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Journal
Washing Away War
While visiting family that survived Lebanon’s bloodshed two years ago, a writer discovers firsthand an experiment to protect nature that may well be a model for the world.

 

It’s not every day that you can fly halfway around the world from your own home to see birds where bombs once flew, and be guided by men and women who share your surname. The black storks, great snipes, and Syrian serins of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley are always a thrilling sight, but their presence seems even more like a miracle when you see them with kinfolk who have recently survived a war.

When I first arrived at the Kfar Zabad Global Important Birding Area, I was expecting to be met by only Dalia Al-Jawhary, a conservation program officer working with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL). But much to my surprise, 20 men were also waiting there for me, some bulging uncomfortably out of their suits, some in farmworkers’ khakis. Seven of them were my cousins, all from the same Arab farming village where my grandparents were born. I knew only two of them well, but before we had sauntered a full circuit around the Kfar Zabad wetlands, three more cousins came to greet me, kissing me on the cheeks three times and hugging me so hard the binoculars around my neck crunched against my collarbone.

It had taken me 50 years of my life and 8,000 miles of travel to find some kin who love the spring migration of birds as much as I do. Now we were walking arm in arm around a rather heavenly habitat for herons and hawks that six months earlier had looked, sounded, and smelled like hell.

I had arrived in my grandfather’s village on the eastern edge of the Bekaa Valley just two seasons after a horrendous “July War” had forced a million people from their homes in Lebanon and Israel. It had also threatened the migratory stopovers used by a handful of endangered avian species. Year after year, from time immemorial, the success of the spring migration of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl has depended on finding safe havens along a corridor running up from the Red Sea, northward toward the Dead Sea and the greatly degraded rivulet known as the Jordan River, and on to the marshy islands in the desert sea known as the Bekaa.

The 360 acres of wetland habitat in Kfar Zabad, Lebanon, was one such stepping stone needed for crossing that formidable sea of aridity. In fact, until the birds reached the lakes in Turkey that lie between Tarsus and Ankara, the Kfar Zabad was their last safe harbor on their way north. It is also one of the few secure refuges for river otters and jungle cats, species that in the Middle East are often caught between a rock and a hard place. In the late summer of 2006 the safety of that millennia-old haven was nearly destroyed. And yet because farmers and conservationists found a way to work together, both avian and human communities somehow survived the war that broke the tranquillity of that wetland in the desert.

On other trips to Lebanon in the years prior to 9/11, my cousins had occasionally taken me by the Kfar Zabad marsh, where we would pause to watch the flurry of water birds rising up from a small lagoon stretching out below the towering slopes of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Our family’s fields were just upslope from the artesian springs that have perennially fed hundreds of acres of open water, cattail marshes, willow thickets, moist meadows, and cottonwood gallery forests.

As we paused and watched a few gray herons and black storks lope along over the cattails, my older cousins would recall how they had spent many mornings of their childhood there, ostensibly to hunt ducks to bring back to family feasts. They teased me, pretending to scold me for not coming here while I was still a boy, so that I could have skinny-dipped and dived for amphibians with them. Today—with all of our clothes still on—we simply watched the wading birds and searched for signs in the marsh grasses that the river otters had recently passed through. Hunting was now prohibited, and I was too old to make much mischief here anyway.

One cousin, however, secretly admitted to me that even as a child, he had hardly ever fired a shot anywhere near the migratory birds that frequented the wetlands, preferring the unbroken silence and freshness of dawn to the cacophonous reports of shotguns and rifles. “When I caught a glimpse of those storks rising from the water, I couldn’t help but be in awe,” he said. “Hunting one of them never really ever crossed my mind, even when I was younger.”

We would savor the verdure there for a few minutes, then drive on to the ancient ruins of Anjar to the south or Baalbek to the north. Baalbek not only has world-class ruins but hosts internationally renowned jazz and dance festivals each summer. At that time, Anjar and Baalbek attracted far more attention than the marsh and its diversity of birds, for the tourism in the Bekaa had been focused exclusively on its archaeological antiquities of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras.

 

But over the past few years, spurts of intense warfare and political assassinations, and the resulting civil unrest, have had an unsettling effect on the Lebanese economy, so that most tourism has waned. I myself had not returned to visit my cousins since 9/11. With most Americans expressing unjustified fear of Arabs as a whole—both Moslem and Christian—it proved increasingly difficult for any of my relatives in the Middle East to secure visas to visit us in the United States. My own travels to the region took me to Oman, Egypt, and the West Bank, but I had taken a six-year break from visiting Lebanon. Of course, when I finally set foot on Lebanese soil once more, I realized that renewed contact with both the people and the wildlife there quenched a deep thirst in my soul.

