Land of fertile coastlines, ancient cedar forests, steep snowy mountains, rolling hillsides and lush fertile valleys and generous rivers, vast vineyards and bountiful orchards.
Cradle of civilization that has borne witness to succeeding empires and withstood the damage wrought by wars, massacres, occupations, natural disasters and the unrelenting tests of time.
The archaeological remains of the world’s oldest civilizations pervade the terrain of the country’s rural hillsides and crowded cityscapes— a testament to the bounty of the land, providing sustenance and refuge to scores of civilizations and succeeding empires since the inception of human history.
Here in Lebanon is where I begin my search—I will embark on my search for the land’s keepers, and the secrets they hold. As a vagabond ethnographer, I have traveled far and wide in search of stories and secrets, attempting to understand and uncover the world through different modes of sociality— To explore different places and people and uncover shifting patterns and practices of relating to the environment and the world around us. I follow trajectories of action and adaptation that lead me from big urban metropoles, full of action, chaos, technology, progress to the small winding dirt roads and stone paths that draw the contours of small villages and rural communities, bearing the traditions of storied pasts and repurposed presents.
In all of the places I have travelled far and wide, one thing has become perspicuously apparent: our natural world is shifting. The degradation of our natural environs can be found in every corner of the globe, from the bustling urban centers to small, rural communities the damage wrought by changing climates are reconstituting patterns of sociality and modes of relating to our surroundings. In today’s modern, technologically advanced and capital oriented global society, natural spaces are receding and our ability to sustain our current course is diminishing. The widespread ecological degradation occurring around us demands innovative and sustainable solutions geared toward rejuvenation, renewal and development.
So how can we move forward and address the increasing global challenges reflected by recurrent environmental, economic and food crises?
In 1937 Anthropologist Anne Fuller settled into the quiet mountain village of Buarij, tucked into the eastern edge of Lebanon’s coastal mountain range. Her work illuminates the social worlds of the village’s inhabitants who forged a life and a home among the bustling springs and fertile plains down below. In exploring and illuminating the social worlds and practices of the residents, she demonstrates the importance of the environment and our natural surroundings in the sustenance of human life and community.
This vantage point would later inspire the work of the group of young, energetic, talented researchers and environmentalists who sought to revive the livelihoods and practices of the rural communities situated outside of waves of modernization emanating from the rapidly developing urban centers. These rebels with a cause sought to shift the existing global paradigms of research that promoted universalist methods of development which assume a teleological course of development modeled off the success of western societies.
Instead, they sought to bring research efforts closer to the communities and advance approaches that were tailored specifically to the cultures and customs of the existing societies. Their endeavors gave birth to the Environment and Sustainable Development Unit (ESDU) at the American University of Beirut, and its ongoing efforts to promote sustainable development and capacity building in Lebanon’s rural communities. By embedding research and knowledge production in a localized, rural setting, ESDU initiates community based responses to address the persistent environmental challenges and work toward a more sustainable future.
Development and preservation are not universal sciences. Efforts to promote development and sustainability must be tailored to local contexts cultures and communities. By looking inward at rural communities, we can be better equipped to face the increasing global challenges reflected by recurrent environmental, economic and food crises. Rural and suburban communities offer us a source of redemption. A chance to revitalize our relationship with the land that we inhabit and the resources that sustain us. A chance to harness the energy, productivity, capability, and technology that our modern societies have enabled, for the preservation and advancement of our natural environment. Here begins the purpose on which I have built my endeavor. I will follow the lines drawn and linkages built between the environment, the social and the sustainable— to uncover the keepers of the land and unlock the secrets of regeneration, repurposing and renewal.
Al Ard, Keepers of the Land: Beit Meri
Perched atop the lush green hills of Beirut's northern hillside and built on the remains of a first century Roman Temple, Beit Mery's Deir al Qalaa Monastery offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Beirut city skyline and surrounding hillsides. The winding road leading up to the monastery is bordered by a vast green field containing the remains of ancient Roman thermal baths and traces of 6th century Byzantine mosaics. Dating back to the Phoenician times, the land of Deir al Qalaa has borne witness to centuries of human history and provided refuge to numerous civilizations, withstanding the damage wrought by the wars, occupations, and natural disasters inflicted on its terrain. The surviving structure is the result of countless reconstructions, renewals and improvements made by the land's myriad caretakers.
