Technicolour: ecology & politics in Lebanon

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

In the wake of the explosions in Beirut and the devastating effects of COVID in the region and beyond, ecological recovery in Lebanon runs a greater risk of being put on the backseat than ever. Ibrahim Kombarji explores the depth and breadth of ecological disruption in Lebanon, finding political corruption and a microcosm of greenwashing. Illustrated by Malena Guinet.

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Colours are political. Lebanon’s complex political landscape resembles a rainbow, with different colours representing a plethora of different sects. Orange is Christian-Maronite; blue is Sunni; and red is Druze. The Amal party is represented by the colour green with a hint of white and red typography. It is a Shia party. This green is not the deep green of the Lebanese cedar on the national flag; it is a vivid hue, closer to the green of the Iranian flag. Whilst in English, green can be the colour of envy, in Arabic it is often the colour of hope, which is the literal translation of the word Amal. Green is the colour of the gardens of heaven in the Quran, yet it could also evoke the dollar bill - the Lebanese pound, which has been pegged to the precious dollar since 1997, lost 80% of its value this year - or perhaps it is merely the colour of the eyes of Musa Al Sadr, the founder of the party. What is certain is that the green of Amal was never intended to be a symbol of its support for ecological protection – nevertheless, the party became one of the first to pursue environmentalist policies in Lebanon. Adopting the colour green explicitly and implicitly shapes political ideology, and in doing so has become a sectarian tactic as well as an ecological endeavor.  

Green is the colour of the gardens of heaven in the Quran, yet it could also evoke the dollar bill

Since the ostensible end of the civil war in the 1990s, Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have been vying for territory in various underhand ways. These sectarian leaders, or زعيم ‘zaims’ in Arabic, are legitimized in the country’s constitution which guarantees them parliamentary seats and political positions, in effect creating a form of modern feudalism. The Zaim of the Shia Amal party, the current Speaker of Parliament, has pioneered ‘environmental protection’ to help build a personal fiefdom. In Lebanon’s fragile political system, the environment has thus become an increasingly popular tool for zaims jostling for money, land and power. 

In the postwar period, luxurious beach resorts, built and funded by zaims, erupted along Lebanon’s coastline. One of the prime beach areas is Tyre, 70 km south of the capital Beirut. Despite this, Tyre also has some of the fewest seaside developments. In 1999, Law 708 established the 380-hectare Tyre Coast Nature Reserve (TCNR). Later that year, ‘Amwaj’/ أمواج, the NGO led by the wife of the Amal Zaim, made a deal with the government to create one of Lebanon’s first public-private partnerships to protect this nature reserve. It was globally hailed as one of the first local environmentalist projects which would help endangered species such as the green Chelonia mydas turtles. This protected status prevented any new permanent beach resorts from being built in Tyre. Law 708 divided the reserve into zones where beach huts are rented out (rent reaches the Amal party indirectly through their local landlords), with just one-third of the nature reserve used for ‘scientific research’ and ‘habitat preservation’. This has left only one major hotel in the area; the Tyre Resthouse and Resort, of which the wife of the Amal Zaim is reportedly the majority shareholder. The four-star resort contains 62 rooms and a private access to the sea, despite Lebanon’s constitution stating that the seaside should remain in public ownership. This appeal to nature and environmental preservation instead operates as a vicarious land grab. The TCNR has therefore facilitated a sectarian economic monopoly that reinforces the Zaim’s geographic influence through planned ‘ecological legitimization’ of the site.[1]

The policy has therefore facilitated a sectarian economic monopoly that reinforces the Zaim’s geographic influence through planned ‘ecological legitimization’ of the site

The Chelonia mydas turtles use the sandy beach to lay around 100 eggs per nest and in turn, the coastal dune ecosystems rely on the nutrients deposited by turtles to prevent beach erosion.[2] Their nesting and hatching areas are threatened – and many times destroyed – by litter dropped by beachgoers, light and sound pollution from fireworks and DJ sets and sand extraction, but also by discarded dynamite fishing gear and toxic agricultural waste that is dumped directly in the sea. Earlier this year, the Mediterranean’s Lebanese coast morbidly revealed itself earlier as an ecological catastrophe and a toxic dump of ammonium nitrate. This underwater landscape of toxic ecologies still reveals itself in the political landscape today. 

Nature reserves at similar beaches are often bordered by buffer zones. These areas are designed to minimize the impact of adjacent land use and soften the reserves otherwise sharp edges. In Tyre, the buffer zone barely exists and instead lies in a highly-polluting car park. [3] Whilst Tyre is bathed in green flags, green posters and green walls covered with pictures of Amal’s Zaim, local conservationists explain that the space allocated for the turtles is ‘too small’. They insist that it pales in comparison to the space given to tourists while the turtle population continues to struggle. Conservationists even noticed a large increase in turtle populations after Israel invaded South Lebanon in 2006 and the protected beach was not accessible to the public. Amid a transnational war and a laissez-faire approach to environmental protection, turtles proliferated – a clear indictment of the entanglement of ecology and ‘peacetime’ politics. 

In Lebanon, the protection of an ecology creates a new form of clientelism and ‘patronage’ for the zaim to exploit. The zaim grants political (and sometimes military) protection to the region and its inhabitants. In return, the sect contributes to the economic cultivation and extraction of the shared land by opening new businesses and constructing religious buildings. 

The Amal Zaim’s ‘pioneering’ tactic has enabled other Lebanese zaims to do the same. The Druze political party (red) facilitated the formation of a high altitude (1500m) ‘biosphere reserve’ to shelter 500 species of plants, many of which are cedars – a land expansion paired with the ‘legitimate national protection’ of the national symbol. The other yellow Shia party used ‘nature reserve’ pine forests in the south to launch missiles abroad. The smaller light-blue Christian Maronite party's Zaim took over a key site neighbouring his fief and transformed it into an artificial lake where swans and supporters co-exist, building networks within the sect and reinforcing loyalty to the Zaim. [4] ‘Picturesque’ beaches, rivers and valleys have become the backdrop for business, a site of corruption and a visual trophy to the zaims’ responsible governance. If a zaim’s seashore is clean and rich with biodiversity, then his governance must be clean and rich. Environmental discourse only emerges when zaims enter into territorial conflict, which further fragments Lebanon into these sectarian ecologies. 

Lebanon presents a microcosmic instance of these greenwashing tactics.

‘Picturesque’ beaches, rivers and valleys have become the backdrop for business, a site of corruption and a visual trophy to the zaims’ responsible governance

Around the world, numerous political parties drape themselves in the colour green. If ‘green’ should continue to be the colour of hope, then green parties must have more than a strategic investment in the environment. As active citizens, we must call for them to unequivocally and uncompromisingly protect our algae, fields and hills, not exploit them and pay environmental lip service for political and electoral gains.

[1] Helena Cobban, 1986. ‘The Growth of Shi‘i Power in Lebanon and its Implications for the Future.
[2] M. Khalil, H. Syed, M. Aureggi and L. Venizelos, 2005. ‘Marine Turtle nesting at El Monsouri, South Lebanon.
[3]  Jean Moreno, 1998. ‘Parks in Peril: People, Politics and Protected Areas’. 
[4] Ben Hubbard, 2019. ‘Here Comes the Bride. And the Bride. And the Bride. Mass Weddings Boom in Lebanon.