While my brothers and I had stayed in contact with cousins through phone calls and e-mails, we were only vaguely aware that a remarkable revival of an ancient and indigenous conservation custom had occurred in their own backyard. The designation of land and water commons as traditional hima refuges had been practiced in the Arab world for more than 1,400 years; in fact, the Prophet Mohammed himself had declared that protection of critical lands and waters for the common good took precedence over any individual or clan profiting from control of these resources at the expense of others.

Nevertheless, as Arab countries modernized and became influenced by such Western conservation creations as national parks and wilderness areas, the use of the hima concept fell into relative obscurity. That is, until the past few years, when Saudis, Jordanians, and Lebanese—among others—recognized its lasting value in protecting special habitats, and worked to revive its formal use. In 2004 the Kfar Zabad wetlands earned hima status through the collaboration of local municipality officials and landowners with the SPNL and other wildlife conservation and ecotourism organizations.

And yet I had remained unaware of this experiment’s significance until the July War prompted a flurry of e-mails between my cousins and me, after I had become desperate to learn whether all of them remained safe. My teenaged nieces in Kfar Zabad confessed that their safety had indeed been at risk. At dawn on the third morning of the war—as they gathered around the still-sleepy toddlers in their living room—multi-ton bombs and missiles hit the rocky ridge between their home and the wetlands, jarring everyone awake. The windows imploded into the room, showering them with glass as they dove to shield their children from the debris.

When they finally sat up to look at one another, they noticed that the raven-black hair of one of the girls was sparkling like diamonds—flecks of glass were everywhere. They had somehow avoided any physical harm, but the war had arrived at their doorstep. Later they learned that one of the missiles had hit a water truck that had been sent to the wetlands to bring drinking water back to the village, killing the driver.

Other e-mails bore witness to far more chilling sights, including medical supply convoys of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders being hit by missile fire. One of my cousins had a nervous breakdown during the war, and all slept in their basements as jets and missiles shot over their heads. Hundreds of Lebanese escaping from the cities moved into the village, and 120 displaced families took refuge under the cottonwoods at the Kfar Zabad wetlands, hoping that neither side would directly bomb an internationally recognized protected area.

Unfortunately, the solid waste left by the refugees accumulated for several weeks, threatening to contaminate the waters of the wetlands just weeks before the fall migration. The villagers had no further access to food beyond what they themselves had grown, since bridges were bombed and cars were ordered off the roadways. Worst of all, perhaps, was that the crops were within a couple weeks of harvest, but the use of water supplies was restricted even though summer temperatures had already soared.

 

Kfar Zabad could have ended up as just one more calamity in the Lebanese landscape were it not for the friendships that had already developed between the local farmers and the bird conservationists engaged with creating the new hima. Their bonds were not superficial, for show or convenience. When SPNL staff in Beirut realized the stresses the Kfar Zabad community was enduring, and sensed that the collective work at the wetland might be set back, it rallied with a “Hope Campaign” to aid its rural collaborators. Just before the war officially ended, the SPNL organized the transport of 30 metric tons of food, water, and emergency supplies to help Kfar Zabad’s burgeoning population. Getting in with supplies long before the Red Cross and other relief organizations were able to do so, the bird conservationists demonstrated that they were far more than mere fair-weather friends.

The wildlife community at the wetlands would surely suffer other insults if the human community surrounding it remained in disarray. Until Kfar Zabad’s citizens recovered from the July War, their collaborative work could not continue. First things first: Help the people, and help for the birds would surely follow. As Bassima Khatib of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon has said over and over again, the “SPNL believes that sustainability in the conservation of natural sites is more ensured when local people are involved.”

On October 7, 2006—less than a month after the warring had died down—the SPNL organized a local gathering at the Kfar Zabad hima, just as the season for migratory birds began to gear up. More than 25 Kfar Zabad farmers participated in that event, including many of my cousins and other families that were most dramatically affected by the recent war. The mayor of Kfar Zabad, members of the Municipality Council, and the farmers themselves not only expressed their gratitude to the conservationists but pledged to be involved in the process of amplifying a plan to ensure that any emergency requiring the use of local water from the artesian springs would not affect the wetlands and its wildlife. The general director of the SPNL, Assad Sarhal, emphasized the global importance of the Kfar Zabad wetlands and the vital role the farmers play in protecting the habitat in general and its six endangered species in particular. Six months later, when I talked with the farmers, several were opting to go organic to reduce the nitrate enrichment and herbicide contamination that potentially occurs when runoff from their fields drains toward the wetlands.

