They are the principal symbol of our country’s identity, a mighty relic of ancient times and a proud feature on our national flag, our anthem, our banknotes, and our stamps. It is difficult to put to words exactly what these magnificent evergreens mean to us, but it is by far much more difficult to ever imagine our Lebanon without them.
I’m talking, of course, about the mighty cedars of Lebanon.
Over the years, the massive conifers faced a lot of human exploitation. The Phoenicians used it to build their ships, Egyptians to make paper, Spanish to make temples, and other civilizations like the Romans and the Turks exploited that natural treasure of ours for trade.
In more recent history, cedar trees were also significantly harvested by British soldiers for their use in building railroads.
The looming giants also hold significant religious importance. They are heavily mentioned in the Bible; 103 times, to be exact, the cedar of Lebanon is cited. They also feature in several occasions in the Tanakh, where Hebrew priests were ordered by Moses to use the bark of the Lebanon cedar in the treatment of leprosy.
The Hebrew prophet Isaiah used the Lebanon Cedar as a metaphor for the pride of the world, with the tree explicitly mentioned near the end of Psalm 92 as a symbol of the righteous.
In addition, the trees’ sturdy wood was used to build Jerusalem and King Solomon’s Temple, prompting Emperor Hadrian to rule them as his royal domains in an effort to halt their destruction.
According to legend, their beauty and grace transcend human realms. Not only among men were the immortal trees coveted. They were first mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where they are described as a divine shady forest that was fought over by the demi-gods and the humans.
It is said that the expanse was once protected by Mesopotamian Gods and that Gilgamesh himself used cedar wood to build his great city.
Having thrived for 5,000 years, Cedar trees symbolize resilience and immortality. They endured trying times and endless hardships, but will they survive the hardest test of all?
Today, the cedar tree is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the red list of threatened species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Only about 20 square kilometers (7.7 square miles) of cedar forests remain in Lebanon, a dismal 0.4% of their estimated ancient cover.
According to government estimates, temperatures in the country will rise from around one degree Celsius to two degrees Celsius in the mainland by 2040, while rainfall is projected to decrease by 20 % and snow cover by 40%.
If warming continues as expected, experts predict that cedars may be able to grow in only three refugial areas in the northern tip of the country, where mountains are higher, by the end of this century.
To make matters worse, the combination of drier and hotter climate ripen the conditions for the proliferation of the cedar web-spinning sawfly, or Cephalcia Tannourinensis; a tiny green grub that feeds off the trees’ young needles and poses another deadly threat to our beloved giants.
As with all things, there is always hope. While scientists and activists –both local and international– strive to put an end to global warming and reverse its effects, the Lebanese government and people are fighting to revive the dwindling cedar population.
Five years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture began a reforestation scheme to plant 40 million native trees, including some cedars, by 2030.
On a separate end, the NGO Jouzour Loubnan (which means Roots of Lebanon) has poured tremendous efforts to our cedars, planting 300,000 new trees in one decade.
Concurrently, the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, a partnership between grassroots organizations and the US Agency for International Development, planted more than 600,000 trees since 2010.
According to Magda Bou Dagher, plant geneticist and president of the Jouzour Loubnan organization, “They [the cedars] fought against whatever threat you can imagine[…]. Despite how hard human made their life, they are still harboring in their genes the potential to overcome the environmental crisis.”
As you probably know, a recent report predicted that humanity, as a whole, has less than 13 years to change its ways before the effects of global warming set in an irreversible chain-reaction of catastrophes and disasters that will see thousands of people killed and millions displaced.
What we can do now, besides speaking up and spreading awareness, is to push our officials to take more aggressive stances on environmental risks and hazards… which isn’t really a difficult challenge.
If anything, history taught us that these trees want to live.