Lebanon’s Wadi al-Hujeir: From Occupation to Exploitation
By: Amal al-Khalil
Published Sunday, July 8, 2012
In a few days, Wadi al-Hujeir in southern Lebanon will be celebrating the second anniversary of its being declared a nature reserve. But are the provisions of the law enough to protect the pristine valley from rampant construction and tourism projects?
At the intersection of the Qaaqaiyet al-Jisr, many of those who used to cross into Wadi al-Hujeir often felt quite uneasy.
The memories of the resistance martyrs who died in the valley from the seventies and up until the July 2006 war still lingered between its woods and springs. And the valley was, until just a few years ago, off-limits to civilians — designated as a military zone by the resistance.
This militarization began initially as the valley came under occupation, later becoming a front line between the liberated regions and the occupied border strip.
There were no paved roads suitable for vehicle traffic. And the valley brought back bad memories for those who used to cross it at night, escaping compulsory military services with Israel’s proxy militia.
But for some time now, people heading to Hujeir no longer see or sense any of this. At the entrance of the valley, two tourist facilities sprung up recently, taking advantage of the proximity to the Litani River, and the grassy foothills of the town of Ghandouriyeh.
Another establishment, a park-restaurant, lies a short distance away, where the owner seems to have taken advantage of a spring flowing from the rocks on the side of the road. And interspersed here and there, one may also find small mosques, houses, farm sheds, and gas stations.
After driving past several randomly placed park-restaurants, we reach the foothills of the town of Kantara.
Here, the “development scene” becomes more orderly. A wellspring from the mountain flows into a pond made up of several mini-ponds, connected by arches. The body of water is enclosed with a retaining wall that has a traditional oriental design, surrounded by recently planted saplings.
This novel spectacle in the tranquil valley is the result of the efforts of the Union of Municipalities of Jabal Amel, which decided to develop part of the valley to serve as a touristic and recreational facility.
The move to build the public park, which the union is responsible for cleaning and maintaining, was preceded by other development projects in Wadi al-Hujeir designed to attract locals and excursionists there.
After the Israeli assault, the municipalities in the region rushed to complete the dirt road that runs the valley’s length, partly through funding from the Council for South Lebanon. The road was then paved with additional support from the Kuwaiti Fund for Development in 2009, and was lit a year ago.
But opening the road to civilian traffic was not possible until some parts of the valley were cleared from mines and cluster bombs — a task undertaken by the organization Generations for Peace.
Ending the isolation of Wadi al-Hujeir after its liberation required an urgent plan from the region’s municipalities and leaders in an attempt to protect the valley from abuses that come with random development, including commercial and touristic investments and the reclamation of farmlands. This paved the way for the idea of declaring the valley a natural reserve.
According to the President of the Union of Municipalities Ali al-Zein, parliament passed Law No. 121 in July 2010, creating the Wadi al-Hujeir nature reserve over state-owned lands, from the Litani River in Qaaqaiyet al-Jisr in the Nabatiyeh district all the way to Aitaroun in the district of Bint Jbeil.
The law, which the union secured with the help of the region’s MPs, aims to preserve the natural features of the valley and to conserve its flora and fauna. Another purpose of declaring Wadi al-Hujeir a nature reserve is to restore it to an environmentally self-sustaining state that is conducive to scientific research, as well as to preserve its soil and fresh water sources.
But the ultimate goal is to protect it from pollution and degradation resulting from both natural factors and human activity, by appropriately managing and maintaining the valley’s ecology.
To achieve all this, the law expressly prohibits logging and restricts tree pruning and trimming activities, which can only be done, when needed, and with the consent of the ministries of environment and agriculture.
The law also prohibits the entry of livestock to the reserve’s grounds, and bans the disturbance or removal of any items or natural objects in the reserve, such as lighting fires, camping, hunting, etc.
But what is the situation like in reality? As far as the Jabal Amel municipalities are concerned, the union “is doing its part and is carrying out its duties concerning the ecology of the valley,” according to Zein.
Zein compares the phase prior to declaring Wadi al-Hujeir a nature reserve with what is happening now, whereby many abuses have been curtailed.
But several complaints have been lodged over the last few years, some concerning the encroachment by developers on the adjacent state-owned commons and abandoned lands, and others concerning the felling of the old olive trees that the valley is famous for.
In addition, there were complaints against the construction of several touristic and commercial developments.
Al-Akhbar tried in vain to contact the head of Nabatiyeh’s municipality, Mahmoud al-Mawla, to inquire about the measures he is taking to protect the valley against abuse.
When this failed, we contacted the MP for the region Ali Fayyad, who had taken part in enacting the law concerning the reserve.
Fayyad acknowledged the threats facing Wadi al-Hujeir, calling on the security services, the judiciary, and the Ministry of Finance to all shoulder their responsibilities by withholding building permits for random real estate and touristic developments along the river.
Fayyad also called for commons to be protected against encroachment and to be zoned as farmland.
The judiciary, meanwhile, must be firm in prosecuting those who encroach on protected areas, and conduct a survey of disputed lands to determine which are public domain and which are private property, as well as following-up on tip-offs from local officials.
But has there been any response to these calls? Last week, officials and dignitaries from the region flocked to attend the opening ceremony of a new tourist facility in al-Hujeir, despite the fact that several sources in the municipality said that its owner “had failed to meet the proper environmental requirements.”
According to these sources, the owner has encroached on the valley, as per the law concerning the reserve. They also said that “he had initially built the facility based on a permit for drilling an artesian well!”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.