1:00pm , Saturday 24th August 2019

They are killing the trees: THE GREEN FOREST OF EDLIB …. ANOTHER VICTIM OF THE WAR IN SYRIA

10 November 2018

By Farhat Ahmed

The New Arab– Ahmed Al-Faris was fired from glass factory job in Aleppo in 2014 after he skipped work to avoid being drafted into the reserve army of President Bashar Al Assad.

He has no desire to take part in the war that has blazed since 2011. But after two years of unemployment, the eating away of his savings, and four children to feed, Al-Faris had no choice but to go back to work logging. He is one of thousands of workers working for merchants cutting down 125 kilometers of trees along the side of the Aleppo – Latakia Road.

Living now in the Al Hurria refugee camp near Hammamat Al Shaik Eisa village in Jisr Ash-Shugur Area, home to the largest protected natural forests in Edlib, he finds that he managed to avoid the war burning up his country only to end up in an “Army” of laborers trying to make a living by destroying the forest.

The opposition government states the 70 percent of the trees in what is known as the Green Governorate have been burnt or cut down over the past seven years because of poor oversight and accountability of the military factions controlling the region.

Exports estimate that reforestation could cost more than $1 billion and take centuries.

Al-Faris looks in on his sleeping children before slipping out of his house in the early morning to join fellow laborers in a car headed to a logging location about 20 kilometers from the camp. They pass corroded green patches that were once a patch of heaven – a dense green haven where people came to breathe fresh air and escape city crowds and polluted air.

Seven workers interviewed said that military factions knew what they were doing. “We pass through their check points and they allow us through,” one pointed out.

Al-Faris, forced to migrate from Aleppo in 2016, said that most of his fellow camp dwellers and youths are unemployed, and get paid 2500 Syrian lira (about $5) a day logging.

He said lumber merchants coordinate with the military factions based on proximity or mutual acquaintances. Sometimes the higher ups in the factions make deals for a percentage of the profit.

Trees are uprooted and cut up later into large pieces with diesel-powered saws. Hamza Al Mustafa , one of the workers says that these chunks of trees are trucked to lumber markets, the largest one in Arab Saeed village on the western side of Edlib, and sold to merchants or lumber cutting workshops.

Al-Faris said the price per ton of wood varies between 75,000-100,000 lira, where before the crisis it was only 6,000 lira per ton.

Sevently Percent Losses 

The Syrian Ministry of Agriculture states that the forest trees in Edlib covered more than 80,000 acres, according to statements engineer Mohammed Noor Tako,  assistant director of agriculture, made to the official Al-Thawra newspaper. However,  the opposing Syrian Salvation government estimates the acreage at 45, containing an estimated 18.5 million trees. ,Former Agriculture Minister for the Salvation Government Fayez Al Klaif said the government in Damascus based its calculations on surveys from the 1980s. The opposition government estimates that 70 percent of those trees have been lost since 2011.

In 2011, the governate of Edlib contained 70 forests, according to the opposition government. Of that,  20,000 acres of natural forest which sustained the most damage, and 25,000 acres of man-made forest further from the conflict areas.

The forests housed more than 100 species of trees and shrubs, and more than 50 species of animals and birds.  Twenty of the densest forests were located near Jisr Ash-Shugur along the banks of the Al-Asi River, which enters the governorate through Al-Karkour village flowing from Hama (south east), and flows out through Al-Tilul village (north west) into the Turkish territory.

The forests comprise 13 percent of the total area of Edlib and the Green Governorate included 18 percent of the forests in all of Syria, more than any other place except the Latkia Governorate which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s forests.

The Syrian Ministry of Agriculture states that the forest trees in Edlib covered more than 80,000 acres, according to statements engineer Mohammed Noor Tako,  assistant director of agriculture, made to the official Al-Thawra newspaper. However,  the opposing Syrian Salvation government estimates the acreage at 45, containing an estimated 18.5 million trees. ,Former Agriculture Minister for the Salvation Government Fayez Al Klaif said the government in Damascus based its calculations on surveys from the 1980s. The opposition government estimates that 70 percent of those trees have been lost since 2011.

In 2011, the governate of Edlib contained 70 forests, according to the opposition government. Of that,  20,000 acres of natural forest which sustained the most damage, and 25,000 acres of man-made forest further from the conflict areas.

The forests housed more than 100 species of trees and shrubs, and more than 50 species of animals and birds.  Twenty of the densest forests were located near Jisr Ash-Shugur along the banks of the Al-Asi River, which enters the governorate through Al-Karkour village flowing from Hama (south east), and flows out through Al-Tilul village (north west) into the Turkish territory.

The forests comprise 13 percent of the total area of Edlib and the Green Governorate included 18 percent of the forests in all of Syria, more than any other place except the Latkia Governorate which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s forests.

In 2011, 626 forest acres surrounding Jisr Ash-Shugur were burnt down, according the Edlib forest departments logs. That number went up over the next three years so that 75 percent of the natural forests in Edlib are destroyed.

Firas Al-Yousif an agricultural engineer with the Edlib forest department, and other area residents, attribute the fires to intensive bombing by the Syrian army to deny forest cover to opposition factions.

