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Latest News: Restoration Stories

Beirut's RiverLESS Forest

Thursday, October 1, 2020  
Posted by: Alexis Gibson
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Restoration Stories are a deeper look at stories behind our Restoration Resource Center Featured Project. This month we're featuring the Beirut RiverLESS Forest project from Beirut, Lebanon. The goal of this project was to reclaim an urban landfill through planting a forest, leading to regenerating biodiversity, restoring the water cycle, and providing a shared space for humans and other organisms. 


 "Being on site fills me with peace and hope. The transformation has been so quick, and the support of the community has been so overwhelming, that we know we are on the right track."


 
 Performing a plant survey in a nearby reference site. 

The River Brought People Together

The region used to be the floodplain of the Beirut River, a river which had been the freshwater source for the Roman city of Berytus (currently Beirut) and earlier civilizations. The ecosystem was a riparian one, which we can still see a few kilometers. The area was slowly turned into farmland, and planted with aggressively invasive species, such as eucalyptus, to dry up the land. Eventually, several waves of immigration starting in the early 20th century with Armenians fleeing the genocide, Palestinians fleeing the Naqba, internally displaced Lebanese during the civil war, and up to the Syrian war, have resulted in informal and formal settlements in those farmlands, putting these vulnerable populations at the mercy of flooding.

During most of the 20th century, the banks of the river had been natural, providing the communities with ecosystem services such as fresh food and water, regulating temperature and snow melt, supporting humans and wildlife habitat, and cultural services such as being a meeting and recreational place for people from opposite sides of the river. The Armenian water festival Vardavar, the Muslim Eid… were celebrated together by the different communities. Picnics, fishing, and boating served to bring people together as well. When the river was encased in concrete in 1968, this marks for us the death of the river as it lost all ecosystem services. It also became disconnected from the communities, turning into a no-mans-land, which led to it becoming a dumping ground for all sorts of waste - untreated industrial and residential sewage, solid waste, trash, plastics - all of which ends up in the Mediterranean sea, making it a local problem with a global impact.

 
 Site before planting started. 

The Beirut River Valley is also considered a Category 4 Important Bird Area. Lebanon is in fact the second most important flyway for migratory birds worldwide, as birds traveling between Africa and Europe funnel over Lebanon’s particular geography. Unfortunately, Lebanon has one of the highest rates of illegal hunting and trafficking of migratory birds, which makes our proposal to plant urban native forests even more relevant. Since hunting is not allowed in the cities, we could provide respite and safe passage to migrating birds.

An Unloved Area

As an architect and planner working on regenerative practices, I have been interested in the transformation of the Beirut River from a natural ecosystem into a sewage infrastructure. The challenges of this project have been many, especially the disinterest of the different ministries and institutions responsible for the river and the Beirut River watershed. Our many proposals for tackling the systemic pollution of the river have been disregarded by the authorities as well.

We needed a more tangible, easier project, which would bypass the higher authorities and could nonetheless have a big impact. This is how we came up with the idea of planting Lebanon’s first Miyawaki forest, and approached the friendly mayor of Sin El Fil to give us access to land.

 Changes in the site: four months (left) and thirteen months (right) after planting. 

Since we couldn’t bring the river back to life, we decided to bring the forest ecosystem, which used to exist on the banks of the river, back to life. An added benefit to this is that the forest became a social space, bringing people back to the edge of the river. This is our indirect way of attracting them back to this unloved area, and getting them to actually notice the river and question its state. We believe this empowers them with knowledge, and hopefully the will to do something about it.

Surprisingly, funding hasn’t been much of a problem. We crowdfund from locals as well as through a funding app called Sugi Project. The main challenge has mostly been access to land. As we expand this project beyond the banks of the Beirut River, we have found it extremely difficult to get access to land. The authorities are not responsive, nor interested in the greater good, so we have to fight an uphill battle to get access to land. (We only ask the municipalities to take care of the watering for 2 years. We take on all of the fundraising, site works, and 2 years of maintenance ourselves with the help of volunteers.) It will take a few more pilot projects to get enough visibility and interest from other municipalities, and eventually the Ministry of Environment.

Creating Shared Spaces and Community

This project has already achieved a lot, from being the first Miyawaki forest in Lebanon, to a successful and replicable pilot project for cities in Lebanon and beyond.

We have developed a new initiative: theOtherForest, a nature-based tool for ecological and social regeneration in cities. We have started pitching our know-how to other cities of the MENA region, to replicate these forests and consider them as an essential tool to fight climate change, and to protect and recreate biodiversity hotspots in cities. Essentially creating shared spaces for humans and other organisms to coexist and thrive.

We were surprised at the enthusiasm of people for this project. People from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds have joined us in planting or maintaining the forest, press has been plentiful, funding has been relatively easy. We noticed that people view tree planting as an inherently good thing to do, a harmless non-political act. Good to photograph, good for social media… But if these were the initial reasons they joined us, they quickly discovered the therapeutic and ecological value of their act, and they keep on coming back for more, and advocating for more of our projects in their own communities.

Being on site fills me with peace and hope. The transformation has been so quick, and the support of the community has been so overwhelming, that we know we are on the right track.

New Forests with a Dystopic Backdrop

Since we’ve submitted the project, Greenpeace has released its latest report on air pollution (June 2020), and sadly ranked Lebanon as the country with the highest death rate due to air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels in the MENA region.

This is why we are very excited to share that we have managed to get the approval of the Zouk Mosbeh municipality, home to the "power plant of death" and one of the most polluted cities in Lebanon, to plant a Miyawaki forest in a leftover plot of land. The land will host around 700 saplings, and is located in between two busy streets, a fly bridge, with the two polluting chimneys and the Mediterranean Sea as a dystopic backdrop!

 
 

Restoration is Happening Everywhere

I have been taking the full 6-months-long Ecosystem Restoration Design by Gaia Education, and they always link back to the SER Restoration Resource Center as a reference for successful projects. I didn’t find many projects related to my region, so I believed our project would be a good addition to the database.

 

 

 

Text submitted by Adib Dada, Founder of The OtherDada and project implementer. 

Interested in being our Featured Project? Get in touch! All projects included in the Restoration Resource Center project database are eligible; projects with detailed information and photos are prioritized. 

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