When I applied for a job in the park twenty years ago, my parents didn’t approve: ‘Why be a guard in a forest?’ I saw it as an opportunity to learn new things but I didn’t know I’d fall in love with nature. I realised how important it was to protect it and now it’s a way of life.
Covering a full 5% of the country, Shouf’s magnificent forests are the largest remaining stands of Lebanese cedar in the country. A national emblem, some trees are 2,000 years old, descendants of those from which the Phoenicians built boats and a civilisation.
When Nizar began working in the park, tourism meant large hotels and environmentalism was virtually unheard of in Lebanon. That it now sees around 100,000 ecotourists a year hiking, birdwatching, snow-shoeing and learning about nature, is down to the vision of Nizar and his team.
We call it practical conservation. We don’t tell local communities the park is important because it contains threatened reptiles or because its trees are the emblem of Lebanon – instead we explain that if we look after the land, we’ll have more visitors, more income, and more pride. People said it was dangerous to involve local businesses but we’ve shown everyone that nature is a good investment.
Return of the ibex
Charismatic, well-connected and media savvy, Nizar is a master communicator. The annual ‘Walk with Commanders’ in the park draws thousands of participants, including the Lebanese President, and the recent release of rescued long-legged buzzards attracted local dignitaries, volunteers, boy scouts and media. But the best is yet to come.
“In September 2017, we reintroduced the Nubian ibex from Jordan. Absent from Lebanon for over 100 years, their grazing will help maintain high pasture land. And it’s high profile – we have ancient cedars but a tree is a tree, and an ibex is something else!”
With the core of the reserve protected and providing ecosystem services worth $19 million, Nizar is taking on a new challenge. Shouf has become so well-loved that adjacent land and precious resources are under strain. Reconciling development, community interests and conservation is a delicate balancing act.
In the beginning, we faced hunting and logging. Now everyone wants to invest in a house or a business in the region. We’re reviewing urban planning and buffer zone development with the Minister of the Environment. And the support we get from local communities and the Joumblatt family is key for realising our vision of sustainability.
Promoting sustainable land-use practices
Nizar’s work is part of MAVA’s Mediterranean Mosaics project focused on ecosystem restoration and landscape resilience to climate change. Al-Shouf Cedar Society and Nizar are now a key partner for MAVA’s action plan on cultural landscapes of which the Shouf is one of the 4 pilot sites.