Issam Sidawi, an enthusiastic fisher and hunter, was adamant. The Lebanese Government had gone too far. Not only had it declared the Palm Islands off the coastal city of Tripoli a protected reserve, but Sidawi and other locals were barred from accessing their shores and waters. The three small islands were the locals’ favourite picnic and hunting grounds. For years, Sidawi held protests and gathered petitions against turning the islands into a nature reserve. But the deed was already done by the time the protests began. In 1992 a law had been passed declaring the islands – home to over 150 birds and breeding grounds for Green and Loggerhead Turtles – a protected reserve. That same year, the Government had signed the Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biological Diversity and it was eager to start implementing some of the articles.
Still Sidawi and other locals continued with their protests.
‘I hated the idea of a protected area,’ he said. ‘These islands are for us, the locals. If I want to hunt there, I will. If I want to swim there, I will. If I want to fish there, I will. How dare someone fine me for going over to the islands?’
As for the turtles that lay their eggs on the sandy shores of the islands and roam around the waters, doesn’t everyone know that rubbing turtle blood underneath a baby girl’s armpits prevents hair from growing on her body?
‘These are our traditions,’ he said. ‘And no-one can stop us from hunting the turtles.’ Years later, Sidawi was sitting in the reserve’s office grinning widely. He had just finished telling me of his past anger. Today, not only is he one of the biggest advocates of the nature reserve, he is also the islands’ ranger.
‘I wake up at dawn every morning to monitor the turtles’ movements,’ he says proudly. ‘I make sure no-one comes to the islands when they are not allowed to.’ Sidawi’s change of heart occurred in 1996 when the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched its Protected Areas Project with the aim of protecting endangered wild life. Three areas were chosen in Lebanon, including the Palm Islands. All were funded by the Global Environment Facility, managed by UNDP, executed by the Environment Ministry and assisted by technical experts of the World Conservation Union. The management of each reserve was handed over to a local non-governmental organization. The Palm Islands, 5.5 kilometres from Tripoli and spread over five square kilometres, thus became the responsibility of the Tripoli-based Environment Protection Committee (EPC). The group’s first challenge was to convince the locals of the validity of protecting the islands.
‘We had to get the locals involved and believing in the project,’ said Ghassan Jaradi, the Reserve Manager of the islands.
‘There was a lot of resentment against us.’
The only way to decrease the locals’ bitterness was to allow them access to the islands. But first, a clean-up operation was launched. During the 16-year Lebanese civil war, the islands had been taken over by militias. In 1983, Israel bombarded them. In 1984, the largest of them was set on fire. By the end of the war, over 6,000 unexploded shells were found on the islands, many of them buried under the sand. It took the Lebanese Army three years to remove them. By 2001, the islands were declared safe. A section of the beach – where the turtles did not lay their eggs – was opened up to the public during the summer months.
While the locals’ anger subsided somewhat when allowed access to the islands’ shores, they still couldn’t comprehend the continued ban on hunting. Sometime after the declaration of the islands’ protected status migratory birds – which had disappeared during the war – began to return. Today over 156 bird species have been observed – 10 of them are permanent residents.
The EPC launched a series of student competitions and lectures. Meetings were held explaining the importance of having a protected reserve.
‘We told them, for example, that the rocks around the islands are spawning grounds for fish,’ said Jaradi. ‘Therefore there will be more for them to fish later on.’
Turtles also keep down the jellyfish population and trim undersea weeds which allow fish to deposit their eggs.
‘It wasn’t easy,’ admitted Jaradi with a sigh, ‘but they were beginning to understand.’ The change in attitude was dramatic.
‘We learned that we can’t force things on people,’ said Jaradi. ‘Now, we consult with the locals about everything before taking a decision.’
And of course, legislation helps. Hunters or trespassers can be fined up to $300. ‘The most important thing is to change people’s behaviour,’ said Jaradi. ‘We may have to enforce the law at times. But the day will come when new generations will be aware and protect the reserve on their own initiative.’