Friday, September 18, 1998
LebEnv # 57
ILLEGAL ROCK QUARRIES
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Yes, it's time to tackle rock quarries again. On my recent trip to Lebanon, I paid special attention to the situation concerning rock quarries. The government recently banned most rock quarries. What I saw on the ground was extremely disappointing. Many rock quarries continue to operate in the most scenic areas of the country. I went on a tour in the mountains above Jubail (Byblos) and visited the famous Bala'a sinkhole, where a waterfall pours behind three natural bridges into the earth. While the sinkhole is still intact, the valley surrounding it is riddled with sand and rock quarries. It seemed there was one around every turn. One of them has eaten the base of Jabal el-Qaraqif, not far from the Jaj cedar groves.
I went on several hikes in the mountains during my stay. I met many people who were well-informed about environmental matters. One recurring theme seemed to be quarries that operate illegally at night. The infamous rock quarry that has destroyed the backdrop of the Mseilha castle near Batroun was a big issue during my visit in 1995, but closed after that. Before being finally closed, it apparently operated illegally during the night; that did not last long due to its visibility from the busy Beirut-Tripoli highway. Across from it, climbing up the steep south side of Ras el-Chaqua'a, was an ugly new scar where bulldozers had destroyed olive groves. I was told that a new rock quarry had been started but had been stopped due to the outcry of environmental activists.
I passed in front of the rock quarry between Monte Verde and Zandouqua in the Metn. This quarry, belonging to the Church and leased by a Member of Parliament, had been closed since it first shocked me in 1995. It lies at the bottom of an otherwise pristine green valley with steep rock cliffs.
On September 11, 1998, I was very disappointed by news about rock quarries in the North as reported by the Daily Star's web site. According to the paper, "six quarries are operating in Joz, Hariq, Sweiseh, Karm Shbatt and Wadi al- Arisheh areas with a natural cover of fir trees, cedars, pines and oaks. In Wadi al-Arisheh, between Hermel and Akkar, quarry owners have marred the sides of what used to be a beautiful valley and diverted a stream that feeds into the Kabir River on the Syrian border." The quarries also threaten to disrupt the water table and derail a government drinking-water project, cover the cedars of the Qammouaa forest with dust, interfere with government plans for nature reserves, and spoil an area that has been recognized as a tourist area. One operator has acquired 50 trucks to transport the material to Tripoli.
Environment minister Akram Chehayeb tried to close down the quarry, but it resumed work after a four-day break. This was attributed to the political influence of the quarry owners.
More recently, on September 14, the Daily Star reported that a large area of the weather-sculpted rocks near Faitroun had been destroyed, apparently by Elka, a quarrying company owned by Haykal Khazen, the brother of Keserwan Member of Parliament Rushayd Khazen. When the media and the Ministry of the Environment's turned their attention to the illegal operation, the workers left in a hurry, leaving behind bulldozer tracks and toppled rocks. The rock was being used for a land reclamation near the Dog River. In my opinion, this is like using the Gutenberg bible for wrapping fish, and it is particularly distressing that the vandalism was carried out by people with family names that have a deep-rooted history in the Keserwan area.
In another incident mentioned in the same story, the Maronite church leased land to a person so he could build a gas station among the sculpted rocks of Faitroun. A gas station! How about turning the Sistine Chapel into a parking garage? The church needs to get out of the real-estate business and protect what's left of its land, which includes large, undeveloped wild areas of Lebanon's historic mountains.
These sordid stories bring up the issue of corruption. In a recent survey, by International Country Risk Guide done for the World Bank, it was found that official corruption in Lebanon is the highest in World. It is one thing for corruption to be done discreetly, such as having to pay a government employee extra to accomplish paperwork. On the other hand, it is nothing short of shocking that a quarry can be built from scratch and operate at night or in broad daylight against laws that were supposed to shut them down.
We have an excellent Minister of the Environment under whose mandate a 550-square-kilometer preserve was established in the Shouf, but his powers are limited when it comes to law enforcement. Where is the Minister of the Interior, who has the authority to dispatch police to rock quarries and shut them down? The war has been over for eight years in most of Lebanon; why is this still happening? Surely, if the government can rebuild Beirut's downtown, ban bird hunting, severely limit marijuana planting and crack down on armed gangs, why can't it close down some lousy rock and sand quarries?
One almost wonders if there is a conspiracy against Lebanon through environmental destruction, now that it is no longer possible to destroy it by military means. This seems to especially apply to the north, where many of the rock quarries in question are located, where recent forest fires were intentionally set on a very hot summer day, and where a spectacular waterfall was blown up in the Sir el-Dinnieh region, resulting in a huge mud slide. (The latter will be detailed in a future LebEnv.)
I hope certain branches of the Lebanese government wake up before the residents of Qobeiyat and Keserwan march on the capital and before tourists write off Lebanon as a bulldozer-scarred wasteland.
Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at http://members.aol.com/fdadlion/