Victoria Finlay, of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, tells how five students got together to replant a forest devastated by fire - sowing the seeds of what was to become a full-scale national youth action group for the environment.
The fire destroyed most of the forest around a small village in central Lebanon. The flames were put out within days. But 11 years later they are still having an impact - this time a good one - all around the eastern Mediterranean.
'The fire was a terrible thing,' remembers Monir Bu Ghanem, who was a 23-year-old student of business administration at the time the fire broke out. 'But instead of accepting it as fate, we decided to do something about it.' He and four young friends from Ramlieh village - an hour's drive from Beirut - immediately set up an action group.
'First we wanted to learn to fight fires and prevent them happening again. And second we wanted to plant trees, to get our forest back,' he says. One of the friends had an uncle who lent them some land; they transformed it into a nursery and grew 10,000 saplings. As these were more than they needed locally, they also sent young trees to other parts of the country.
At first they kept the decision group to five 'because that was the most people we could get into the car - which was where we held all our meetings,' Monir said. But it soon spread from a village scheme to become a full-scale national youth action group.
They set up a charity, the Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC), and began work on projects extending far beyond Ramlieh. In the decade since the fire, they have planted 250,000 trees throughout Lebanon, and the original nursery has been extended to include a centre for eco-tourism and environmental meetings. AFDC's early plans involved working with the Al Shouf Cedar Reserve, in the centre of the country. Cedars - the scented trees that are the country's emblem - once covered Mount Lebanon and beyond, but are now scarce. Ten years ago the reserve had a few ancient trees - and the 50,000 goats grazing the area ate new saplings, giving them almost no chance to grow.
Monir and his friends worked with the herders to persuade them to keep their goats away. In exchange, AFDC buys local jam, honey and other organic food, sells it and gives the income to the villagers.
The reserve now has at least 250 plant species, and about 100 species of migratory birds visit the area. Every year more than 20,000 people visit the reserve, and see what can be achieved by the belief and determination of a few young people.
AFDC members are Druze, Christian, Shi'a Muslim and secular: they work together, regardless of religion or sect, in a country which was wracked by inter-religious civil war for nearly 20 years. The war darkened all their childhoods, but it also made them more determined. 'Lebanon is very behind the rest of the world in caring for our natural environment: we lost a lot of time during the war. Nothing happened then at all,' says Monir.
The charity also protects the Harissa Forest, which clings to the steep hills behind Beirut and its busy neighbour Jounieh, and has been named as one of WWF's ten most important Mediterranean forests. Five years ago it was in danger of being bulldozed to build hotels. But AFDC - with the support of the international Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) - contacted the Patriarch of the Maronite Church, which owns most of the forest. He agreed to make it a sacred protected area. Following this example, the Jounieh municipality is now buying part of the forest for eco-tourism, and some of the private owners are pledging to protect their land as well.
PHOTOS: VICTORIA FINLAY
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