Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Wednesday, 27 August 2008 11:43 UK

Threat to Lebanon's symbol of survival

By Bethany Bell
BBC News, Lebanon

Lebanese flag backed by cedar wood
The cedar adorns Lebanon's flag, as well as money, stamps and other places

Environmentalists are concerned that climate change could affect Lebanon's emblematic cedar trees.

Cedar forests once covered the mountains of Lebanon. But cedar wood and resin have been prized since the days of the Ancient Egyptians and over the centuries the trees have been cut down by everyone from the Phoenicians to the Ottomans to the modern Lebanese themselves.

The highest point on this mountain is 2000 metres above sea level, so the cedar forests in Lebanon could disappear
Nizar Hani, Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve
These days most of Lebanon's cedars are protected, but now there is concern that the trees face a new threat.

A quarter of Lebanon's cedars are found in the Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve, in the mountains southeast of Beirut.

Its scientific coordinator, Nizar Hani, says global warming could affect the growth of new trees:

"The impact of climate change on the cedar forests of Lebanon will be on natural regeneration because we will have a lack of snow.

"Secondly there could be an increase of diseases and insect infections, because of warmer temperatures."

Rising temperature

Cedar of Lebanon
Lebanese cedar trees can live for centuries, and even millennia
The cedar's natural range is now 1,200-1,800 metres (4,000-6,000 feet) above sea level. Mr Hani says a warmer climate would mean the trees could only survive higher up.

"Things could be difficult because the highest point on this mountain is 2000 metres above sea level, so the cedar forests in Lebanon could disappear," Mr Hani says.

But he stresses these are just predictions:

"Till now we have healthy cedar forests, especially here in the Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve."

And the reserve is taking action to limit the impact of rising temperatures.

Nizar Hani says isolated populations of trees will be more affected by climate change, so increasing the area of the cedar forests could help.

"We are trying to plant new cedar forests - we have a project to plant 100,000 seedlings. "

Natural wonder

For many Lebanese, the cedar, which can live for hundreds of years, is more than just a tree.

Efforts to preserve the cedars in the Shouf mountains have been led by the Druze political leader Walid Jumblatt, who has his stronghold there. His wife, Nora, says the trees are part of Lebanon's cultural heritage.

"Some of these trees are 3,000 years old," she said.

Nora Jumblatt
Nora Jumblatt, wife of Druze leader Walid, pioneers cedar conservation
"You can find the cedar on stamps, on money, on our national flag. So it is very important culturally and it's our heritage."

The cedar tree has inspired poets and artists in Lebanon for centuries - including the writer Kahlil Gibran, who is buried close to the Bcharre cedar reserve in northern Lebanon.

Wahib Kayrouz, the curator of the Gibran museum, says the cedar is an important metaphor in Gibran's work.

"The cedar is always the symbol for strength, power, fertility, continuity and the feeling that the human being is eternal," he said.

The much loved cedars of Lebanon have been nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

A symbol of survival in a fractured land, it is hoped the trees won't become just a memory on the flag.

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