Abouna is the resident priest and keeper of the Maronite Monastery (also known as Saint John the Baptist church) built in 1750. Friendly and soft-spoken, he sits in his stone walled office ornate with Byzantine mosaics and vintage furniture and recounts the history of the Monastery. While the church suffered extensive damage during Lebanon's 15 year civil war, a thorough reconstruction project restored and transformed it into a venue for cultural and touristic events, including concerts, art exhibitions, social events and gatherings. As he explains, Abouna [name] sees tourism as an effective vehicle for advancing land preservation and community development throughout Lebanon. By promoting its historical significance and attracting visitors, landmarks like Deir al Qalaa can generate external revenue to facilitate community development while still maintaining its cultural heritage.
Less than a kilometer down the road, the Bustan hotel provides another draw for tourists that highlights the area's unique cultural identity. The name Bustan derives from the surname if its keepers, the Bustani family. “Bustan" means garden in Arabic, a fitting reference to the estate's sprawling gardens. Myrna Bustani inherited the hotel from her father Emile Bustani, a Lebanese entrepreneur, philanthropist and politician and has carried out her late father's mission to use the landmark as a source of cultural vocation/revival and inspiration. Starting in 1994, just a few years after the close of the civil war, the Hotel has hosted the annual Bustan International Festival, a musical event which brings renowned musicians and artists to host a series of concerts and workshops over a 5 week period between February and March. The festival provides a platform for education and engagement in musical and other artistic endeavors and has cemented the Bustan's name as a pivotal Landmark and keeper of Lebanese arts and cultural vocation.
Picture from Bustan Hotel.
Another short walk down the hill brings you to the Mar Sassine Church, which has hosted Beit Meri's “Marche de Puces" or vintage fair for the past 2 years. The fair's founder is Daniele Kilidjian, a prominent Lebanese fashion designer, lifelong resident of Beit Meri, and keeper of the town's forgotten treasures. Daniele established the vintage fair, as a way to celebrate the town's heritage while promoting local shops, designers and markets. All of the products found at the fair are furnished by the community's residents, taking old, unused things from their house and offering for sale at the market. From old designer handbags and vintage jewelry to engraved tea sets and rusted kitchenware, the fair brings forgotten treasures out of their hiding places and finds them new owners, thus bestowing new life upon the discarded items. While the fair attracts tourists, artists and vintage lovers from outside, its main impetus is its local community, which has come together to supply, organize and promote the fair in service of community development and the preservation of its rich heritage.
Wandering through the small, charming town of Beit Meri, the towering, pine trees and vibrant gardens adorn the streets and entryways to old stone houses and offer a welcome reprieve from Beirut's crumbling infrastructure, smoggy air and dearth of natural green spaces. The town's clean streets and many pristine gardens reveal a local culture marked by appreciation and respect for nature and the bounty of the land.
Yet, situated just 8 kilometers north of Beirut, the town has not been shielded from the deleterious effects of climate change, pervasive pollution, and creeping urbanization. Sitting on one of the stone benches found nestled between the sprawling pine trees and opulent flower beds that decorate the perimeters of Deir al Qalaa's vast garden, one's eyes are immediately drawn to the ominous, brown cloud that looms over the sea and city skyline and obscures the splendor of the mountainside views.
Pictures from Deir el Qalaa.
However, those in Beit Meri have found their own ways to preserve the purity of their land, relying on community initiative and innovation to craft long term sustainable solutions to the ailing environment. When trash starting piling up in the streets of Beit Meri during the 2015 garbage crisis, the town resolved to eliminate all municipal landfill waste and entreated the help of Cedar Environmental— a Lebanese environmental and industrial engineering organization— to initiate the project. Accordingly, in 2016 they established Lebanon's first zero waste sorting plant where workers manually separate recyclable and biodegradable materials, turning natural waste into compost and repurposing the bottles, paper, and plastic for reuse.
The project not only helps the environment by eliminating waste, but also creates jobs and a sustainable business model that contributes to local economic development. Building off its zero-waste commitment, the municipality recently implemented a ban on plastic bags, replacing them with eco-friendly canvas bags to be distributed to residents and shoppers in the area. Environmental projects and green businesses like the zero-waste initiative in Beit Meri offer a model for preserving Lebanon's sacred natural spaces and resources amid an intractable political system and multitude of pressing economic and infrastructural maladies. Where Lebanon's leaders have failed to offer lasting solutions to environmental challenges, those closest to the land have taken the initiative to preserve it.
