AMCHIT, Lebanon — The coast of Amchit is rocky and steep, punctuated by gorges through which water flows into natural caves. The waves are strong here in winter, pushing the water loudly into the hollow spaces between the rocks.
Only a few fishermen cast their lines into the sea. It is a tranquil picture: The sea in front of them, the rods in their hands, the sun on their faces. Though not apparent at first glance, the anglers are standing above caves that are home to the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, one of the rarest species of marine mammal in the world, with fewer than 700 individuals remaining. From 2003-2020, only 47 were spotted in Lebanese waters.
“The caves are not only of big importance to the environment, but also carry a lot of history and heritage,” said Farid Abi Younes, an architect from the area. “Those monk seals especially come to Amchit because of the clear water.”
However, neither the fact that the area is one of the few public spaces remaining on Lebanon’s coast nor the vulnerability of the natural environment has prevented private investors from encroaching on the area.
In between two of the seal caves, a private construction site is now blocking the view of the sea. Aluminum walls cover parts of the site, and an excavator has already dug into the ground and piled a mountain of rocks next to it. The ground here was broken to build a villa — for private use only.
“We have 220 kilometers in the coast and 80 percent is violated by private resorts,” said Mohammd Ayoub, the director of Nahnoo, an NGO which runs campaigns that promote cultural heritage and the preservation of public spaces. “These should be public spaces. A country that has no public spaces is lacking a soul.”
Law 144/S of 1925 dates back to the French mandate, but remains a very important one. It defines maritime public domain as “the seashore extending to the farthest point that waves reach during winter, as well as sand and gravel beaches,” and thus designates the Lebanese coastline as public property. It was followed by a decree (4810) introduced in 1966 that adopted a more economical approach, making constructions on the beach — for example in areas that are classified as touristic or industrial, and only in places that have a public character and economic justification —permissible. Stil, the decree also states that the beach must remain accessible to the public, and construction should not obstruct the shore’s continuity. Private establishments oftentimes choose to ignore these requirements.
In October 2017, the Lebanese Parliament passed Law 64/2017, “Settlement of Infringements on Maritime Public Property.” It imposes only low fines on violators without addressing the main issue of removing the encroachments and restoring the right to the beach as a public property. It does not explicitly put an end to the exceptional decree and thus still allows legal infringements on the beach.
According to environmental engineer Diana El Halwani, encroachments on and violations of maritime public properties have affected more than 5 million square meters of the Lebanese coast.
Nahnoo is part of The Coast for All, a coalition which launched a campaign last month aiming to preserve and restore the public coast of Lebanon. The campaign has launched a petition to request an amendment to Law 64/2017 to “restrict the right to occupy marine public property to the Lebanese state only,” and to limit encroachments on public properties.
“We are trying to save what is left because this is our right,” Ayoub told L’Orient Today. “Big parts of the coast are inaccessible today and we are losing an important resource from all perspectives: economic, environmental, social and cultural.”
According to data collected by the campaign, around 1,685 species of marine animals in the sea surrounding Lebanon are threatened today, and construction is only part of the issue. Marine life is also threatened by pollution coming from wastewater discharges and contamination by microplastic particles and seaside garbage dumpsters.
Requests for statements from the Environment Ministry on how to solve that issue have not been answered.
The arguments for preserving the coast are economic as well as environmental.
“Studies have shown when opening the coast to the public there are a lot of economic benefits,” Ayoub said. Under the current conditions, in which large parts of the coast are monopolized by private beach clubs, he said, “One individual is taking all the money while the city stays hungry. However, it could be the case that the city is wealthy just because of a public beach.”
He cited the example of Sour, where the public beach provides employment to more than 600 people. During the summer of 2021, the municipality of Sour collected more than LL4 billion from beach services, and the average revenues of local businesses increased by up to 70 percent. This could increase if more public spaces are created and preserved, Ayoub believes.
In Amchit, Abi Younes also cited tourism as another reason to protect the coast from development.
“We have to preserve our grottos and our coast. But we should also push to put Amchit and also the rest of Lebanon on the map of international tourism, to make it a popular destination for tourists from around the world,” he said.
Abi Younes has been raising the alarm to both the public and the concerned government authorities about the threat to Amchit’s coast.
“My demand is to protect those caves and also the public beach,” Abi Younes told L’Orient Today.
After he publicly pushed for an immediate end to the construction and gathered people from Amchit and elsewhere in Lebanon to his cause, “the responses were positive,” he said.
“The minister of tourism took the decision to pause the work on the construction site, so for now it is on hold,” he said.
Representatives of the Ministry of Tourism and the municipality of Amchit did not respond to requests for comment.
Today, the construction site is abandoned. The excavator, however, is still there, as if awaiting its moment to start work again.
Ayoub hopes that by rallying the public, the site and others like it can be preserved for good.
“Awareness will change everything,” he said. “Of course we will not see a change by tomorrow, but once the people are fully aware of what is happening and are aware of all the violations, they will be the ones who will push for a change. For me it is very clear, we have a very important resource: the coast. Why are we not treating it like that?”