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Forest conditions in Syria and Lebanon


STUDY of forest resources and potentialities in member countries is one of the basic tasks of the Food and Agriculture Organization. Attention is rightly due to conditions in Middle East countries, many of which were celebrated in olden times for their rich forests.

It would be going too far to say that nothing now remains of these ancient forests but certainly they are now few in number and scattered, and their ranks are constantly being thinned. It is to be feared that they will disappear entirely unless proper protective methods are quickly brought to bear.

Forest area in Syria and Lebanon

It is difficult to provide figures for forest area in Syria and Lebanon which can give a proper indication of their forest resources, as for instance do figures for countries of Europe or North America. The description "forest" is interpreted very liberally in the Levant and embraces all areas carrying trees, whatever their species or the density of the stock. Again there is considerable uncertainty as to the exact extent of the forests, owing to the lack of detailed maps of a sufficiently large scale.

With these reservations, the forest area of Lebanon may be put at 7.4 percent or 74,000 hectares and of Syria at 1.4 percent or about 190,000 hectares.*

*Since this article was written, FAO has received reply to its Forest Inventory Questionnaire for Syria, in which the figures differ to some degree from those quoted above.

Regions and principal tree species

The forests are almost without exception confined to the mountain ranges which stretch in a practically uninterrupted chain from the borders of Turkey to Palestine, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea.

Working down from north to south, the first forest range is Kurd-Dagh. This small tract situated to the northwest of Aleppo, near the railroad from Aleppo to Ankara, is practically denuded as the result of unrestrained cutting carried out during World War I. It is reduced to coppice of Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, with occasional Aleppo pines, Pinus halepensis, laricio pine, Pinus nigra var pallasiana.

Covering a total area of about 25,000 hectares, the two forests of Baer and Bassit, situated to the northeast of Latakia and near the frontier of the Sandjak of Alexandretta, form the principal forest block in the whole of Syria and Lebanon. The Bassit, close to the sea, is covered with fairly dense and almost pure stands by Aleppo pine, unfortunately ravaged by fire. The Baer, situated at a higher altitude (800 m.), comprises Aleppo pine and both Chevelu oak, Quercus cerris, and Vallones oak, Q. aegilops. Young growth is often entirely made up of these two deciduous oaks. The forest is for the most part spared from the axe but, around the edges, wood is removed for use in tobacco-drying plants.

Djebel Ansarieh, the range running parallel to the coast, rises to 1,500 meters and stretches for 100 kilometers down to the Homs gap. The crests are covered with fine uniform stands of deciduous oaks of commercial value. There are several isolated pockets of Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, Cilician fir, Abies cilicica, and juniper, Juniperus excelsa. Evergreen oaks occur m pure stands where the elevation drops to about 800 meters. The forests of Djebel Ansarieh cover a total area of about 20,000 hectares.

To the north of the mountain massif of Lebanon, which reaches a height of 3,000 meters, two very interesting forest areas occur on the foothills overlooking the plain of Tell Kalah between elevations of 400 and 1.400 meters. These are the Akkar and the Dennieh.

In the Akkar, as the altitude increases, one finds first mixed crops of Aleppo pine and Kermes oak, then stands of deciduous oaks, then about 1.200 meters of almost pure coniferous stands of Cilician fir, and lastly open woods of juniper, as the tree line is approached at 1,800 meters.,

The forest of Djebel Amoua, which forms a part of the Akkar, deserves special mention. Formed of well-grown pure stands of Cilician fir, reproducing themselves quite satisfactorily and practically intact be cause of inaccessibility, this forest contains a lot of timber more than 2 meters in diameter and 80 meters in height. The forest stands of Akkar cover about 8,000 hectares.

Principal forest areas in Syria and Lebanon

The Dennieh leads off from the Akkar towards the west. It comprises some good mixed stands of fir and cedar and occasional plots of pure cedar. Unfortunately, the cedars are often misshapen and forked.

The forests of Hermel and Baalbeck stretch along the east flank of the Lebanon mountains beyond the Akkar. They cover about 28,000 hectares in Lebanon proper and 5,000 hectares in trans-Lebanon. The growing stock consists of devastated stands of evergreen oaks of poor density, overcut, and with many gaps. They are bound to disappear.

To the east of Tripoli, on the crests of the Lebanon range, one may mention the shrinking cedar forests of the high valley of the Kadischa. Amongst the most interesting is the forest of Ehden. It is near the sources of the Kadischa, close to the picturesque village of Becharre, where is found the celebrated grove of cedars known throughout the Christian world. This park, located in a barren valley at 1,600 meters, now consists of about ten trees, but nearly all measure more than 3 meters in diameter. Some have attained 12 meters in circumference.

Farther to the south, the valley of the Nahr Ibrahim (the Adonis River of the ancients) holds a tract of almost pure Aleppo pine and near the watershed a vigorous crop of juniper which ends at an elevation of 2,000 meters.

