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The trees of Lebanon: Victims of the country’s energy crisis

Energy poverty across the country is driving deforestation. Hundreds of oak, pine, fir and juniper trees — some of them centuries old — have been illegally cut down

Sayed Sanki
Sayed Sanki, 54, chops wood to heat his home in Mayfouk, northern Lebanon, last November.Diego Ibarra Sánchez
Antonio Pita

In the northern Lebanese town of Mayfouq, Faruq Barhum no longer uses a chainsaw to cut down trees when he needs wood to heat his humble home. After several warnings from the local authorities for illegal logging, he has resorted to a handsaw, so as not to be caught.

“It takes a lot longer… but it makes a lot less noise,” admits Barhum, a 36-year-old Syrian refugee in the Byblos area, one of the most beautiful and mountainous areas in Lebanon. It has the most trees in the country — some of them are centuries old — and deforestation has increased drastically as Lebanon goes through an economic, political and energy crisis that has gripped its people since 2019. According to the World Bank, it is one of the three most serious crises to have struck the country since the 19th century.

Barhum, 36, his wife, Amina, 29, and their four children survive on a small grant from the United Nations and the salary of picking up trash from the streets twice a week. The government only guarantees a few hours of electricity each day (four, since February; before, between one and two). The family can’t afford a private generator, diesel or solar panels to supplement this. Instead, they recharge their phones at a gas station and live in near darkness after sunset.

“I’d rather buy food than candles,” Barhum explains, while his wife feeds the stove with wood. The fire in the center of the main room offers heat, some light and the ability to cook… if you hold the pan patiently over the flames. “Even when [the stove is] at maximum, you have to wait a long time until the food is done. And, for frying potatoes, we need to add wood. We don’t always have any, so sometimes we use whatever, shoes or plastic stuff. It leaves a horrible smell,” he adds.

Amina, a Syrian refugee living in the North of Lebanon, heats water using a stove in her house.
Amina, a Syrian refugee living in the North of Lebanon, heats water using a stove in her house.Diego Ibarra

In this context of energy poverty, images of forests with illegally cut trees began to appear on social media last year. Some of the chopped trees were up to 500-years-old. However, these are not the famous cedars mentioned in the Old Testament, and so often associated with Lebanon, appearing on its flag and in its national anthem. Only a few cedars remain, protected in national reserves. Rather, the destroyed trees are mostly oaks, pines, firs and junipers.

These trees can grow at altitudes of between 4,500 and 9,000 feet. Their ability to resist a lack of water or extreme temperatures makes them a key ally in the fight against climate change. Since the crisis began in 2019, Lebanon — once referred to as Lubnan al Ajdar (“Green Lebanon”) in a song by the legendary singer Fairuz, in 1963 — has lost a lot of its forested area. Yet, forest still encompasses 13% of the country, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Because of the altitude and the frequency of snowfall in this mountainous region, the locals (mostly Maronite Christians) have relied on firewood for heating and cooking for generations. But the crisis has changed the extent of logging, legal and illegal. The savings of the Lebanese have been battered by devaluation and hyperinflation — the currency has lost 98% of its value. Migration to Europe has risen, while the shortage of diesel for boilers has caused the price to skyrocket.

“We used to heat ourselves with gas or diesel, but these days it has become too complicated,” explains Thérèse Tarabayt, 64, as she shows EL PAÍS the fireplace of her house in Mayfouq with her daughter-in-law, Nisrín. It is, she says, a new model: it creates a lot of heat from the burning of wood. Her children chop down trees on the family land to keep it going.

Thérèse Tarabayt stacks firewood at her house in Mayfouq.
Thérèse Tarabayt stacks firewood at her house in Mayfouq.DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ

“The crisis has pushed the citizens of certain regions to chop down trees at random, without going to the Ministry of Agriculture (responsible for monitoring forests) to obtain permits,” the ministry’s head, Abbas Hajj Hassan, told the Lebanese daily L’Orient Today last year. Abbas Hajj Hassan estimates that his department receives “hundreds” of complaints about illegal logging on a daily basis.

Hajj Hassan considers it impossible to investigate all of them and patrol the green areas, due to lack of personnel… and due to lack of funds to pay for the gasoline needed by the patrolling vehicles. “It’s a real shame, because we constantly talk to the United Nations, donors and the European Union about the need to have more green spaces in Lebanon,” he says.

Relying on fossil fuels

The economic crash has further exposed the inefficiencies of an energy system that never recovered from the Civil War (1975-1990) and has a heavy dependence on hydrocarbons. In a country with 300 sunny days a year, only 1% of state energy comes from the sun. Around 95% comes from burning fossil fuels.

Samir Suleiman cuts firewood near his house in Mayfouq.
Samir Suleiman cuts firewood near his house in Mayfouq.DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ

In the surroundings of Mayfouq, you can see a few tree stumps, as well as people cutting logs into smaller pieces, or transporting them by car or van. Chadi Mehanna — the director of Rural Development and Natural Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture — has alluded to “mafias with SUVs that work at night.” During the day, you can also hear saws. The locals are wary about whoever asks about the noise.

Last September, in the outskirts of the town, a series of videos showed hundreds of fallen pine trunks. Najat Saliba — an environmental expert and former director of the Center for the Conservation of Nature at the American University of Beirut — was recently elected to the Lebanese Parliament for the Progress Party, as an alternative to the traditional political elite. She has referred to the situation around Mayfouq as a “catastrophe,” insisting on the importance of raising awareness and offering an energy alternative to the population.

“We understand the situation. The rise in the price of fuel has pushed many people to go and log. But at the same time, we have trees that are over 200-years-old that have shaped our identity and created the landscape we know. How do you strike a balance between the two things?” she said in an interview at her party headquarters in Beirut.

Saliba is committed to convincing the locals to heat themselves with branches obtained from pruning and with bushes, given that “the state is not there… awareness-raising and monitoring of good practices have not been implemented.”

Nayat Saliba, at her office in the Center for the Conservation of Nature at the American University of Beirut.
Nayat Saliba, at her office in the Center for the Conservation of Nature at the American University of Beirut.DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ

Wood has become the cheapest means of heating in Lebanon, according to an analysis published last September by the Beirut-based International Information Consultancy. However, the group warns of “environmental repercussions” by increasing “the logging of trees and arson.” According to the document, the diesel needed to heat a home in winter costs seven times more than in 2021-2022.

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