BENTAEL, JBEIL: Forest fires regularly ravage Lebanon. No steps are being taken to protect the country’s green spaces. Foreign development assistance is often ineffective.

While these are accepted as truisms, there are also success stories on these fronts, such as the Bentael Nature Reserve in Jbeil, which has a clean record when it comes to fires and is taking steps to further enhance its fire-fighting performance.

The reserve is currently in the final stage of implementing its first fire prevention and control program, proposed in July 2009.

Raymond Khoury, who heads the committee of volunteers who manage the reserve, coordinated with United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to implement the Bentael Nature Reserve and Important Bird Area Fire Prevention program, which has introduced serious measures to reduce fire risk.

Measures in the final phase include the construction of a reservoir and canalization system, for which the FAO sent 30,000 euros to Green Square, a non-for-profit that is responsible for administering the funds.

It is hoped that the reservoir, which will hold 140 cubic meters of water, will not only draw tourists but also provide enough water to fight forest fires within the reserve and in neighboring towns.

The funds will also cover this month’s construction of a second 12-meter tower and purchase of new equipment in the form of shovels and other hand tools. The effort also involves distributing educational leaflets at private and public schools.

The reserve is classified by FAO as “high risk for fire.” In 2008, Bird Life International and SPNL Lebanon declared the reserve an Important Bird Area (IBA).

Courtesy of Jbiel Nature Reserve

Its 115 hectares is mostly made up of dense forests of pine and oak, which are susceptible to forest fires. Khoury said the reserve is working with Green Square on a Memorandum of Understanding for the identification of its species and herbarium biodiversity.

Agence Française de Développement (AFD) issued 110,000 euros in the program’s initial phase for trail restoration and administrative support, of which 50,000 was allocated for the construction of a 12-meter wooden watchtower and purchase of a fire truck (the only such vehicle in Lebanon under a nature reserve’s jurisdiction.)

Two fire safety and prevention seminars were implemented for the reserve’s 55 volunteers, who are all equipped with walkie-talkies, binoculars and hunting attire.

A third workshop is underway, thanks to the funding from local contributors, and it will highlight the importance of protecting natural resources and the dangers of hunting, wood and plant cutting.

Additional programs have included clearing 5 to 40 meters of herbs and shrubs to add to the buffer zones, which are considered high-risk forest fire areas.

“We are the smallest land nature reserve in Lebanon and only low-altitude Mediterranean vegetation [area] declared a nature reserve,” said Khoury.

Khoury noted that the reserve last received LL 82 million from the Environment Ministry in 2005, however, since then no additional funds have been allocated.

The ministry declared Bentael a nature reserve in 1999 under Law 11/1999, and remains the supervisory body, responsible for its management.

After a recent visit by Khoury to the ministry, Minister Mohammed Rahhal pledged to secure additional funding for the reserves’ future programs, through the 2010 state budget; the minister is a supporter of expanding the number of nature reserves in Lebanon.

Despite the scarcity of funding that has been available from the central government in recent years, the development assistance appears to have helped keep the reserve going in the meantime.

“Bentael remains a leader for local fire prevention,” said Khoury. Fortunately, there have been no reported fires within the reserve.

Khoury noted that when the reservoir is completed, the reserve will have the full capacity to fight all fires in areas surrounding Bentael as well as the villages of Dmalsa and Meslan, which have experienced fires this summer.

“Bentael remains a leader for local fire prevention,” said Khoury. “In case of fire, we want a quick response.”

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