BEIRUT — Excavation work at a private construction site above a natural littoral cave that is home to endangered Mediterranean monk seals in Amchit, north of Jbeil, has resumed, TERRE Liban, an organization devoted to the creation and implementation of environmental education in Lebanon, said in a statement Sunday.
“The construction project on Amchit Beach returns to threaten the cave of the Mediterranean monk seal, which is endangered, according to the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature," the statement said, adding that the monk seal is sixth most endangered animal on its global list.
Last June work at the cave was stopped after local residents rallied against the development project, pressing the Tourism Ministry to order the cessation of construction work.
The Amchit municipality has confirmed that the renewed works at the site relate to the same development project as last year — a private chalet.
“They stopped the work last year, and we were waiting for an environmental impact assessment study to be done on the site,” Paul Abi Rached, head of TERRE Liban, told L’Orient Today.
‘Two meters away from the cave’
Tens of activists and citizens gathered Sunday in Amchit near the cave to protest the excavation work, with some even jumping into the water in an attempt to stop the excavation work from proceeding.
“This morning, the [caretaker] Environment Minister Nasser Yassin sent me a text message telling me the study was conducted, and the work resumed on the site near the cave,” Abi Rached explained.
"However, it is impossible that this study was done, we did rigorous follow up, no experts came into the site, no municipality was contacted, the study was never performed,” the activist added. “An important part of this study would include a consultation of the public, meaning experts in the Mediterranean marine environment would be consulted, local activists and marine scientists would be consulted for the study — all this did not happen,” Abi Rached continued.
“The law enforces that such a study would happen to ensure preserving marine life,” Abi Rached explained.
“The excavation works are only two meters away from the seals’ cave,” Abi Rached added.
L’Orient Today was unable to reach Yassin for comment on the matter.
‘Lebanese coast is lined with caves’
Antoine Issa, the head of Amchit’s municipality, told L’Orient Today that the works were resumed and “they have an approval from the Ministry of Environment and the Higher Council of Urban Planning." He explained that "therefore, it is not in my capability to stop the owners from continuing their work on their own land since they are within the legal framework.”
Issa told L'Orient Today that the excavation workers were given guidelines to abide by while work is ongoing.
"The cave should not shake out of fear that it would crack while they're building, and they have to build sensors to be able to know if the cave is cracking," he noted.
Issa said, however, that the municipality has not been contacted regarding the supposed environmental impact assessment.
Issa said that “the Lebanese coast is lined with caves, so even if this cave was destroyed, the seal has many other caves that it can reside in; we are talking about one seal, not a hundred seals on the coast whose habitat would be completely destroyed.”
According to the description of the Mediterranean monk seal on the IUCN Red List's website, the mammal is “possibly extinct” in Lebanon and only 350-450 mature individuals still exist in the Mediterranean basin.
The IUCN lists “residential & commercial development” among the main threats the monk seal faces.
Issa concluded by stating that environmental activists and residents of the town are “making a big deal out of the issue,” adding that the land owners “have the right to build on their land.”
‘Crime against marine environment’
The implementation of the Amchit coast project may nevertheless constitute a crime against the marine environment and its biological diversity and a violation of environmental legislation: Article 29 of the Environmental Protection Law No. 444/2002 stipulates that the beaches and natural resources of the Lebanese Republic must be protected from the dangers of pollution in all its forms and shapes.
Law 144/S of 1925, which dates from the French mandate period, also defines the maritime public domain as “the seashore extending to the outermost 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 construction 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. Still, the decree also states that the beach must remain accessible to the public, and construction should not obstruct the shore’s continuity.
At least 80 percent of Lebanon’s 220 kilometers of shoreline is privatized, according to a study by the Institute of the Environment at the University of Balamand.