Zaher Redwan has launched a nation-wide, non party-affiliated movement to promote the strengthening of Lebanon's bio-diversity. Through income generating schemes and interactive education initiatives that bring citizens face-to-face with the country’s vast environmental wealth, Zaher is nurturing a cultural and ecological understanding of the environment to underpin new national policy.
The New Idea
Zaher is putting together all of the relevant pieces to make biodiversity a strategic national objective. He is financially incentivizing those whose actions are accelerating the loss of biodiversity – like private landowners who sell farmland to urban developers and herb collectors who crudely harvest plants growing in the wild – to do the opposite. Similarly, financial incentives encourage new actors to be a part of the solution – like farmers who previously grew marginally viable crops like tobacco and now grow the more profitable, less labor-intensive, disappearing oregano plant. By using a 1500 person network made up of young people to lead this work, Zaher is also nurturing a new generation to be more knowledgeable about the environment and thus, its natural stewards. Beyond working with targeted groups mentioned above, Zaher uses this network to educate the general public, including an even younger generation, to consider their thoughts on the richness of the Lebanese environment and consider ecologically friendly practices in their everyday lives. This network currently works in 100 schools and has brought interactive educational sessions, including different games to better understand their ecological footprint, to over 100,000 students. Students have also been brought outside the classroom to witness and participate in the local projects underway to promote biodiversity. Lastly, Zaher is closing the loop of this comprehensive strategy by spearheading national policy on biodiversity to be supported by the work his network is already doing with local government decision makers in each of Lebanon’s 26 districts.
Sitting at the crossroads of Eurasia and Africa where plants and animals of three continents were cultivated and spread, the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories) has a remarkably diverse and unique ecosystem. Indeed, there are thousands of plant species that are rare and/or endemic to the region or its respective countries. However, war, instability and rapid urbanization have left the environment poorly managed or neglected altogether. Lebanon, for example, saw its forest areas dwindle to seven percent by the late 1990s, and despite the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, four of the seven nature reserves declared by law lack management and monitoring plans today. The Palestinian Territories’ several non-coordinated conservation laws - with their corresponding weak budgets - is another example of the region’s lack of focus around the environment. As a result, the Levant has seen thousands of plant species listed as threatened or endangered, including 206 near extinction in Lebanon alone. And with the disappearance of such plants also goes their unique genetic material that is potentially important to humankind. Indeed, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to sudden disasters and more gradual climate change.
Because of the volatile political situation, lack of a national conservation strategy, and limited manpower, the few outside funders focused on the environment in the Levant have tended to bypass government channels and work directly with citizen organizations (COs). However, COs have largely limited themselves to awareness building and creating seed banks, which Zaher sees as a huge missed opportunity to leverage the manpower embedded in the larger citizenry to drive a comprehensive solution from the bottom up.
To make enthusiastic participants of farmers in reintroducing local plants, Zaher has opened training centers in two rural areas where small farmers, who often find themselves cultivating a crop more out of habit rather than informed choice, are shown the numbers behind their current cultivation practices and then given a chance to learn how to cultivate more lucrative native plants. Tobacco farmers, for example, who essentially earn one dollar a day after taking into account all of the year-round family labor involved in the practice, have transitioned to farming native species of herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary, and are generating a much higher income while only working a few weeks a year --- which is all the time that is needed for these crops. Since opening the training centers in 2009, Zaher has trained over 765 farmers.
Zaher has also found success in approaching private landowners of non-farmland who, once they are also exposed to some key figures ---like the fact that there is so much demand for oregano in Lebanon that the country actually imports the herb from Jordan --- also sign up to cultivate the crop. In this way, the distribution of seeds and know-how are cross-subsidized, with existing small farmers receiving the assistance for free, and private landowners paying for a full system plan, including irrigation.
In another example, beekeepers have also become enthusiastic supporters of the planting of local herbs after Zaher revealed that the honey produced when bees feed on oregano plants fetches twice the price of regular honey.
