Lebanon’s Vanishing Juniper Trees
By: Rameh Hamieh
Published Friday, June 22, 2012
Little by little, Lebanon’s western mountains are losing their dense green areas.
Spaces between trees are expanding, especially in the forests and nature reserves that contain juniper, cedar, fir, and oak trees.
Something is afoot in these forests today: a massacre that signals their imminent disappearance.
Trees in the juniper forests and nature reserves which are spread over large areas of the mountains and ravines are being cut down by residents of villages and towns along Lebanon’s western mountain range.
Attempts to put an end to the arbitrary tree-cutting are limited to the occasional raid by security forces.
The last one was a few months ago, when the army searched some of the villages, arrested a few people, and confiscated coal and firewood made from aged juniper trees.
The saddest part is that these trees, when cut down, will not grow back.
“They are single cotyledon trees with elongated wood cells and they are evergreen,” explains Dr. Youssef Sharif, an environmental activist and botanist.
The “tragic” situation in the juniper reserves prompted Sharif to start growing them to save them from extinction. But “they are unique in the way they grow and the amount of time it takes,” he says.
Hailing from the nearby town of Yammouneh, his love for these trees and their unique properties compelled him to make them the subject of his PhD dissertation at Toulouse University in France.
He says that growing junipers is “is nature’s secret since they do not grow in the soil haphazardly.”
He explains that “fruit-eating birds like to feed on the black juniper berries, due to their spicy taste and smell of incense. After being ingested, the digestive system of the bird (the giblets) begin to secrete enzymes that break up the insulation that prevents the seed from growing.”
“Then they pass the seeds in their droppings into the soil. The soil and degree of moisture have to be right and it takes a long time (18 months) to achieve reproduction,” he continues.
This natural method is often not very successful and full of challenges, particularly given “the significant decrease in the number of birds due to Turkey’s eradication of blackbirds, starlings, and crows by the pesticide monocrotophos.”
For the past six years, Sharif had been conducting experiments to replace the natural method of growing junipers with an industrial one.
Six months ago, he succeeded in “achieving a growth rate of 95 percent, compared to 3 percent internationally and 1 percent at the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Sharif declines from revealing his methods but mentions that “the small berries are prepared over a period of four months, through heating and chemical processes. This is followed by the period of planting them in soil and sprouting, taking between three and six months.”
Sharif oversees his nursery from his cabin. He is now growing several types of juniper and already has around 4,000 saplings in special boxes, some already a few centimeters tall.
He says he could grow around 200,000 saplings if he had “financing and support” and maintains that the ministries of agriculture, environment, and economy have copies of his degree and know about his ability to grow any type of tree.
“But to this day, they have not taken even one tree from the nursery for planting, and they have not established a center for planting trees,” he complains.
In any case, although he personally funded his experiment, he seems overjoyed after successfully “planting the 1,300th tree in the Yammouneh nature reserve.”
Sharif’s study indicates that “the Yammouneh nature reserve is unique in Lebanon, since it has 14 types of juniper trees out of the 60 known types.”
Older studies “only identified four types, since researchers depended on mules and donkeys to move around, and could not reach the other types in my study.”
He says they include “Juniperus drupacea, Juniperus phoenicea, Juniperus communis, Juniperus sabina, Juniperus chinensis, conic, serratus, and Juniperus virginiana,” among others.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.