The Nature Conservation Center at the American University of Beirut (AUB) recently launched the Biodiversity Village Award (BVA) with support from Coca-Cola to help local communities in Lebanon conserve their natural and cultural heritage. While significant funding is directed to tree planting at the national level, most local villages lack biodiversity conservation plans.

The project is engaging village communities in the landscape planning process and promoting the rehabilitation of open spaces through tree planting.

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Workshops guided committees through a mapping strategy.

Every year, 15 to 20 villages enroll in the BVA program, working closely with the project team for a period of 12 months. BVA village committees are formed by community volunteers from the public sector (municipal committee members), the educational sector (teachers and principals), the private sector (entrepreneurs), the civic community (scouts and social groups) and individuals interested in the process.

The project team organizes several interactive mapping sessions in each village. The first sessions are always the most challenging to facilitate, but as the year goes by, tension among committee members of different personal interests fades away and the energy around the table converges towards the common interest of enhancing their village. Committees discuss simple low-cost projects to benefit their village.

During the workshops, committees use a step-by-step manual. The “game"-like process results in technical maps consisting of spatially overlapped aerial photographs with icons and stories selected by the people. The combined methodology enables the recording of demographic information, natural and cultural landmarks, green space per capita, land tenure ratios, and forest cover percentages.

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A local villager surveys the landscape.

The participatory approach was very challenging for the visiting facilitators, as it requires conflict resolution skills, strong interpersonal skills and patience. In an ethnically diverse country such as Lebanon, conforming to a variety of local habits and lifestyles makes the process almost agenda free, yet very focused.  

Since 2011, the project has increased the collaboration for local planning of local NGOs, schools, individuals and municipalities in 52 villages. The project also has increased inter-municipal networking between and networking with 35 eco-industries through participation in six national events.

The project involves members of the local communities such as grassroots organizations, scouts, shepherds and women, who are often left out of planning process.

At the policy level, data generated by these communities formed the basis for a partnership between the participating villages, the university and the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism seeking to promote eco-tourism. The data, which is now indicated on the villages’ green maps, will form the basis for future participatory actions in each village and region. Furthermore, the collected information sheds light on existing community practices such as beekeeping, rain water harvesting, plans to conserve public open spaces, sites allocated for reforestation, and efforts to promote ecotourism.

BVA participants

BVA participants gathered with Coca-Cola representatives for lunch in downtown Beirut.

The BVA intends to become an incentive strategy targeting donors, members of the private sector who are interested in supporting nature conservation, and beneficiaries, local authorities who are interested in taking the lead in promoting and executing eco-friendly activities, ecological landscape planning. The competition also will encourage other villages to participate. Best practices presented during the closing ceremony will inspire other villages to follow similar sustainable and participatory practices. This is expected to spawn more investment from the public and private sectors into the preservation and protection of natural spaces through confiding in people-driven, grassroots village resource management initiatives.

Dr. Salma Talhouk is founding director of the American University of Beirut (AUB)’s Nature Conservation Center and associate dean of the faculty of agricultural and food sciences at AUB.

Lama Tawk is coordinator of the biodiversity village award, Nature Conservation Center.