Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Walking the shoreline along Beirut’s Corniche, I ponder the fisherman as they cast, watch, and wait. From traditional dress to professional-casual, the men along the rock wall could be on break from University or a day at the office, or this could be a daily ritual to wile away the hours. No one seems even mildly concerned that only one year ago the seafloor was a blanket of oily tar, and an obsidian ring of petroleum sludge defined the high tide line. In a country frighteningly devoid of environmental controls on industrial pollution and where tons of litter is discarded directly on the beaches, the idea of the natural habitat as anything other than something to exploit is counter-intuitive to mainstream Lebanon. Attempting to overcome these entrenched views is a staggering task; it’s easy to simply let things continue as they have. C’est la vie….
Easy for some, anyway. It amazes me how often some form of good comes from trauma, pain, and disaster. Last year, the July War and the oil spill were devastating for Lebanon - economically, ecologically, and emotionally. But the oil spill gave birth to a new vision for environmental action, born right here in Beirut from – no surprise – the inexhaustible Wa’el Hmaidan and Zena El-Khalil. If you followed this blog last year, you’ll recall Wael and Zena as the energy behind a grass roots effort to clean the oil spill from the beaches. They hosted me for one month while I volunteered on the oil spill in November 2006. Frustrated with the lack of freedom and inevitable bureaucracy that evolves within non-profit organizations – as well as in government, private industry, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – Indy Act was born. This union for independent activists (thus, “IndyAct”) serves as an umbrella non-profit for independent thinkers. Members can qualify under IndyAct’s non-profit status for grant funds. They have IndyAct’s organizational resources, interns, and volunteers available to them. Yet, they are free to pursue their own projects and solutions without the oversight and restrictions that come with most non-profit organizations. In a single year of operation, IndyAct has assembled the talents of three independent activists (“league members”) from Lebanon to achieve numerous successes within their three environmental, social and cultural campaigns . With local interest growing in global climate change issues, their volunteer ranks recently swelled from 50 to 80, and their staff of interns will grow from eight to twelve by January.
This week Wa’el and this storm of volunteers are putting the final preparations on their 9th December Walk-a-thon for global climate change awareness in the Arab world. In preparation for the event, they’ve strung “seawater level” tape around Beirut’s neighborhoods, as a visual reminder of the potential effects should Lebanon, the Arab nations, and the rest of the world decline to take action. They’ve created murals around the city (see 1st photo) to spread their “Draw the Line” theme. This is IndyAct's first major public education awareness campaign. It's concurrent with a global event timed to coincide with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The road to renewal is painful. During my work here last year, the Ministry of Environment’s lead officer told me quite bluntly, “Why do I care about oil on the beach? Cleaning the oil will not feed my child.” I cringe, curse under my breath. How can he be so selfish, so short-sighted? I resist the urge to mention that the fat boy on his screen saver hardly looks hungry. Instead, I remind myself that it took fires on streams and in landfills, the near-disappearance of several animal species – including our national symbol - and Rachel Carson’s strident writings (insert link to Silent Spring) before North Americans began to rethink the benefits of “better living through chemistry.”
It’s easy to understand the nation’s collective exhaustion with their country’s nearly constant role as the world’s battleground since the 1940s. It’s easy to understand the lack of interest in any future that looks further than tomorrow. Last year, I walked every day through Rafiq Hariri’s pet re-building project – the downtown Beirut Central District (BCD). Though it had a disturbing Disneyland quality to it, it was a hub for the faux riche and provided jobs for quite a few Beirutis. Brought to life after 10 years of post-civil war re-building effort, now it sits silent, evacuated, with Hezbollah’s empty tent city in place of its outdoor cafés. Political persuasions aside, no truly human member of the global village we call Earth, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, Agnostic, or Atheist, could peer into this scene with anything other than disgust.
There is a long, bumpy, pothole littered, bombed-out road to travel from an age-old habit of disregard for the Lebanese coast, to Lebanon’s tiny (but energetically) emerging environmental movement and ecotourism industry. The Lebanese who truly hope for clean air, water, and beaches have a challenging road to walk. Yet projects like the Eco-Village , an environmentally sustainable holistic retreat, and the Al-Chouf Cedar Reserve show the promise Lebanon holds. Protected areas are growing and Lebanon is using these areas to attract the coveted eco-traveller. Al-Chouf is a forest preserve established to protect the last of the brutally over-harvested cedars that signify Lebanon’s ancient history and decorate the nation’s flag. Together with Lebanon’s largest remaining wetlands area, Aammiq Wetland, they comprise a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. All three of these projects testify to the power of the people in Lebanon who truly value their country and its unique gifts, and are committed to passing them on to future generations. I took the 2nd and 3rd photos during our visit to Al-Chouf this week.
Days before the Arab Climate walk-a-thon, the IndyAct office is alive with activity. Well into the night, people come and people go. The faces change as the evening passes, but there are always at least 5 people in the office. It’s the final push to get the word out. Their goal is aggressive. In a city that at least superficially seems indifferent to the pulse of their world, IndyAct wants 5000 participants in the walk-a-thon Saturday morning. If any group can do it, I have faith that IndyAct has the passion and the commitment to achieve its goal.