“I have been chopping down trees on my own plot of land to keep my children warm,” says Jaafar, a resident of the southern town of Bedias, with a lump in his throat.
“I’ve waited many years for these trees to grow to reap their fruit, and here I am now cutting them down because I can’t afford firewood this year,” he explains.
With the onset of winter, many Lebanese like Jaafar are struggling to secure raw materials for heating, as the country grapples with an economic crisis that has led to major currency depreciation and dire living conditions, and the government continues to implement price controls that are often ineffective.
Although fuel oil is one of the items subsidized by the state — for now — it is not available in sufficient quantities on the market, especially in remote areas where the winter cold renders it an essential commodity.
On the black market, which is dominated by monopolies, fuel oil is being sold for much more than its official price and has become prohibitively expensive for the most vulnerable parts of the population.
People in many areas across the country are therefore turning to firewood and charcoal for heat. In order to keep within their budget, many have resorted to cutting down trees on their own plots of land, like Jaafar, or in nearby woods and forests. This is not a new trend in Lebanon, but it has been gaining momentum since the price hikes.
Illegal logging is taking place with impunity as the state apparently turns a blind eye to it. The practice, which is not new, stems from the state’s failure to control the prices of raw materials and put an end to the black market.
Many Lebanese, left to fend for themselves and without hope of any state support, are now in survival mode and are no longer willing to answer to any authority.
“I will not let my children freeze to death,” says another resident of the area, who asked not to be named.
“If the state does not take urgent steps to resolve our problems by controlling traders and putting an end to theft and fluctuation in prices, we will consider public property and state lands a source of raw materials to keep ourselves and our families warm. We are now at a crossroads between life and death. And the choice is obvious!” he adds.
What cost LL250,000 last year now costs LL800,000
If people are taking the risk of going to forests for their wood supplies, it is because even commercial firewood has become overpriced and unavailable in sufficient quantities.
Mohammad Balhas, owner of a lumber business in Sur, tells L’Orient-Le Jour, “There has been a sharp increase in demand this year, given the concern over the lack of fuel in the city and price fluctuations.”
“Concerned locals are turning to us for firewood, knowing that its prices have also skyrocketed. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet all demand,” he says.
A ton of timber has hit a record price of LL800,000, compared to LL250,000 last year, according to the merchant. A household, especially one living in a mountainous area and with wood as its only source of heat, consumes between three and four tons of firewood during the winter season. Moreover, prices of traditional, locally made stoves have also increased as cast iron and steel are imported goods.
Nature reserves in danger
People’s desperation and the government’s indifference are slowly turning into a silent threat to the environment. If illegal logging threatens the country’s remaining green spaces, nature reserves are no exception, as Mohammad Kdouh, an environmental activist in the southern town of Yater, confirmed to L’Orient-Le Jour.
Kdouh has documented abuses in the oak forests between Bint Jbeil and Sur that are protected by a Ministry of Agriculture decree.
“Soaring prices have prompted many residents to go inside nature reserves and cut down trees, even though they are well aware of the risks they are taking, whether fines they might end up paying or lawsuits they might face,” he says.
“But they are in such a dire situation that they run the risk without thinking twice. Protected areas are now endangered,” Kdouh adds.
Although he is sympathetic to the Lebanese and understands their distress, Kdouh does not hesitate to demand that the law be applied, sounding the alarm over a potential ecological disaster.
“Authorities must swiftly control the fuel oil market and prevent the rise in prices on the black market; otherwise, our nature reserves will soon be emptied of trees,” he says.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
“I have been chopping down trees on my own plot of land to keep my children warm,” says Jaafar, a resident of the southern town of Bedias, with a lump in his throat.“I’ve waited many years for these trees to grow to reap their fruit, and here I am now cutting them down because I can’t afford firewood this year,” he explains.With the onset of winter, many Lebanese like Jaafar are...