The region of Akkar in Northern Lebanon plays host to one of the oldest coniferous forests in the wider region and as such is a biodiversity hotspot that locals depend on for their livelihoods. Shepherds often use the forest as a grazing area, while logging of the forest has tremendous value for the local economy. Yet recent national shortages of fuel and other staples goods due to the ongoing economic crisis have led to a drastic fall in incomes along with the central government unable to continue supporting social security initiatives, meaning that many have resorted to ecologically harmful or disruptive activities such as illegal logging or overgrazing. In the area surrounding the town of Akkar el Atiqa, this has meant that overconsumption of the forest’s resources such as lumber and grazing space for livestock, both threatens the ecosystem, as well as the livelihoods of those dependent on the forest, inflaming tensions between various communities in the area. These tensions have escalated to the point where armed incidents have taken place between the communities. Competition over access to the forest and perceptions of maltreatment have given rise to intergenerational local disputes which are at risk of escalating.
The community of Akkar el Atiqa saw a way of protecting their town and surrounding natural resources in the Environment Academy (EA). EA is a community-born and expert-supported partnership that seeks to support ongoing activism in communities affected by environmental degradation. Environment Academy began by designating Akkar as a case for the organisation following a application process from the community in Akkar hereafter they began the process of establishing a local community team that will seek to both select the methodology employed by Environment Academy in Akkar and help to carry out long-term solutions. The members of the community team are representatives and community activists engaged with preserving the local environment. The local community team in Akkar el Atiqa, supported by Environment Academy, has decided to respond to these issues in a multifaceted approach. The team has been working to assess the state of the surrounding ecosystem and to better understand how locals are reliant upon the forests of Akkar el Atiqa. The aim is to find common ground between the disputing stakeholders in the region, so that an agreement can be introduced on inclusive and sustainable management of the ecosystem.
Following this initial stage, Environment Academy continued supporting the community team in taking diverse actions to meet their goals through media campaigns to create or increase social pressure on those illegally logging or over-exploiting the forest. While legal enforcement remains challenging in the region due to its remoteness and political marginalization, media pressure allows to confront those who are behind overexploitation of natural resources with a social backlash. Environment Academy is thus showing how media attention can create local motivation to support inclusive ecosystem management and, thereby helping to stabilise the local security situation in Akkar.
The efforts at protecting the forest and ensuring that an outbreak of violence does not reappear are also dependent on understanding the health and regeneration of the forest ecosystem. Key to this has been conducting surveys of the local plant life, interviewing locals in an effort to understand how climate change is affecting the forest, and mapping out the current state of land use in the area. This has helped to inform the community team and the Environment Academy on the current risks posed to the forests, and to plot a pathway for how the forest can continue to support the livelihoods of the local populations while remaining a healthy ecosystem. Environment Academy advocates for healthy pre-existing practices and traditional living in symbiosis with the forests as a pushback against more exploitative practices. Traditionally, inhabitants of forested areas such as Akkar have not only relied upon the forest for resources but also functioned as sensitive stewards of the ecosystems that they in turn relied upon. Environment Academy is focused on restoring this balance by advocating for the re-emergence of symbiotic practices and ensuring that this adoption is led from within the community itself.
This development has been amplified by a larger push born from the community to have the forest designated as a national park by the national government of Lebanon. By engaging with the Minister for Environment, the community team of Akkar el Atiqa has put forward a proposal, based on countless land designation maps and survey data collected, to designate the area as such a park. This would help to institutionalize much of the work the community team and Environment Academy have done on the ground, by providing further legal protections and state resources for the maintenance of the forest. Environment Academy’s approach is to focus on empowering communities to seek their own solution to overexploitation based on local social norms and pre-existing land management practices that have been standard for generations. In turn, they hope this would help resolve social tensions in the area. The emphasis on locally led initiatives that take into account the social context and pre-existing relationships with the ecosystem, has been combined with an institutional push to legally codify these norms to support local developments.
This best practice segment on the Environment Academy has been based on an interview with Sammy Kayed, co-founder and managing director of Environment Academy. To read more on the work the Environment Academy is doing in Akkar el Atiqa and beyond see their website here.