough, one could demand a LL1,000 annual membership fee from every citizen,” said Abbas, adding that park facilities would make for excellent tourist attractions. But, Jalloul insisted, “I want a hippodrome inside Beirut , and if one is truly concerned with people’s interests, there is space in Beirut and there is Horsh Beirut ( Beirut forest) where people can go.”
Planted five years ago with a large contribution from the French region of Isle de France, Horsh Beirut remains closed today due to lack of maintenance staff in the municipality. Green Line are eager to save these public properties from construction and commercial functions, particularly in light of the Beirut municipal council’s decision last month to maintain and support the hippodrome, and amid rumors that the UNRWA base will become a grand commercial center. Jalloul herself is the spokesperson for a recently launched tree-planting campaign, which was organized by the municipality, the Beirut governorate and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Initiated by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the campaign invited 15 welfare organizations to plant pine trees in Greater Beirut’s streets and roundabouts as well as maintain the saplings. The trees, most of them 1.5 meters tall, were planted in accordance with a plan prepared by the French landscaping company Interscene. The trees were donated by the Syrian government, which is willing to provide 1 million trees every year.
Although both Jalloul and Abbas agreed that trees beautify the city, the MP promoted tree-planting as a major step toward increasing greenery and reducing the effects of car pollution. However, Abbas argued that this was not the way to tackle pollution and that planting trees was merely aesthetic. “Parents don’t take their children on an outing to play in a roundabout,” said Abbas, who said that Beirut ‘s average area of greenery per capita is 0.8 square meters. The World Health Organization has set the healthy standard at 40 square meters.
Jalloul declared the campaign a success while Abbas claimed that 90 percent of the trees recently planted in the capital had died. He questioned the professionalism of the planting process, saying that “sticking a tree in the ground is not planting.” Jalloul acknowledged that “the environment problem has not been solved.” “Planting is only a step, but let’s be optimistic,” she said. “There are plenty of small areas we can develop and improve.” Professor Wajih Sawaya said that although the value of real estate in New York and London was also high, this did not prevent officials in those countries from building parks and striving for healthier conditions. “Yes, but we’re poorer than these countries,” Jalloul answered, proposing that Beirutis put plants on their balconies and on roof tops “like they do in Cannes and Monaco.”
“Since we are poor, we should be treated better,” argued Professor Salma Talhouq. “I’d rather be poor and healthy than poor and unhealthy.” Talhouq said she was shocked at the “short-sightedness and insensitivity” of the government. “When you’re out of government and we’re all dead, what will be left for our children?”