Lebanon Roots


Restoring Lebanon’s Cedar Forests

By David Kattenburg

The cedar is Lebanon’s national symbol. It’s on its flag, its banknotes, a source of identity and pride.

But Lebanon’s renowned cedar forests are not what they used to be.

Pine forest near Jezzine, south Lebanon.

Once a continuous carpet running up and down Lebanon’s mountainous spine, these splendid forests of cedar, pine and spruce have been exploited since the days of the ancient Phoenicians, who built ships out of them. The Egyptians used cedar in their mummies. The Ottomans, British and French took their turn, exploiting Lebanon’s forest wealth.

Today, all that remains of Lebanon’s cedar forests are a dozen fragmented islands, threatened by livestock grazing and climate change. The key to restoring them is their genetic diversity.

That’s precisely what a Lebanese NGO called Jouzour Loubnan – ‘Lebanon Roots’ — has in mind.

Magda Dagher-Kharrat and Ph.D. student Liliane Boukhdoud

Based at Saint-Joseph University, on a pine-covered campus an hour’s drive into the mountains east of Beirut, Dr. Magda Dagher-Kharrat and her students are drilling down into the genetics of Cedrus libani and other species making up Lebanon’s diverse forest ecosystems.

The cedar is their project’s logo. What better image to draw the Lebanese public into climate change action and forest restoration than the fate of their beloved Cedrus Libani?

But restoration of entire forest ecosystems is what their project is all about — high and low elevation stands of pine, spruce, juniper, apple, pear and almond, and the animals that spread their seeds

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At her plant genetics lab at Saint-Joseph University, Dr. Kharrat and her students are pinpointing the DNA sequences that make native Cedrus libani so different from its Cypriot, Italian, North African and Himalayan cousins, and so adapted to Lebanon’s climate.

Youmna Zeineh, technical assistant at Jouzour Loubnan seed bank

They’re also identifying mammals like red fox, grey wolf and golden jackal that spread seeds, and that will have to be reintroduced if restored forest ecosystems are to function.

Digging deeper still, they’re prospecting for microbe-rich soils in forest floors up and down Lebanon, to act as substrate for transplanted cedar and other seedlings.

Genetics work complete, Jouzour Loubnan will rebuild forest ecosystems from the ground up, reconnecting them, so genes can flow. Their aim is to help trees migrate to higher, cooler elevations, where cedar cones are adapted to release seeds through successive cycles of freeze and thaw.

Anthony Roukoz, botanist at Jouzour Loubnan seed bank

The first step is gathering and cleaning seeds, to ensure they’re totally free of contamination. Seeds are then either stored or germinated, to learn how they sprout best.

Optimal germination protocols in hand, Jouzour Loubnan is recruiting commercial Lebanese nurseries to grow seedlings in the thousands. Jouzour Loubnan buys them, and plants them up in the mountains. Green thumbs around the world are being invited to ‘adopt a cedar’ online. Forty-thousand have been planted over the past four years, with support from the European Union.

Jouzour Loubnan’s forestation restoration project is managed by a young man named Tony Chahine. Above the town of Jezzine, Tony took me to a hillside covered in cedar and pine seedlings. A deserted Hezbollah guard post stood nearby (no pictures, please!). Tony and the guys from Hezbollah get along. Tense questions out of the way, Hezbollah forces now watch over seedlings and plant some themselves.

Seedlings rise above Jezzine.

Before seedlings could be planted, the Lebanese army had to be called in to remove landmines from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, and Israel’s 2006 invasion of south Lebanon. Doing so involved removing a meter of topsoil. Seedlings on de-mined land had a tough time, continually buried by exposed rubble. But most are doing well.

Not surprisingly, the seedlings that do best have the best genetics. 

Driving back to Beirut, Tony described the challenge of securing buy-in for his forest work among key stakeholders in Shia, Sunni, Druze and Christian communities. The Lebanese people are proud of their famous cedars. They’re also famously fractious.

But for Tony Chahine, the cultural diversity of the Lebanese people and the genetic diversity of their forests go hand in hand. Both are a source of strength.

Images by David Kattenburg

Anthony Roukoz, Magda Dagher-Kharrat, Youmna Zeineh and Mark Farhat at Jouzour Loubnan seed bank