Feature Story

Protect, restore, reduce - working towards land degradation neutrality

September 5, 2017

The Qaraoun SLM project will work to strengthen capacity for enforcement, and will engage land users in participatory planning processes – if people have been involved directly in the development of land-use plans, they are more likely to comply with their provisions. The aim is to shift land stewardship mindsets from ‘deplete-abandon-migrate’, to ‘restore-sustainprotect’ in order to reduce pressures on forests, rangelands, and water resources, whilst ensuring that the livelihood and security needs of the community are met in an equitable and sustainable way.

The critical Qaraoun

The Bekaa Valley, in the east of Lebanon, is a wide sweep of fertile land running between the Mount Lebanon and AntiLebanon mountain ranges. These mountains are important ‘water towers’, and much of the country’s remaining forest is found on their slopes. The Bekaa is also Lebanon’s agricultural heartland, hosting large-scale commercial farms (producing table grapes and wine, wheat, corn, vegetables, and stone fruits), and subsistence agricultural activities. In the north – which is drier – traditional nomadic, small-stock farming is the main livelihood of the rural poor.

The Bekaa Valley contains the Qaraoun catchment, which feeds Lebanon’s biggest and longest river, the Litani. This catchment is a critical source of water for food production and urban use, and provides habitats – including important forests and wetlands – that harbour threatened biodiversity. The ability of the catchment to provide critical ecosystem services is being undermined by accelerating land degradation, resulting from historic deforestation, excessive firewood collection, overgrazing, inappropriately-placed infrastructure, unplanned expansion of urban and informal settlements, and loss of agricultural fields to competing land uses.

In recent years, nearly 400,000 displaced people have settled in the Bekaa Valley – many of them in the Qaraoun catchment – placing increasing pressure on already-stretched land resources, and leading to conflicts between land users. Where conflict and poverty prevail, people have turned to coping strategies that meet their short-term needs for food and safety, without consideration for the long-term sustainability of their land-use practices.

To address both the drivers and effects of land degradation in the Qaraoun catchment, the Government of Lebanon has partnered with UNDP to implement a GEF-financed Sustainable Land Management (SLM) project (referred to here as the ‘Qaraoun SLM Project’, for short). This initiative is an integral part of the national stabilization and development agenda, and supports efforts to strengthen the resilience of Lebanon to socio-economic and climatic shocks and disturbances.

Taking a landscape view

One of the root causes of land degradation in the Qaraoun catchment, and elsewhere in Lebanon, has been the lack of an integrated approach to land-use planning and management. Although policies and plans that include land-use zonation plans are in place, these have a narrow sectoral focus, and do not specifically take land degradation into account. Weak co-ordination and overlapping mandates across the four spheres of government have also meant that application and enforcement of national plans and policies relating to land use is problematic. The Qaraoun SLM Project provides a strategic and integrated landscape approach to address these challenges.

Adel Yacoub, who is the Head of the Natural Resources Protection Department at the Ministry of Environment, and the national focal point for the Qaraoun SLM Project, explains, “This project is one of the first – if not the only – initiative in Lebanon that takes an integrated approach to managing land use in forests, rangelands, and agricultural ecosystems. At the one end of the scale it tackles existing land degradation by rehabilitating degraded ecosystems, and, at the other end, it works to reduce or prevent further degradation. It will achieve this through the development of integrated land-use plans that take land degradation into account at the landscape and local scale, and that are in line with sustainable use of natural resources. It will also provide practical, sustainable land management solutions for roleplayers across all sectors, based on sound diagnosis of the problem.”

Master planning

Over the years, the Government has issued numerous laws and decrees aimed at safeguarding natural resources in the country. Until now, these have lacked an overarching planning and policy framework to connect them. The Qaraoun SLM project will help to address this by strengthening the ‘master planning’ approach that is already in effect in the country, by integrating sustainable land management principles into land-use planning, determining land productivity values, and identifying how they can best be protected.

