Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Sitting at the crossroads of Eurasia and Africa where plants and animals of three continents were cultivated and spread, the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories) has a remarkably diverse and unique ecosystem. Indeed, there are thousands of plant species that are rare and/or endemic to the region or its respective countries. However, war, instability and rapid urbanization have left the environment poorly managed or neglected altogether. Lebanon, for example, saw its forest areas dwindle to seven percent by the late 1990s, and despite the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, four of the seven nature reserves declared by law lack management and monitoring plans today. The Palestinian Territories’ several non-coordinated conservation laws - with their corresponding weak budgets - is another example of the region’s lack of focus around the environment. As a result, the Levant has seen thousands of plant species listed as threatened or endangered, including 206 near extinction in Lebanon alone. And with the disappearance of such plants also goes their unique genetic material that is potentially important to humankind. Indeed, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to sudden disasters and more gradual climate change.
Because of the volatile political situation, lack of a national conservation strategy, and limited manpower, the few outside funders focused on the environment in the Levant have tended to bypass government channels and work directly with citizen sector organizations (CSOs). However, CSOs have largely limited themselves to awareness building and creating seed banks, which Zaher sees as a huge missed opportunity to leverage the manpower embedded in the larger citizenry to drive a comprehensive solution from the bottom up.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Zaher is putting together all of the relevant pieces to make biodiversity a strategic national objective. He is financially incentivizing those whose actions are accelerating the loss of biodiversity – like private landowners who sell farmland to urban developers and herb collectors who crudely harvest plants growing in the wild – to do the opposite. Similarly, financial incentives encourage new actors to be a part of the solution – like farmers who previously grew marginally viable crops like tobacco and now grow the more profitable, less labor-intensive, disappearing oregano plant. By using a 1500 person network made up of young people to lead this work, Zaher is also nurturing a new generation to be more knowledgeable about the environment and thus, its natural stewards. Beyond working with targeted groups mentioned above, Zaher uses this network to educate the general public, including an even younger generation, to consider their thoughts on the richness of the Lebanese environment and consider ecologically friendly practices in their everyday lives. This network currently works in 100 schools and has brought interactive educational sessions, including different games to better understand their ecological footprint, to over 100,000 students. Students have also been brought outside the classroom to witness and participate in the local projects underway to promote biodiversity. Lastly, Zaher is closing the loop of this comprehensive strategy by spearheading national policy on biodiversity to be supported by the work his network is already doing with local government decision makers in each of Lebanon’s 26 districts.