The hill country near Beyrouth is fairly well wooded. The forests are made up of piñon pine. Pinus pinea. They were artificially planted in 1860. Under private ownership, they are well tended because of the products they yield (edible seed, timber, and fuelwood).

Clearing in the forest of fir, Abies cilicica, in the Djebel Amoua range, Akkar, North Lebanon.

On the Djebel Barouk, which prolongs the Lebanon range to the col of the Beidar, are several outlying forest tracts. There is the cedar forest of Barouk, in poor condition. Stands of Kermes oak are fairly extensive at medium altitudes near Djezzine and on the east slopes of the mountain, at Amik, Andjar, and Rachaya, a town situated at the foot of the Hermont. They are for the most part destroyed and, though they cover a considerable area, have little value.

At the frontier between Lebanon and Palestine, tracts of Kermes oak cover more than 6,000 hectares on the Lebanon side and stretch over into Palestine. These stands are in a piteous state because they serve as grazing grounds for enormous herds of goats. This use ruins the forest but will be continued, as the country's economy is founded on goats. In fact, the goat droppings are assiduously harvested and transported by sea to Beyrouth and Tripoli where they are used as fertilizer in the orange and banana plantations along the coast.

The inland mountain ranges are practically entirely deforested. Except for the date palm, the pistachionut tree is the only tree species of the desert. This tree, remarkable for its habitat, forms open stands containing only a few trees per hectare, but extending over enormous areas in two places in the Syrian desert (Djebel Abd-el-Aaziz in Djezirch and Djebel Bilas in the Palmyre region).

To complete this brief listing of the principal forest regions of Syria and Lebanon, an estimate of the areas covered by the most important species is given in the following paragraphs.

Oaks cover perhaps 50 percent of the total forested area of the two countries, about 132,000 hectares. The Kermes oak alone covers more than four-fifths of this area and the rest consists of deciduous oaks, Quercus aegilops, Quercus cerris, and Quercus libani.

The conifers come second. They cover about 65,000 hectares. The chief species in order of importance are: Aleppo pine, piñon pine, laricio pine, Cilician fir, juniper, cedar, and cyprus, Cupressus sempervirens.

Secondary species cover 12 percent of the forested area, about 30,000 hectares; included here are wild fruit, walnut, maple, poplar, arbutus. and pistachio trees.

Lastly about 35,000 hectares are covered by semi-forest type trees, which are all included under the term "forest." These are principally willows, cultivated fruits, figs, laurels, almonds, and olives.

Forest ownership

The legal standing as regards timber and forests is fairly straightforward. In Syria in accordance with ancient Turkish rights, all forested land belonged to the Sultan. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, ownership devolved on the State or Mubah. In Lebanon, the same happened except for timber located in the old autonomous province of Lebanon which comprised forests of piñon pine in private ownership or Mulk. Certain state forests, called Baltalika, are encumbered with rights of usage in favor of riverside communities. This is particularly the case with tracts situated on the Lebanon-Palestine frontier.

Communal forests, public properties, and religious: properties (Wakfs) are rare. The forested land of the two countries is made up of approximately 72 percent state forests, 23 percent privately owned forest and only 6 percent of communal, public, and religious forests.

The legal position of some forest land is very confused as the result of innumerable ownership cases contested as much by communities as by individual persons and on which there have never been any rulings. It should be noted that the state forests are neither delimited nor marked and no precise boundary maps exist.

Main forestry problems

Forest Output

The forests of Syria and Lebanon generally lacking in large trees as they are, are far from being capable of covering the timber requirements of these two countries. Moreover, they are not even managed to this end nor is cutting regulated, without which measures a proper supply cannot be secured even where the potentialities are recognized. Like most of the countries of the Mediterranean littoral, Syria and Lebanon are for the most part dependent on exports from Europe. Before World War II, imports came principally from Rumania, Scandinavia, Yugoslavia, and France. They consisted principally of softwood lumber (averaging 30,000 tons per year), hardwoods. principally beech (3,000 tons), and exotic woods (3,000 tons). A certain amount of fuelwood (2,500 tons) and charcoal (1,000 tons) was also imported, as well as an important tonnage of paper pulp.

The demand still exists, but as recent FAO statements have indicated, Europe can scarcely hope to export its timber while its own enormous demands remain unsatisfied. The Middle East therefore runs the risk of suffering from an unprecedented shortage of timber. This situation endangers the existence of the forests which these countries still possess, because naturally there will be a temptation to exploit the remaining resources so as to cope with essential requirements. At all costs, it is necessary to avert these dangers which must surely ruin the forest forever.

Range Lands

The forest too often provides tile only means of pasturage for livestock. As in all Mediterranean countries, it is the goat which dominates the livestock picture. Lebanon has more than 500,000 head of goats. In Syria, however, sheep are the more widespread since there are immense ranges of pasturage.

