SHOUF, Lebanon – Lebanon’s 2,000 hectares of cedar forest are a peaceful oasis for hikers, mountain bikers and bird-watchers, a world away from the hustle and bustle of Beirut.
In the Shouf Cedar Reserve, the country’s largest natural forest, villagers make a living selling home-made jam, honey, pickled olives and wine to tourists.
The area was declared was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2005.
While sustainable tourism is booming, the ancient forests are under threat from climate change.
Nizar Hani, manager of Shouf Cedar Reserve, said: “Right now we have a new challenge for the cedar forest in Lebanon, which is the climate change.
“The expected threat to the cedar forest is (that) the natural regeneration will be affected, because the cedar seeds need to be under snow for two months minimum.”
Hani said it also affected the insects of the forest.
“Right now the impact of climate change is under control. Our role, and the role of the scientists in the universities in Lebanon, is to monitor the impact of climate change on cedar forests.
“We hope in the next year we’ll have more snow and more rain to minimize that impact,” he said.
The reserve is trying to raise awareness of biodiversity among its visitors and the local community, including schools and decision makers.
Hani said: “The eco-tourism is to raise the awareness of the visitors, always we talk to them about the importance of the protected areas, the importance of the cedar forest, the importance of biodiversity.
“We believe if you know something very well, you can protect it. If you don’t know, you can’t protect it.”
The reserve had 40,000 visitors last year, 65% of them Lebanese and 35% foreigners. This year it is expecting to reach 50,000 visitors.
“Now we have the capacities to receive all those people, before we didn’t have the capacities,” said Hani.
“Now we have the infrastructure, we have the professional guides, we have the professional team to receive all the people, with a minimum impact on nature and on biodiversity.”
Villagers in the forest benefit from a sustainable tourism program to sell 42 different home-made products, from honey to walnut jam, herbs and olive oil, to tourists.
Hani said: “About 40 women benefit from this program. We increase their income and they work on a seasonal basis to prepare all the products.
“In addition to the women, we have the bee keepers. They can put their bees in the reserve and at the end of the season promote their honey here.”
The villagers also offer a unique vacation experience, renting out rooms to tourists and cooking traditional meals for their guests.
During Lebanon’s civil war 15 years ago, militia leader Walid Jumblatt dug ditches around the forest and planted landmines to protect it from loggers and rival militias.
Hani said: “He planted landmines in those ditches to protect this forest.
“We’re lucky, really, it was a very difficult way, it was maybe a strange way, but it was very difficult during the civil war, it was a mess.”
After all, cedar trees have a fond place in Lebanese history as well as in the center of the country’s flag.
Their soft, light wood was highly prized in the ancient world and they featured in the “Epic of Gilgamesh” poem written nearly 3,000 years ago, as well as the Bible and the Quran.