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AINATA: In the Lebanese mountains, dozens of volunteers patrol nightly in Ainata to monitor vast hectares of centuries-old trees threatened by illegal logging, a growing phenomenon in Lebanon.

“Since the beginning of 2022, about 150 centuries-old oak trees have been cut down,” says Ghandi Rahme, the municipal police of this snowy village, located 1,700 meters above sea level.

It shows the only remnants of trees with huge trunks, brutally felled by human traffickers equipped with all-road vehicles and chainsaws that come out of sight at night.

The municipality of Ainata, located between northern Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa plain, like other Lebanese settlements, has accused organized gangs of cutting down perennial trees such as oak or juniper to engage in the lucrative firewood trade.

“These are Lebanese from the surrounding areas, sometimes accompanied by Syrian workers,” says Gandhi Rahme, a 40-year-old with a thick beard who caught the criminals red-handed in September.

Traffic has worsened with the economic crisis that has paralyzed Lebanon since 2019: the state is bankrupt, forest guards, like all security forces, no longer have the funds to carry out sufficient patrols.

Samir Rahme, a 60-year-old farmer from Ainata, says, “The massacres are frightening.”

Lack of means

Faced with this situation, donors, mainly Lebanese from the Ainata diaspora, contributed to the funding of a group of forest guards.

Since the night patrols were established, “we have not seen a single incident of illegal logging,” says Samir Rahma.

Local residents note that when these trees are cut down illegally, they never grow back.

But not all municipalities have the luxury of financial assistance to hire security guards, even temporarily.

“The budget allocated to us by the state has become a mockery,” says Ghassan Geagea, the mayor of the neighboring village of Bargha.

Even if he plans to ask residents to fund the patrols, the mayor doubts the effectiveness of such an approach “given the scale of the phenomenon.”

Because criminals are rampant in the remote heights of Barga, where thousand-year-old junipers are cut down.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, 13% of the forest surface in Lebanon has already been consumed due to increased urbanization and fires.

Only “sick” trees are allowed to be pruned under the control of the village municipality to allow residents to stay warm in winter.

“Five hundred years”

Paul Abi Rached, president of the NGO Terre Liban, recently raised the alarm by denouncing the proliferation of “ecological massacres” in Lebanon, particularly the cutting down of junipers.

According to the Ministry of Ecology, the country has the most important forests of this thousand-year-old tree in the Middle East, as well as pine, oak, cedar and fir forests.

Mr Abi Rached says the juniper is “one of the only trees that can grow at high altitudes and retain snow so that water can seep into the groundwater”.

But in recent years, smugglers suspected of selling its wood in Lebanon and Syria have become increasingly interested.

“If we don’t stop cutting down the junipers, we’re headed for water scarcity and drought,” he warns.

Especially “because it grows very slowly. Outside of reserves, it takes 500 years for it to take the form of a tree,” explains Youssef Tawk, from Becharre in northern Lebanon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 68-year-old doctor adds: “Cutting down this tree is a crime. To me, it’s like killing a person.”

For her part, Dany Geagea has been leading awareness campaigns among the children of her village against juniper cutting for 20 years.

He established an NGO called “Mamlakat al-Lazzab” (“Kingdom of Junipers”) and a reserve of the same name near Ainata, where he planted about 30,000 junipers.

But since September, “massacres” of junipers have been taking place regularly.

“Illegal logging is not new, what’s more, now it is being done in an organized manner,” laments the 46-year-old activist, who is not related to the mayor of Barga.

Even in the rare cases where criminals are caught, “they are quickly released without concern,” he sighs.

“This is Lebanon… Even justice has become politicized.”

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