In gratitude for their efforts to reduce any potentially negative impact from their farming, the SPNL and the ecotourism company Lebanese Adventure committed to involve them when tourists arrived, both in the interpretation of the site and in the direct sales of traditional food products to the visitors. As is customary in Lebanon, the gathering closed with more than 150 people sharing local fruits, vegetables, breads, and arak, the anisette liquor for which the Bekaa Valley is famous.

Within three weeks of the farmers’ gathering, local schools congregated at the hima for what they called the AEWA Festival, celebrating the International Day of Migratory Birds at the very height of migration. Children from six to twelve years old spent the entire day outdoors in a variety of activities that reminded them that they are stewards of a special place. Where bombs flew just two months before, the children now delighted at the sight of migratory hawks and falcons, herons and ducks. Some saw the rare Syrian serin, which nests on the edge of the wetlands.

When two of my young nieces joined me for two hours of sauntering and birdwatching within the hima several months later, I could sense that it had become their place, one that was just as much a haven for them as for the birds, reptiles, and small mammals we saw that afternoon. It was not so much what they said about the place as much as how comfortably they frolicked there, coming back now and then to listen to Dalia Al-Jawhary interpret the birds for them; these girls behaved as though they were safe within its midst. Dwelling in such a wetland haven can certainly not wash away all the horrors of war, but it can give local residents someplace tangible to invest their hope. In restoring the wetlands to their former richness and diversity, in a very real way they are also restoring their own spirits.

 

Gary Nabhan is the founder of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Campaign, based at Slow Food USA, and the author of numerous books, including The Forgotten Pollinators, about the conservation of migratory pollinators and their nectar corridors. His most recent book is the newly released Arab/American: Landscape, Culture and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts.
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Lebanon: Making the Trip

If you’re planning to travel to the Bekaa Valley from either the Beirut or Damascus (Syria) airports, it is critical that you read U.S. State Department travel advisories right up to your departure time. Lebanon, like many other countries in the Middle East, still suffers from periodic bouts of airport closures and street violence in between long periods of relative, business-as-usual calm. Calling ahead to hotels or travel agencies for up-to-date reports is also advised.

Kfar Zabad is located in the Lebanese province of Zahleh Caza-Bekaa Mohafazah, west of the Syrian border and not far north of the major Beirut-to-Damascus highway. It is part of the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture originated, but has lovely limestone ridges and canyons where many upland birds of the Mediterranean Basin make their homes. The real calling card of the Kfar Zabad hima, however, is its myriad wading birds and waterfowl. The loping flights of the endangered black storks and gray herons are probably the most spectacular sights you’ll see—unless you spot the even rarer Syrian serin and the great snipe. It’s extremely unlikely you will catch even the quickest glimpse of the rare jungle cat, but those who spend the night at the hima’s guest facilities can be led before dawn to where they have a good chance of spotting river otters at play.

The Bekaa Valley is famous not only for its birds, its mammals, and its cultivation of grapes for wine and arak but also for its many intact archaeological sites, the most famous of which is Baalbek. The ruins at Anjar (pictured left) are on the edge of the village of Kfar Zabad and just a 10-minute drive from the birding site. To reach Kfar Zabad, which is about an hour and a half from eastern Beirut, take the highway over the mountains toward Chtora. Once you are east of the Mount Lebanon range, you can continue toward historic Zahle, which sits in a picturesque canyon below Mount Sanine. On the city’s eastern periphery, you can follow signs on a small rural route directly to Kfar Zabad village, where colorful hima signs lead to the birding site. Alternatively, you can take the better-known highway to the ancient Anjar ruins on the edge of the village, pause to explore them, and then continue north along the limestone ridge of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the birding site.

If you are looking for experienced guides to help you make arrangements and interpret the diverse habitats and wildlife for you—either for Lebanon as a whole or for Kfar Zabad in particular—contact Lebanese Adventure, one of the country’s most renowned ecotour operators and the only one that has specialized in visiting this birding site. Call André Béchara at 961 (0)3 360027 or Serge Soued at 961 (0)3 214989, or e-mail. To see more of what Lebanon has to offer the ecotourist, click here.

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