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Spring 2008 Vol. VI, No. 3

Coming to Your Own Back Yard: Seeds of Hope

NOAH'S TREES: Seeds of Hope, Trees for Tomorrow

By Jackson Allers

AREC/BEIRUT--It was a crisp morning on March 22 in the Beqaa Valley. Snow was still visible on the surrounding mountains overlooking the American University of Beirut's (AUB) Agricultural Research and Education Center, or AREC.

"People! Listen, we will need to shuttle material, and start filling pots directly when we go over to the nursery staging area," Dr. Salma Talhouk, said to a group of roughly fifty AUB students, faculty, and volunteers - all prepared to get their hands in the dirt.

Talhouk was there as director of AUB's interfaculty nature conservation center, or IBSAR. On this occasion, IBSAR had recruited members of the AUB community to participate in the official launch of a native trees nursery.

Called "Seeds of Hope, Trees for Tomorrow," the program was billed "as a sustainable, community-based tree planting program for Lebanon."

What differentiated it from other reforestation efforts that had sprung up since massive forest fires devastated more than 5,000 acres of tree growth in Lebanon in October 2007 was the fact that it had been designed to utilize practical areas for growth like parks, private yards, and other community green space areas versus larger nature reserves that rarely involve community stakeholders directly.

"Our hope," Talhouk said to the AREC volunteers, "is that we will be planting these trees in specific local community settings by next fall - in one year's time."

One of the AUB work-study students employed by IBSAR, Nada Hakim, a 21-year old landscape design and ecosystem management major from north Lebanon, played on the infectious optimism of Talhouk's projections.

"I really want to see Lebanon all green because of all the trees that have been destroyed by wars and human exploitation," she said.

Hakim, who was the official IBSAR photographer for the launch event began volunteering in 2007 after hearing about the program from some peers.

"I think people have lost their connection to nature," she said, "and this is one great way for us, as Lebanese, and as AUB students, to reconnect and do something concrete for the future of Lebanon's natural habitat."


Arbi Sarkissian, IBSAR's outreach coordinator told a group of volunteers in AREC that more community initiatives were needed to insure that Lebanese felt their duties as stakeholders in the preservation of the their natural heritage, but acknowledged that the large turnout by AUB's student body was an encouraging sign.

"Their aspirations are the first signs of hope and progress and are part of our community outreach objectives, which we need to keep planting and nourishing, helping it to grow in order to spread throughout the entire region," he said.

According to Sarkissian, the March launch of the Seeds for Hope initiative at AREC proved that there was potential for students and professionals from different academic backgrounds to share in the global effort to preserve nature, locally.

Indeed, IBSAR utilized the idea of biodiversity as a metaphor to involve other professions in promoting sustainable environmental initiatives - utilizing skill sets not normally associated with environmentalism.

While taping irrigation piping together during the native trees nursery launch in March, AUB professor in graphic design Lina Ghaibeh explained that she got involved with the Seeds of Hope initiative after seeing an IBSAR promotional flyer in the fall of 2007.

Sitting near a freshly plowed field as the sun began to warm things up a bit, Ghaibeh recounted her idea to involve AUB graphic design students in IBSAR's Seeds of Hope campaign.

"I met with IBSAR and loved the campaign's intent, but I didn't know in what way exactly to involve students taking my animation-motion graphics and stop motion graphics classes, so I got IBSAR to come in and present the project and the idea of biodiversity to my students," Ghaibeh said.

Eventually, Ghaibeh's graphic design students developed 11 stop motion and clay animation segments that incorporated very specific ideas for biodiversity unique to Lebanon's native plant life - ideas that were refined after follow-up meetings with IBSAR staff who wanted accuracy in the animation.

"I learned that to plant just any tree is not the point to biodiversity efforts in Lebanon. There are specific trees species native to Lebanon that need to be planted in specific areas where those species are supported environmentally. And we incorporated this in our animation," Ghenwa Souki, a 3rd year AUB graphic design student said.

Taking a break from packing seeds into newspaper pots, Nour Tabet, another 3rd year graphic design student said, it wasn't enough to give people information in a "cool and accessible way."

"I think that it's a responsibility I have as a graphic designer to get people involved. It's not just being aware of the process that matters. It's got to be more," Tabet said.

Indeed, at the core of the Seeds of Hope, Trees for Tomorrow campaign is the idea that "societies need to become guardians of biodiversity" because "they are the ones that will benefit from having a wide variety of species, both animal and plant, thriving as part of their natural (and in some cases - cultural) heritage."

According to IBSAR's field coordinator and agricultural engineer, Khalid Sleem, "We hope to cultivate 50,000 native trees (by 2010) from seeds that had been collected from the wild and are currently being planted at our native tree nursery in AREC."

Dean Hwalla, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences (FAFS) commented on the event by indicating that, "IBSAR has helped highlight the importance of AREC as a facility for AUB in the Beqaa, while allowing many students and faculty members to contribute to community-based activities while experiencing the beauty of the AREC campus."

"The Seeds of Hope program", she continues, "is an example as to how AREC can help facilitate such projects by providing a platform that promotes AUB's engagement in community service and activities. I hope that the AUB community will make use of this potential asset."

In the end, the Seeds of Hope, Trees for Tomorrow campaign can be described as a marathon rather than a sprint - organized into different phases in order to involve small communities throughout Lebanon in the process.

IBSAR has taken to using the analogy of Noah's ark to describe the overall campaign. In this case, the species to conserve are the trees and shrubs of Lebanon, and the ark are the towns and villages of Lebanon enlisted to resist what IBSAR describes as "the systematic impoverishment of Lebanon's forests and natural areas," most of which is caused by the effects of human development.

But this process is not to be seen as taking place in a societal vacuum. In fact, over the last ten years Lebanon has seen a number of other reforestation initiatives by governmental and non-governmental agencies such as the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, and the Association for Forest Development and Conservation.

"We want to be seen as a viable program with a specific focus on preserving Lebanon's bio-diversity," Talhouk explained, adding, "and IBSAR's program should be seen as a contributive rather than a competitive program. We are just another valuable tree-planting initiative in Lebanon."