Comparison images demonstrating the effects of the fires on the Al Zuaynia forests in Edlib

Director of the Jisr Ash-Shugur Civil Defense office Husam Thalilto said missiles and projectiles government forces directed at areas beyond their control sparked most of the fires.  Jisr Ash-Shugur separated from the Syrian regime in 2012. Since foundation of the civil defense in 2013, and until last August, 640 fires were documented around the area.

Al-Yousif indicated that the forests that sustained the most damage were Al-Hamama, Shaik Sindyan, Al-Husaaynia, and Ein Jroun, all natural forests on the west bank of the Al-Asi River filled once with Phillyrea, oaks, wild figs, wild olives, hawthorn, mais, acacia, sumac, laurel, Pinus brutia and pine, cypresses, and Pistacia.

Pinus brutia forests are notable as the species can grow in different environments including deserts and helps prevent landslides during the heavy rains of  winter.

LOOTED FORTUNE

Engineer Firas Al-Yousif of the forest department said fires and logging have wiped out entire forests destroying no fewer than 35,000 forest acres. Estimating an average of

500 trees per acre, each one weighing about 400 kilograms, and calculating the average price of wood at $150 per ton – the loss to Syria of the Edlib forests is about $1 billion.

Al-Yousif said some of the trees lost were 250 years old, some of the planted trees almost 30.

The former Salvation Government Agriculture Minister Fayez Al Klaif warned that the forest destruction could exacerbate the problems of global warming, especially in light of the spread of crude oil fires in Syrian opposition areas.

Edlib’s are not the only forests being destroyed Four places west of Aleppo — Kafer Krmen, Kafer Aleppo, Al-Kusayba, and Mount Samaan, including 1,850 acers of mostly Aleppo pine, have been depleted by some 70 percent through logging, according to the supervising engineer in the forest department in Aleppo Ibrahim Hamide.

ABSENCE OF LAW ENFORCEMENT

The Syrian forest law No. 6 of 2018 issued on March 4, states:

  1. Punishment by imprisonment of three months to one year shall be enforced on anyone who caused a fire in the forest, forest lands, forest reserves or prevention areas due to negligence or lack of precaution or lack of observance of applicable laws and regulations.
  2. The punishment shall be extended to temporary hard labour if a fire caused a permanent injury to a person.
  3. The penalty shall be extended to hard labor for at least seven years if the result of a fire causes the death of a person.

Paragraph 32:

  1. Punishment by imprisonment from six months to two years and a fine of 500,000 to 1 million Syrian pounds will be imposed on any person who has without prior authorization uprooted, cut down, destroyed or defaced trees or shrubs in the state’s forests or carries out any damaging action.

This all has gone unenforced in the absence of control by government forces.

Worker Al-Faris says he has seen no members of the free police in the opposition areas since he started logging in early 2016.

The free police has 32 stations in the city of Maarat al-Numaan in the south of Edlib and in the neighboring towns and villages, and in Harem and Salqin near the Turkish border and several towns west of Aleppo.

Major Hussain Al-Hasyan of  the free police in Edlib says that most of the forests fall outside the  areas of police deployment. He said his forces made 204 arrests in cases of burning or cutting trees in 2017.

Circulation from the Free Police station in Kafr Aleppo, West Aleppo county side, banning logging of trees and warning  that offenders face imprisonment for 15 days , more for repeat violators.

The Agriculture Ministry of the Salvation Government has done little to combat illegal logging aside from raising awareness through Friday sermon and lessons in mosques of the importance of trees and their place of reverence in Islam. The ministry blames the military military factions for what has happened, reasoning that protecting forests is their responsibility. The ministry suggests the factions set up forest ranger stations and mobilize patrols in the woods.

Awareness leaflet from the  oppositions Ministry of Agriculture

A spokesperson for Al-Sham liberation organization (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) (formerly Al-Nusra), a prominent opposition factions in the area, Emaad Mujahid, denied any collusion with the loggers.  The Noor Al-Deen Zanki movement did the same, while the Turkistan Islamic Party refused to comment.

For his part,  Fouad Issa, a board member of the Turkey-based Violets Organization for Relief and Development working in Edlib, said that group has organized planting campaigns in an effort to compensate if in small part the “disaster” in Edlib brought on by logging. In its first project in the beginning of 2016, he said that more than 50,000 saplings were planted Edlib, Jericho, Jisr Ash-Shugur, and Marrat Al-Numman and surrounding areas. Volunteers in cooperation with local councils and civic organizations did more planting over the the next two years.

But he said restoring even part of the forests would require many years and international funding.  

In the meantime, with winter approaching and demand for firewood on the rise, Abu Saeed, with his house overlooking the Jisr Ash-Shugur – Edlib highway reports that: “Tens of trucks loaded with cut-down trees pass by everyday.”

Al-Faris, sits for lunch with co-workers on logs they had cut, sharing loaves of bread smothered in tomato sauce or zatar, with a lump in his throat over what he has helped to do to a beautiful place that once meant so much to his family and clan.

This investigation was carried out with the support of the ARIJ and supervised by ARIJ Deputy Managing Editor Emad Omar.


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