Sorting and Recycling in Beit Meri.
In Abouna, Myrna Bustani, Daniele Kilidjian, and the people of Beit Meri, I have found the land's keepers and unlocked their secrets.
In Ancient, sacred churches once destroyed by violent civil war.
In Old and forgotten keepsakes taken out of the dusty shadows and given new homes, new keepers and new life.
In Dirty, smelly, rotting waste channeled into recyclable materials, new jobs and a stronger and cleaner community.
Here lie the secrets of Beit Meri's keepers—in the restoration and repurposing of the old, the destroyed and the forgotten, they work together to promote and preserve the land, the community and the environment.
Al Ard: Deir Mar Botros wa-Boulos, Yahchouch, and Jabal Mousa reserve
Following the winding course of the mythical Adonis river (nahir Ibrahim) that carves out a narrow valley tucked between the steep northern mountainsides, I come upon a towering 'sindyana' (oak) tree, marking the entrance to the old rustic lime-stoned structure of Deir Mar Botros wa-Boulos. The ebony bark extends into sprawling branches, as the electric green, star-shaped leaves rustle and dance in the cool mountain breeze. Sitting atop the neat cascading limestone steps that lead down to the monastery's entrance, the 300 year old tree has adorned the passageway to Deir Mar Botros wa-Boulos since its inception, preserving its secrets and echoing its stories. Its grand and enduring presence a testament to the durability and resilience of the land that bears its roots.
The monastery was established on December 10th in 1854 and carries a rich archive of the region's history and cultural heritage. Today, the activities of the monastery are centered around agriculture and the preservation of its endowed land. The 300 meter border circumscribes the green pastures and plains of olives, grapes, kiwi, toot, apple and nectarines found growing on the monastery's land, carefully nurtured and kept by the handful of caretakers/keepers at DMB. The Deir has established a partnership with the agriculture college at the University of Kaslik, in an attempt to bring knowledge production and the fruits of research closer to the community and local farmers.
While ripe fruits and bountiful trees decorate the outskirts of the monastery, inside its stone walls you can find classrooms and art galleries. The stone-walled rooms provide spaces for learning and growth for the towns youth and exhibition of the town's cultural heritage. The monastery was responsible for establishing the region's first school in 1938, that has served and graduated Maronites and shiaas alike from the surrounding community. In 1996 they inaugurated the Center for Religious Culture, providing a space for religious and intellectual exploration and cultivation for the region's youth. For 25 years, the monastery has held an annual art exhibit in the long stone walled banquet hall, showcasing a diverse range of religious and cultural artistic works from foreign and local talent. In its archive of documents and art, the church keeps paintings of the saints Boutros and Bolos from 1900 created by local artist Ibrahim Khalil al Jurr from Yahchouch.
Under the watchful eye of the enduring oak trees, Deir Mar Botros wa-Boulos provides a space for the cultivation of land, art, and young minds. The monastery thus finds its role as a keeper at the nexus of agriculture, art, education and faith.
Following the calls from the rustling leaves of the endemic Sindyana / oak tree, I wandered upon the farm/agricultural plot manned by Youssef of yahchouch, a dedicated practitioner of the agricultural arts.
Youssef grew up in the forested hillsides of the village of Yahchouch, and spent his days on the farm watching the donkeys till the soil for the planes of wheat that always provided a reliable harvest.
As a young graduate in the 1980's Youssef sought to pursue an education in agricultural sciences, so he could learn and apply is new skills in service of the land and the community that raised him. Yet, he failed to find a higher education program catered to the agricultural sciences and thus left his agricultural endeavors behind in pursuit of a corporate and remunerated career in telecommunications. Today, Youssef works four days a week for touch down in the city, resolving to spend his remaining free time back in his lush fields of grapes and olives.
Youssef sits on the deck of his airy, vintage home that overlooks the valley tucked in between the imposing mountainsides. He takes a long puff from his Cedars slim cigarettes as he recounts the vast wheat plains that used to decorate the base of the mountains and provide sustenance and resource for the community back when he was a child. However, as urbanization expanded and local economic opportunities diminished, new generations of pupils flocked to the cities to take up well remunerated positions in the air conditioned offices and towering sky scrapers in Beirut, Rather than remain and tend to the land. As a result, the agricultural plains that once provided fruit for the community gave way to forest and shrubbery, the full potential of the land left untapped, untamed, and under appreciated.
