Rain poured from the sky onto the perilous mountain roads as the car climbed higher and higher into a Lebanon new to me. The main road to the village of Ehmej was unpaved and under construction and very, very narrow with no barrier between the crumbling edge of the road and the steep drop off to the valley below. Even the beauty of the vineyard-lined mountains could not prevent me from closing my eyes. But it was all worth it.
The road led to the opening of the Ehmej Forest Center. This new center will increase the Ehmej municipality’s capacity and will focus on the protection, conservation, and growth of the forests in Ehmej and the surrounding area as well as provide a community gathering place. There are 12 hiking trails which connect Ehmej to the Lebanon Mountain Trail and other natural places of interest. The center will serve as a focal point for ecotourism in the area. It will hold 30 beds and host a full kitchen for group activities.
The opening ceremony was held in Ehmej before the group headed out to see the forest center. Among the speakers at the ceremony were the Mayor of Ehmej and Nada Zaarour, President of the Association for Forests, Development, and Conservation. Ambassador Michelle Sison represented the United States, who provided the funding for the center through the Department of Defense Humanitarian Assistance Program.
Ecotourism is a rapidly growing industry in Lebanon and a great way to bring economic development to areas outside of Beirut, areas which have not seen the level of prosperity enjoyed by many in the capital city. Indeed, some parts of Lebanon are like a whole other country, where poverty and illiteracy reign the lives of the people like other third world countries. Educated and prosperous Beirutis tend to overlook the fact that not all of Lebanon shares their good fortune.
But maybe they can in the near future. Ecotourism generates income into small communities – visitors spend money in local businesses like hotels and restaurants, as well as buy locally made handicrafts and other products.
In addition to the economic benefits, the center will help to create a culture of environmental appreciation by educating youth about environmental problems and solutions that are good for all of Lebanon. And who knows? A little wilderness without the distractions of daily living can go a long way in bringing folks a peaceful state of mind...