BASKINTA, Lebanon: Donning a navy blue Adidas tracksuit, a beige bucket hat and worn boots, 70-year-old Michel Ayoub scaled a narrow ledge set high on a cliff amid his rocky hills with ease. The Baskinta native moved like a mountain goat roaming in its natural habitat, as he hopped from stone to stone, pointing to various wild herbs and flowers.
“Actually,” he said, laughing as he pointed to a ledge a few meters above, “there was a young goat stuck here for 30 days ... We were sure it would die. But then it stumbled, fell onto a wider ledge and continued on. Amazing.”
Fearing the instability of Lebanon’s economy during the early 1980s, Ayoub purchased over 50,000 square meters of the forested land where he had spent much of his childhood.
“Inflation was so bad during the [Lebanese Civil] War and we were all worried about the value of the lira. I didn’t want to convert the money into dollars because there would be such a loss, so I decided to buy this land. I haven’t done much with it since,” he said, walking with hands clasped behind his back.
In a moment of distraction, Ayoub looked upward at the hills around him. Far from the country’s chaos – without humans or any trace of trash – a hawk flying overhead cried out.
“Every time you turn your head, it’s like looking at a new painting,” he said.
In 2011, Ayoub was approached by a team of Saint Joseph University researchers led by biodiversity specialist Dr. Magda Bou Dagher Kharrat. The researchers, already in their fourth year surveying Lebanon’s flora, discovered that Ayoub’s property was home to several species of plant native to the country.
Kharrat had decided that, rather than waiting for the conclusion of their research, which was intended to help the Environment Ministry prioritize their conservations efforts, the researchers would begin “emergency interventions.”
“When it became clear the project would take several years, we knew that many of these species would run the risk of going extinct. Waiting for the government to take initiative would take even more time, so creating microreserves was our next best option.”
In a race against time, the team began designating which species needed immediate saving. Working with municipalities, religious leaders and private landowners, Kharrat and her partners ran workshops and meetings to show stakeholders why they should conserve their land.
Three microreserves have been established during the researchers’ 10-year survey: Ayoub’s private property in Baskinta, a section of religious land in south Lebanon’s Mazraat Sarada and a piece of municipal land in Kesrouan’s Ehmej.
“In Ehmej, we spoke with municipal leaders as well as the private landowners. We showed them that the town was home to the Iris Sofarana, a flower that could only be found in Lebanon. There is an appeal to this. People are proud, and it is special,” Kharrat said.
Speaking to The Daily Star by email, Ehmej municipality president Nazih Abi Semaan said a large part of the appeal was increasing tourism.
“We inaugurated the natural site Al-Dichar to preserve local plants as a part of the ecotouristic plan set forth by Ehmej Municipality. We are working to highlight the touristic and environmental identity of Ehmej, giving tourists the opportunity to experience the rural traditions and customs.”
In the south, the researchers found themselves consulting religious leaders whose lands played host to endemic and endangered species.
“I always knew somebody would eventually come and approach me about this land. It was only a matter of time,” Ayoub said, recounting the research team’s initial visit.
While he was strongly opposed to making a deal with the state, fearing his land would inevitably “look like the government” if put into their hands, Kharrat and Ayoub did informally agree that nothing would be done in the landowner’s lifetime to harm the property’s biodiversity.
“I never intended to destroy this land. I just don’t trust anyone to conserve it the way it requires. If they made this a park, people would come and litter everywhere. Also, the Lebanese are curious people. If fences were built around the land one day, of course, people would trespass.”
Wary of stealth agendas, Ayoub said that he would remain the sole guardian of Baskinta’s untouched expanse. For Kharrat, the agreement was successful, even if Ayoub’s plot had not been registered with the government as a formal nature reserve.
“We don’t want people to go and destroy their land if they realize the value of the biodiversity. We’re not here to take away people’s land – this is something that we have to be cautious about ... to find the best approach every time in order to conserve these species.”
After a decade of fieldwork and research, Kharrat’s survey was recently completed and published in the June 2018 volume of the Journal for Nature Conservation. Prior to this publication, the country lacked data on the whereabouts of its native flora, Kharrat said.
In 1992, Lebanon signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, encouraging the country to take further steps toward preserving its wildlife.
In the same year, Horsh Ehden was established in north Lebanon as the country’s first nature reserve. Since then, reservations have been demarcated in Chouf, on Tyre’s coastline, and in Tannourine.
Kharrat and her team are hopeful that their survey will greatly benefit the ministry, which previously relied on civil society to propose areas to conserve. With the entire Mediterranean region designated as a biodiversity “hotspot,” the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund helped finance Kharrat's survey, further pressuring Lebanon to increase its protected areas.
While hiking around his piece of Baskinta, Ayoub lamented the unknown future of the forest.
“Haram,” he said quietly when asked what was to come.
“I don’t know.”