Protection of sensitive ecosystems and valuable natural assets is a key component of the landscape approach to avoiding land degradation. Adel Yacoub explains, “The Ministry of Environment is using several measures to preserve important natural areas, including the establishment of protected areas, declaration of RAMSAR sites and Important Bird Areas, and so on. Also, we have engaged closely with the quarrying sector to regulate and manage licensing, extraction, and rehabilitation activities. But we know that our planning needs to be strengthened and we are working towards the development of a ‘Master Plan for the Protection of Mountains, Natural Areas, Beaches, Green Areas and Agricultural Areas.’ We also recognize the importance of building environmental protection into national planning at multiple levels.”

Sami Feghali, who is the Head of Land-Use Planning at the Council for Development and Reconstruction, explains how the country is using ‘master planning’ to reduce and avoid the negative impacts of land degradation on socio-economic conditions, ‘The National Physical Master Plan for the Lebanese Territory (2009)’ recognizes the impacts that land degradation has on people, and the importance of land-use planning to minimize these negative effects. It seeks to identify risk-prone areas such as those susceptible to floods and landslides, and ecologically sensitive areas, to ensure that these are accounted for in our physical planning, and that development is in line with available resources.”

At the district level, sustainable land management principles will be integrated into development plans that identify ecologically sensitive areas to be placed under improved management, and degraded areas that should be rehabilitated. The project will also help set up a multi-sector planning platform to promote co-ordination between all relevant role-players, and align environmental, social, and economic objectives.

Local-level land-use plans will identify forests, rangelands, and arable lands that are currently degraded, and in which SLM must be implemented to restore the flow of vital ecosystem services, and avert local-level conflict between land users. The project will also test new land management approaches in different production sectors to reduce environmental stressors and sustain the livelihoods of local and downstream communities.

Choosing the right tools

For land-use plans to be effective, land-use managers must be able to monitor changes in the landscape, and they need to know which tools to apply, where, and when, to restore degraded land and reduce future degradation.

Dr Chadi Mohanna, Director of Rural Development and Natural Resources at the Ministry of Agriculture explains the dilemma, “We can see the direct impacts of land degradation on the landscape, but indicators that can be used to trigger appropriate remedial action are scarce, and very difficult to quantify. Applying corrective measures can be laborious and financially demanding, especially when the degradation is extensive or has been in effect for a long time, and rehabilitation in some cases can take years.”

Integrated land-use planning represents a significant advance over earlier approaches to landscape restoration, in which siteselection was unsystematic and driven by diverging objectives. “We are looking to address these challenges by integrating the ‘landscape’ concept into our Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism. Before, reforestation and land reclamation were seen as stand-alone activities at particular sites, but now they are tools we use specifically to address landscape restoration,” Dr Mohanna explains.

In support of this process, the Qaraoun SLM Project will help put in place a robust decision-support system, including a Strategic Environmental Assessment, and an effective monitoring system for tracking trends in the condition of the land, so that corrective action can be taken before degradation becomes irreversible. The monitoring framework will inform ongoing planning and will guide development investments and enforcement.

Keeping track

The drivers of land degradation operate at multiple scales and in many different places across Lebanon, and particularly in the Qaraoun catchment, where the large-scale movement of displaced peoples adds an extra layer of complexity to landuse patterns. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to monitor resource use and enforce compliance with existing land-use regulations.

Dr. Mohanna provides some examples of the particular challenges with which his department has to grapple, “With the influx of refugees into the catchment, hectares of cherry orchards in Arsal were lost and these will take many years to rehabilitate to a productive state. Along the Lebanese-Syrian border, small ruminants wander without control, often feeding in areas where grazing is restricted, causing depletion of rangelands and damage to forests. At another scale, people are harvesting medicinal plants and selling them to passers-by to make a little money, but, this practice is unsustainable and difficult to control – despite the existence of clear regulations for the sector.” Add to this mix the excessive use of harmful pesticides on commercial farms, increasing pollution of water-bodies, unwise and unplanned urban settlement, and the increased incidence of drought and damaging wildfires, and the need for an integrated approach to land-use regulation becomes obvious.

The Qaraoun SLM project will work to strengthen capacity for enforcement, and will engage land users in participatory planning processes – if people have been involved directly in the development of land-use plans, they are more likely to comply with their provisions. The aim is to shift land stewardship mindsets from ‘deplete-abandon-migrate’, to ‘restore-sustainprotect’ in order to reduce pressures on forests, rangelands, and water resources, whilst ensuring that the livelihood and security needs of the community are met in an equitable and sustainable way.