Grazing is practically nonexistent even in the hill country, where the temperate climate and the relatively abundant rainfall are favorable to the formation of mountain pasturage. The forest therefore is at all seasons subjected to grazing and browsing, particularly by goats. The enormous number of these animals. amounting to more than a million head for the two countries, gives some idea of the damage caused to the forest and particularly to its regeneration and young stock, which provide good sustenance. The number of livestock supported by each hectare of forest is very considerable. In Lebanon, for example, on forest stands covering 50,000 hectares, the stock averages about ten head of goats per hectare, a very high figure and obviously about ten times too great.

The proper protection of most of the young forest stock is evidently greatly desirable, but in practice it is beyond the realm of achievement. In fact, in the present agricultural economy of the Middle East countries, it would meet with hostility from a very important part of the population and, to be made effective, would require an enormous staff of personnel and guards.

Cedars of Lebanon, lower right, near Becharre, north-west slope of the Lebanon Range.

To remedy this situation, it seems necessary first to strive to create range lands outside the forest by putting to use the tracts of high and medium hill country obviously best suited to pasturage. Thereafter, one should be able by appropriate measures to get a diminution in the goat herds.


Once the protection of existing forests is assured, the reforestation of areas suited for tree growing should be undertaken without delay, since this would give promise of a control of erosion, improvement in water resources, perhaps even a slight modification of climatic conditions, and lastly the chance of satisfying the greater part of the timber and fuel requirements of the two countries. The possible tourist attractions resulting from this work should not be lost sight of. especially in Lebanon, where the hotel industry is experiencing a great boom owing to the attraction of the coolness of the mountains in summer and the possibilities of winter sports.

No reforestation of any consequence has yet been undertaken in Syria and Lebanon, although in Palestine and Cyprus far-reaching work has already been accomplished. Experience is therefore lacking. However, several general principles can be stated. The climate will militate against the success of any reforestation schemes. Rainfall is satisfactory only from October to March, and the long summer period is entirely dry. The growth of plants will therefore be slow. In addition, the deterioration of the denuded soil is such as to require the initial use of accommodating and resistant species. Lastly, the whole work can have no chance of success unless the interest of the indigenous populations can be aroused to the benefits that they will derive from such work and consequently to the need for them to protect the young plantations, principally against the incursions of livestock.

Open stands of Juniperus excelsa dotted over northeastern slope of Lebanon Range. Average elevation, 1,800 m.

For the reforestation of bare soil the intermediate species found most useful is Acacia cyanophylla, a very hardy species which has yielded good results in the island of Cyprus. However, it is short-lived and it should only be planted at low altitudes. The robinia, Robinia pseudoacacia, can replace it at greater elevations. For the main species, one should first mention the piñon pine, which was introduced into Lebanon at least a century ago and has now established itself well on a variety of soil types. Reforestation can be obtained from broadcast sowing after plowing or light breaking of the ground. The Aleppo pine can be similarly used but its products do not greatly interest the local planter. These two species should not be used above 1,000 meters. At greater elevations, it seems better to make use of indigenous species, such as cedar, Cilician fir, and juniper. At the same time, control experiments should be carried out for the introduction of exotic species.

The zones to be reforested must be defined. It seems that their extent is not likely to be so great as might appear. In fact, efforts should be limited principally to the mountainous sectors subject to erosion, to regions where existing growth needs strengthening or restocking, and to areas which are tourist centers.


This brief survey of the forest situation in Syria and Lebanon makes clear the necessity for undertaking a thorough study of the basic forest problems in the Middle East. This vast work, which should be sponsored by FAO and should cover all the countries of the Middle East in particular Arabia, should be the first step towards the restoration of forest cover in this part of the world.

It must be stressed that all possible programs of action to be undertaken must take fully into account the agricultural and pastoral situations of the countries concerned. The forest's fundamental role is to limit erosion and constitute a source of primary products essential to the economic life of a country. The agricultural economy almost completely conditions life in the Middle East, being the main source of livelihood of the majority of peoples of Asia Minor, Syria, the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, and the Arabian peninsula.

Today no practical forestry program could be undertaken with any hope of success unless it received the approval of the farmer and the shepherd, whether they were sedentary, as in Lebanon, or nomadic or seminomadic. as in Syria and Arabia.

A similar problem exists in all the countries bordering the Mediterranean. The 1946 FAO Mission to Greece was able to define the general lines for forestry action, based on the protection of existing wooded resources and their extension through a progressive program of reforestation. It recommended control of rights to pasturage in the forest, properly adapted to the economic circumstances of the country and capable of receiving the agreement of the populations concerned.

There is no doubt that only a precise study of the particular forestry problems of the Middle East will enable putting forward complete recommendations whose application would make possible the reconstitution and enlargement of the forest heritage of the countries concerned.

Photographs for this article were furnished by J. Rolley and by the Military Service of Lebanon.

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