Preserving Jabal Moussa's Heritage Through Ecotourism

Brooke Anderson, The Lebanon Daily Star, January 19, 2012

Just 50 kilometers northeast of the Lebanese capital lies some of the country's most diverse natural heritage. Today, some dedicated conservationists are working to keep it that way through sustainable ecotourism and local development projects.

"You cannot conserve a place unless you showcase it," says Pierre Doumet, president and founder of the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa, established in 2007 to protect the area and establish a program of sustainable development, involving the expertise of local residents, the financial help of institutions and private donors.

He adds: "We want ecotourism to be responsible, and we want people to keep the area beautiful, bring jobs to the area and help local development."

Locals have been trained to serve as guides and guards, while women from the rural areas are now selling their traditional food, mouneh, including kshik, tomato syrup, zaatar (thyme) and hosrom (juice from grape vines), as well as handicrafts. A kiosk has been installed near the entrance to the reserve as a first point of sale, after which they hope for the goods to reach the cities. In addition, local families are being trained to run guest houses for visitors who choose to stay the night.

With most of the members of the association originally from Jabal Moussa, they say it was not difficult to approach the locals, many of whom are related to them. In fact, some of them came forward asking how they could participate in a project that would allow them to preserve their cultural and environmental surroundings.

"Before, they were doing crafts for their families and neighbors, but they didn't have a way to market their products," says project manager Christelle Abou Chabke. "This will help keep people in their villages instead of going to Beirut and Tripoli. And they're doing something that helps preserve their traditions."

As part of the association's research, a team of students from St. Joseph University studied the area and determined that one of the main setbacks for the local community was a lack of job opportunities, which has led to rural flight and, at other times, inadvertently caused residents to harm their own surroundings by sometimes earning money from grazing and cutting trees.

Today, they're using their traditional knowledge and skills to preserve their surroundings.

Flanked by the Dahab and Ibrahim rivers and rising from 350 to 1,600 meters above sea level, Jabal Moussa forms a stunning natural oasis in comparison to the natural landscape approaching the reserve that has seen years of damage by quarry after quarry.

The steep mountains make a thrilling but hard hike for trekkers, and an even harder life for rural residents, whose traditional lifestyle is under threat of disappearing.

In 2007, a group of conservationists created the Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa with the goal of protecting an area rich in natural diversity and cultural heritage. Two years later, the organization presented their research to the ministry of agriculture and then to UNESCO, which designated it as the third biosphere of Lebanon, after the cedars in the Chouf and the Rihane forest in the south.

Jabal Moussa now has three nurseries dedicated to reforestation and preserving biodiversity. The project's annual budget is between $300,000 and $400,000, and is financed by grants from local embassies, the United Nations Development Program and private donations.

Although it sits on a relatively small area, 1250 hectares, Jabal Moussa is notable for its rich diversity of species of more than 700 species of plants, including six that are native to the area.

While it might be too early to determine the results achieved by the five-year-old conservation project, some returning, local dwellers might already be an indication of its success.

Layal Boustany, in charge of the nurseries at Jabal Moussa says, "Through our sensory camera, we've seen animals come out during the day, and that's very rare in Lebanon."