Although rich in history and natural beauty, Lebanon’s countryside has been ravaged by war, unchecked development and poor stewardship of the land. But Christian-led environmental projects with local communities are restoring wetlands and creating green spaces that locals are proud of. Chris Naylor, Executive Director of environmental charity A Rocha, reports on a recent visit.
History is written in the landscapes of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Baalbek with its magnificent Roman ruins draws the tourists, more ancient rounded hills known as ‘tells’ draw the archaeologists, and long-rusted barbed wire and tank emplacements mark the frontlines of modern wars. For good or ill we leave our mark on the land long after we have gone.
As I visited the valley recently I was struck by the huge growth in the towns of the West Bekaa since I left nine years ago. Swollen by tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war just over the hills to the east, and a burgeoning local population, the urban conurbation has sprawled down the hillsides and over the fertile farmlands of the valley swallowing pasture, orchards, gardens and streams in a grey cloak of concrete.
Of course, people need homes, but they also need clean water, farmland to grow their food, clean air to breathe, and access to beauty and green space for their mental health. And, actually, the Bekaa and the planet belong to God, and He cares how and what we write on it.
As Christians we believe “the Earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1). He created it, owns it and loves it. As the creator artist, He entrusted us with His great masterpiece, to steward it in His place. He made us co-creators, creating us in His image to join with Him in fashioning His creation. As well as the grand creation story, God also wrote a story in a landscape in Genesis 2:8 – He planted a garden. Significantly, He gave Adam and Eve a job to do – gardening.
So, can people tell what we believe about God from what we write in the landscape? Can they see how God cares for the planet through us, and that we care for our neighbour? Or, putting it a different way, do we write the Gospel in the landscape?
Restoring the marshland
That was the challenge when, with my family, I first moved to live in Lebanon and the Bekaa back in the early 1990s. Originally working for the Presbyterian Church of Lebanon and Syria in a secondary school, through A Rocha Lebanon my wife and I soon got involved in efforts to restore and protect the degraded remnants of the country’s most significant freshwater marshes.
Drained and abused over decades, the near final straw had come during the years of the Lebanese civil war. Then the area had been heavily fought over by rival armies and militias, and a catalogue of abuse continued unchecked, including uncontrolled hunting, overgrazing, excessive extraction of ground water and burning of dry reeds to encourage new growth.
The scene was redolent of Hosea 4: 1-3 where it speaks of the land bearing the consequences of humanity’s sin: “Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”
But another story was waiting to be written. So we worked with the landowners, tenant farmers, Bedouin shepherds, local and national government, schools, universities, police and army units to restore the wetland. That took 10 years and started with restoring relationships – between people and between people and the land. Love and trust had been lost and needed to be regained.
Pride and joy
I am delighted to report that when I visited last month the wetland is still in good shape and is the pride and joy of local communities as well as home to countless breeding birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, fish, insects and other invertebrates, not to mention a wealth of plant life.
A Rocha Lebanon is still writing the Gospel in the landscape of the Bekaa valley. Working with the local municipalities of the Mekse and Qab Elias, it is providing much needed green space for people and wildlife in the heart of the urban conurbation that steadily creeps down the hillside. By planting a mixture of indigenous and fruiting trees and shrubs, with laid out paths, streams and ponds it is turning fly-tipped wasteland into a haven for butterflies and birds and an opportunity for school children to learn about the environment right on their door step. Once the plantings are mature, the larger plot in Mekse will provide a unique urban green space for the community, planted for them to enjoy and remember their place in God’s masterpiece creation and a garden.
A Rocha employs a number of Syrian refugees in practical conservation and site maintenance work at the Mekse Nature Park. It also organises visits by local school children to the Qab Elias Environmental Project to learn about common Lebanese herbs and the native trees growing on site.
Find out more about A Rocha’s work in Lebanon and around the world at www.arocha.org. Read more about the story of the restoration of the Bekaa wetland in Chris’ book Postcards from the Middle East, published by Lion Hudson.
SAT-7 recognises that children are often the best instigators of new habits. In addition to encouraging wonder and gratitude for God’s creation, a number of SAT-7 children’s shows and SAT-7 ACADEMY programmes promote environmental awareness and care for the environment. These range from showing the sources of our food to explaining global warming, from screening acquired children’s BBC wildlife programmes to young people’s reports on local recycling, gardening and environmental projects.