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Beyond the famous cedar tree that adorns the Lebanese flag at its center, stands a tree that deserves just as much recognition.
The Juniper Excelsa, also known as Lezzeb in the local dialect of Lebanon, is one of the most significant forest species in the country. A single juniper tree may emit about 50 tons of oxygen annually as an evergreen coniferous tree while simultaneously absorbing other harmful gases from the atmosphere.
For many years, Lebanon has been closely linked to its renowned cedar trees, which are mentioned in several ancient holy books including the Bible, Tanakh, and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
One of the most well-known and strictly protected natural reserves in the nation is called “The Cedars of God,” situated in north Lebanon’s Bsharri district. The tree is referred to in the national anthem and is regarded as Lebanon’s national symbol.
The juniper can grow between 1,400 and 2,800 meters, climbing higher peaks and enduring harsher circumstances, but the cedar can only thrive at elevations between 1,200 and 1,800 meters. The tree is unfazed by drought, heat, snow, low, or high temperatures. Due to its ability to enhance water circulation, defend against flooding, and renew the surrounding environment, its existence is essential to the Lebanese ecology and its struggle against climate change.
However, the juniper is in danger of going extinct due to illicit felling, excessive grazing, and overall governmental negligence. Even while modest efforts are at the forefront of the battle to save the tree, deteriorating conditions, particularly at the start of the colder months, are a threat to its existence.
The Kingdom of Junipers
Among the initiative working to save the tree is the “Kingdom of Junipers,” a non-profit association, which shelters the biggest juniper reserve in Lebanon and the Middle East.
Tucked in the hills of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, the small Maronite village of Berqa welcomes visitors with a sign that reads “you are within the most important juniper forest in the world, be caring.”
Operating since the 1990s, the organization takes care of the trees, ensures their growth, and raises awareness on their ecological significance.
“Our village happens to host a large number of junipers so even as children we felt the need to guard and preserve this treasure,” Boutros Gaegae, member of the organization and prominent environmental advocate told Fanack. “The land here is arid, we have extreme heat and extreme cold, yet the juniper survives both. Although our projects are non-profit, we still want people to invest their time and effort into this tree.”
Gaegae claims that the sole tourist attraction in Berqa, a small community with barely 2000 inhabitants, is the forest. Gaegae’s chalets, a hiking route, and a few nearby eateries helped the town develop into a tiny tourism hub, bringing in money for the locals.
The association was able to instruct its volunteers on how to care for juniper seeds and monitor the growing process with the assistance of researchers from the American University of Beirut and Université Saint-Joseph. The first tree in the Kingdom didn’t sprout until 2012, but in 2019, 12,000 junipers were grown and sent to several communities and organisations that had requested them.
Although members of the organization are familiar with the tree’s contribution to Lebanon’s climate and work tirelessly to raise awareness online and offline, winter’s approach begets new challenges.
“People from nearby villages have begun to cut down the trees, possibly to stock up for the cold months. We tried to contact the police and government officials, but no one seemed to care, so we’re facing a very difficult challenge ahead,” Gaegae said.
Years to grow, a minute to destroy
There are sporadic sightings of agricultural life in Lebanon’s arid highlands. However, the juniper has the ability to change that.
“Since it’s one of the ancient natives to the land and the most tolerant to harsh conditions, the tree can create ecosystems for other species to survive. Through its roots and benefits to the soil, it improves conditions for other plants to grow on their own,” Hadi Awada, a Lebanese Permaculture expert told Fanack.
“We’re used to the sight of sun-bleached hills where nothing grows but this is not normal. The more junipers we have, the more likely we are to see greenery filling up the space. Perhaps even oak and cedar trees will grow at such high altitudes,” he added.
The juniper’s presence is scarce. Its propagation is dependent on Turdus birds such as blackbirds and trushes, locally referred to as Kaykhan birds. The birds feed on the tree’s berries thereby germinating its seed inside their digestive systems. The seeds are then released into the soil to grow as a tree. But years of illegal bird hunting have either deterred the birds from flying through Lebanon or rendered their job impossible.
For this reason, scientists and researchers developed methods to activate the seed using hot water and other nutrients.
According to Awada, a tree takes between 30 and 40 years to mature when left to grow naturally, but adopting in-vitro and scientific methods—which need more caution and care—could reduce the time needed by 10 to 20 years.
Growth by itself, though, is insufficient. Additionally, safeguards against grazing cattle uprooting unobserved seedlings, as well as illegal logging, must be put in place.
The future of our mountains
Dr. Youssef Tawk, a pioneering scientist and environmental activist who planted over 1000 cedar trees in Lebanon’s northern mountains forty years ago, is now working to save the country’s junipers.
In Qurnat al-Sawda, the highest point in Lebanon and the Levant reaching more than 3,000 meters above sea level, where no other tree can thrive, Tawk planted the tree nine years ago thereby proving its resilience.
According to Awada, junipers have been under threat ever since the rise of early civilizations. The tree was felled so that its strong and durable quality wood could be used to construct buildings and ships by the Phoenicians, Canaanites, and Romans, to mention a few. More recently, the expert asserts that the largest juniper logging took place during the construction of the first train track in the late 1800s.
Gaegae and other academics think that the cedars referenced in the Bible and other religious literature may in fact be junipers since ancient civilizations in Lebanon gave the name “cedar” to all mountain tree species.
The huge, lush, densely green tree becomes even more crucial as the Levant’s cold season draws near. According to Awada, the tree’s roots strengthen the soil and prevent erosion and landslides by holding onto the snow for a longer period of time so that it may melt into a plentiful and reliable source of groundwater.
“While planting and caring for trees is a fantastic idea, it’s important to maintain the ecosystem so that it may grow according to its natural processes,” the expert said.
“The junipers we produce in limited spaces are not as hardy as those that grow and endure on their own under the worst conditions. The lone trees provide a long-lasting habitat for their offspring to thrive in, building a robust and stable ecosystem for years to come,” he added.
Challenging, not impossible
Only 7 botanists in Lebanon, according to Awada, are qualified to oversee sufficient forestry efforts. But potential advancement is hampered by widespread institutional corruption and a lack of environmental awareness of Lebanon’s natural resources. Small-scale local and individual initiatives, according to him, are the answer.
As junipers have little to no presence in the southern region of Lebanon, activist Marcelle Nasreddine, who hails from the village of Sejoud, is leading the campaign in that region.
“I’ve heard a lot of tales about the profusion of junipers that formerly existed, particularly on the Rihane Mountain in the Jezzine district. Unfortunately, they were all destroyed and cut down, so I’ve launched an online campaign to educate others about the planting procedure and increase awareness,” Nasreddine told Fanack.
As she disseminates information about its significance in an effort to pique people’s attention, the activist intends to saturate the southern highlands with juniper trees.
“People all around Lebanon have been making tiny efforts to advocate for the comeback of the tree since it has so many advantages, from root to fruit. I’m going to try my best and see what happens,” Nasreddine added.