To alter the habits of others who currently interact with the land, Zaher has a series of strategies. For example, he focuses on herb collectors, of which there are many as the Lebanese (and its neighboring countries) are large consumers of medicinal, edible, and aromatic plants. Currently, they make a living by gathering plants growing in the wild; however, the unorganized and bestial harvesting of such plants poses a significant threat to their continued existence. Zaher encourages attention to sustainable wild harvesting techniques, including proper timetables that encourage regeneration, by organizing their families into a loose association – Green Home – which can be called upon to make meals based on “authentic food” flavored with the herbs they gather. Currently over 125 families from across Lebanon have served food at tourist as well as local festivals, conventions, and gatherings. Beyond sustainability techniques, Zaher is also capacitating these families in the appropriate marketing techniques. He has also absorbed the 485 members of the Syndicate of Lebanese Craftsmen into this initiative, recognizing that craftsmen also often use biological resources without attention to sustainable harvesting techniques. Green Home has become the recently become an official partner of Lebanon’s annual Garden Show. With 22,000 average visitors, this is Lebanon’s largest exhibition.
For nature lovers – who sometimes are themselves not aware of the most sustainable ways of interacting with nature - Zaher helped launch a Green Responsible Tourism program to focus on “Hidden Lebanon” in 2011. He encouraged them to create “Herb Trails” alongside hidden archeological sites, with each trail carrying the name of an herb whose value has been hidden from mainstream consciousness. Local guides share educational material, manage the number of people who could be on the trail at any one time, and design the trail in such a way that the end of the trail has a money-earning concession that can be used to support the Herb Trail’s upkeep and maintenance. At present, five such herb trails, which feature Green Home foods and crafts –other hidden Lebanese gems – are in operation in across the country and have seen 478 visitors.
A 1500 person volunteer network that runs 8 community centers, all of which have been donated by the local community, is the engine of Zaher’s CSO, Green Hands. Divided into 23 Youth Groups, operating within an agreed upon set of principles and committee-like governance structure, each volunteer group chooses which kinds of projects it wishes to pursue, partnering with Zaher, who has been elected President, for the relevant fundraising strategies.
To encourage true ownership, Zaher initially works with each group on specific tasks directly related to their studies and/or personal interests. For the contingent of volunteers from the Lebanese University faculty of Agriculture, for example, Zaher challenged them to conduct the relevant research to compose “Green Hands Endemic Species Guide.” This publication represents Lebanon’s first book on the subject. The students have gone on to recruit their professors, who are now giving course credit for the research, and are partnering with them for further research.
Other members of the volunteer groups see the environment as just one issue of a broader set of community goals and have incorporated other events like art exhibitions, poetry nights, and musical concerts into the more typical recycling and community cleaning efforts.
Beyond this network of dynamic young people, Zaher also has a series of strategic partners to advance his work. The Ministry of Agriculture, for example, provides agricultural experts to further support farmers who have switched to cultivating local plants. A memo of understanding has been signed with the ministries of Tourism and Environment to break ground on Lebanon’s first Botanic Garden, which will serve as a herbarium, seed bank, medicinal and aromatic plants nursery, training facility, scientific research center, and interactive educational center. From this center, Zaher will also begin to concretize work with other countries in the Levant to create a regional plan for the conservation of biodiversity. He has already worked with a colleague in Syria in publishing a compendium on the Endemic Plant Species of Syria.
Zaher also partners with any CO whose work also benefits the environment. He worked with a coalition of Lebanon’s 20 largest COs, for example, to pass a tobacco control law because doing so would further encourage a move away from the cultivation of that crop. Zaher has been elected the president of this coalition, and another in Jordan. These relationships will prove vital as Green Hand begins to pursue more explicit environmental legislation.
Zaher grew up in Aley, a mountain city with a mix of religions and one of the few cities that completely reconciled after the war in the 1980s. When he was a young boy he watched his father shoot a bird that slowly died, and he convinced his father to stop practicing this sport. At university he founded the BAU Environment Protection Club and was a founding member of the "Environmental Union" that gathered together the environment clubs of all the universities in Lebanon.
In 1999, when he was 20 years old, he launched Green Hand and began doing forestation projects. The organization grew until in 2007, conducting an activity a week, when Zaher felt that he had to move beyond projects and create a vision of what it would take to make Biodiversity a major objective for Lebanon. He spent several years thinking about this and in 2010 attended a three month course at Mastricht University where he distilled his thinking into a strategic vision for Green Hand built around his three foci: Community, Key Decision Makers and Plants.
At every step in his work Zaher has steadfastly remained non-partisan. That has created obstacles - for example, when he went to officially register Green Hands it was delayed several years because both of the political parties in his area opposed him because he would not ally himself with one or the other. Zaher was finally invited by the Minister in charge to explain why Zaher invited him to so many events, and Zaher was able to convince the Minister to over-ride the political objections and register his citizen sector organization.