While Youssef tried to expand his agricultural endeavors by venturing into organic farming, he ultimately lost much of his investment due to faulty traps he acquired from the Ministry of agriculture, quickly putting an end to his efforts to carve out a sustainable livelihood from the green pastures that raised him and the generations before him.
Lebanon's organic sector while in theory a laudable endeavor, caters to the class of elite that can afford the high priced, fashionably labelled selection of organic products found at the large supermarkets in urban centers. Developing the organic sector in Lebanon requires large capital investments and modern technology, and the ability/access to navigate the burdensome bureaucratic licensing and accreditation processes. The inputs and regulations for implementing organic farming practices are expensive and burdensome, leaving larger well endowed corporations with access to large capital investments to fill the market and offer their products to large chain grocery stores at unaffordable prices.
While the realities of Lebanon's changing economy has led Youssef to split his time between the city and the farm, his heart will always be with the land and the bounty of the harvest it has bestowed on generations of his family.
Venturing a few kilometers up the hill from Youssef's farm brings me to the Jabal Moussa Biosphere reserve.The reserve was conceived from the efforts of The Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa (APJM), a Lebanese NGO founded by professionals and public figures from the region who sought to protect the land and its cultural heritage from encroaching environmental threats. While the land was historically overseen of by Maronite Patriarchate and church endowments, encroaching urbanization and high levels of poaching at the turn of the 20th century threatened to contaminate the rich biodiversity of the area, requiring more stringent mechanisms for preservation
While a significant portion (20%) of the land are under the proprietorship of Maronite/religious waqfs,
The renowned hiking trails and vast forest land of the Jabal Mousssa reserve provide an alternative governance structure for preserving natural environments and the community's engagement in it. Since Lebanon's legal system did not recognize nature reserves on privately held lands the association had to negotiate a 10 year contract with the religious endowments in order to gain access to rent large portions of the land. After securing the contract, the association sought out help from international organizations in order to secure recognition of the area as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (in 2008) and other various designations including as A Global Important Bird Area (2009), a Member of IUCN (2009) and Important Plant Area and Key Biodiversity area. That would shield it from encroaching construction and poaching, and preserve it as a space for ecotourism and local economic development. As keeper of the Biosphere reserve the Association (APJM) aims to preserve the ecological and cultural heritage of the mountain, by using permaculture and ecotourism to promote job creation and economic development in the seven local villages that comprise Jabal Moussa, including Yahchouch, Qehmez, Nahr ed dehab, Ghbele, El iibre, Chouwen, Ain al-Dilbeh and Jouret el Thermos.
The reserve, which is home to at least 727 flora species, over 130 species of birds and over 20 wild mammal species, offers various hiking trails for visitors to observe animals, uncover new plant species, and visit historical cultural sites. The electric blue waters of lake Chouwen attracts thousands of visitors every year to take a dip and cool off on the shores of its crystal-clear waters. The reserve is also home to various cultural treasures and historical remnants including Roman stairs, Byzantine churches, an abandoned Ottoman settlement and 300 year old houses.
Christelle is one of the dedicated keepers that belongs to the APJM NGO. Passionate about the organization's efforts to protect the land and enhance rural development, she is friendly and energetic as she describes the mission and work of the APJM. As she explains, the reserve's ecotourism efforts also promote local community development. The reserve employs youth from the surrounding village as hiking guides and promotes bread and breakfast guest houses operated by local residents. The association also funds a workshop and kitchen for local women to produce a series of artisanal and food products to be sold at the reserve entrance and various stores and various outlets throughout Lebanon. Thus, the active participation of the local communities is the central tenet that organizes the activities and endeavors of the Jabal Moussa Reserve. The international designations/protections provide greater leverage/ cover to promote and develop the land. This connection/networking between the international and local levels thus provides an effective framework for preserving and developing the environment, in addition to those/the society that live among it.
Thus along the spritely course of the bubbling Adonis river I have found / uncovered/discovered dutiful keepers in the caretakers of Deir Mar Botros wa-Boulos, Youssef, and activists like Christelle at APJM.
The selfless efforts of these keepers have contributed to the preservation of Jabal Moussa and its environs, and the surrounding societies that have forged a life among its durable Sindyana (oak) trees for centuries.