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WWF on ARC: Church in Lebanon plays key environmental role

WWF News: March 2004:

Saving Lebanese forests is part of vital environmental work in the Mediterranean

By Peter Denton

The Harissa forest in Lebanon – named by WWF as one of 10 forest areas vital to the natural heritage of the Mediterranean – is directly benefiting from the global partnership between world religions, ARC and WWF.

As Lebanon’s economy recovers from two decades of strife, the 400-hectare forest has been threatened with destruction to make way for a burgeoning hotel building programme. But following a direct appeal to the Maronite Church – owners of the forest for more than a thousand years – the area was designated a natural reserve.

The forest is on the hills overlooking Jounieh Bay, 15km north of Beirut. During the civil war, thousands of people moved to Jounieh to escape the ravages of Beirut. Now, the town is rapidly developing as a tourist resort complete with cable car, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and the country’s biggest casino – and while that may be good for the economy, it’s bad news for nature and the environment.

A new book, Faith In Conservation: New Approaches to Religions and the Environment, shows how religions are increasingly forming partnerships with environmental and development organisations in order to make the planet a better place for all forms of life.

“Faiths are the oldest institutions in the world and possess great wisdom,” said James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, which published the book. “So it’s very natural for us to work with religious institutions and leaders. The engagement from all sides is one charged with potential.”

The book is written by Martin Palmer and Victoria Finlay. WWF is acknowledged for its central role in establishing lasting links between the environment and the world’s leading religions. Faith In Conservation sets out and explores the environmental viewpoints of 11 major world religions, and considers how they can help shape an effective global policy.

Endangered species

Although relatively small, Harissa forest contains 27 endangered and 52 rare plant species. It is also home to 168 species of animals, 152 of butterflies and 69 of birds. But as the town around it develops, the forest has been irrevocably damaged by road-building and other construction work. Now, however, the remaining 400 hectares will be safe.

“The Maronite decision, taken by the Patriarch himself, has encouraged private landowners and even one of the local municipalities to make similar promises,” said Martin Palmer, chief executive of ARC. The Church has also created an ecology centre in a monastery, protected two other major woodland sites, and developed environmental education and action programmes in 77 villages and towns. “Without doubt, the Church is now one of the key advocates of environmental protection in Lebanon,” Martin Palmer added.

WWF is drafting a conservation plan for the forest in collaboration with ARC, the Maronite Church and a Lebanese partner, the Association for Forest Development and Conservation.

For information about WWF’s Mediterranean Programme, which includes the Harissa forest, click here.


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