Hubble Bubble Means Forest Trouble

Taste for nargile leads to woods being plundered for charcoal-making.

Hubble Bubble Means Forest Trouble

Taste for nargile leads to woods being plundered for charcoal-making.

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009
Shouldering a saw, Amer, 18, heads to the woods every night to cut down trees near his village of Markieh in the northern coastal province of Latakia.

With his family, he decided a few years ago to abandon tobacco-growing after three years of severe drought caused productivity to plummet.

To deal with the family’s deteriorating financial situation, Amer started working in the production of charcoal from the oak trees of the nearby Al-Shoaira forest.

The charcoal fetches a good price because of demand for use in nargiles, the hubble-bubble tobacco pipe popular in cafes across the country, but the uncontrolled harvesting of wood is endangering the country’s forests.

It is thought that hundreds of Syrians work in the production of charcoal today, especially in the heavily wooded northern coastal areas of Tartous and Latakia.

The numbers have increased because of the recent rise in unemployment and inflation, observers say. Some people with other jobs produce charcoal in their spare time to raise cash because their salaries are insufficient.

“I earn more than a public employee,” said Amer, who refrained from giving his last name because his new occupation is considered illegal.

“Why would I look for fixed employment if this work generates more money,” he added.

Those working in the production of charcoal say they make on average 400 US dollars a month.

People in cooler mountainous areas have traditionally been allowed to use branches from the woods, which are viewed as public property, for heating. But since charcoal production became popular, cutting down trees has reached alarming levels, experts say.

Dr Mahmoud Ali, a professor of environmental sciences at Tishreen University, said the green cover is reducing “dangerously” in Syria and the area of forest per inhabitant and relative to the country’s total land area is low.

“Producing charcoal could kill the trees or affect the quality of the wood by making them more vulnerable to attacks by pests,” Ali said.

The growing deforestation is also leading to climate change and other undesirable effects on the environment, said Dr Amin Moussa, an agricultural expert also teaching at Tishreen University.

Especially on the steep mountainous slopes, cutting down trees is causing landslides and leading to a deterioration in soil fertility, he said.

The charcoal making process involves chopping branches into small pieces that are then placed in four-metre-deep holes and allowed to burn slowly in the absence of air for about ten hours.

That means the charcoal makers can go away to do other work, returning in the evening to collect the product.

Abu Kasso, a farmer from the village of Sanybleh near Al-Shoaira forest, said that the resulting charcoal is sold to local merchants.

Charcoal fetches more than two dollars a kilogramme, mainly from cafe owners who need to feed the growing demand for nargiles, and that makes it a lucrative business.

“I feel guilty about what it does to the forest but I have no other way to feed my family,” Abu Kasso said.

Although the authorities have tried to prevent the systematic chopping down of trees by posting security guards at the entry to forests and sending out patrols, they have not been able to contain the activity, observers say.

Some forest guards admit that they turn a blind eye to the making of charcoal and accept bribes from farmers who produce it.

“My salary is not enough. I have to resort to additional sources of income to secure my children’s future,” said one forest guard speaking on condition of anonymity.

Experts say that laws prohibiting the abuse of natural forests have not been properly implemented and that other strategies should be adopted to prevent deforestation caused by the production of charcoal.

Ramez Yazbek, an agricultural expert, said that the government should organise the manufacture of charcoal because banning it completely is not realistic.

The authorities should allow the cutting of some of the tree branches in a way that does not harm the tree itself, Yazbek said.

Omima Nassif, another environmental expert, said, however, that forests like Al-Shoaira should be turned into nature reserves and used for ecotourism in order to protect them.

Young people currently working in the production of charcoal could be employed as guides to the forests, she said.

Some residents in the villages around the forests have been complaining about fumes that come from the charcoal pits.

“We are all living off these forests but we are also paying a price by getting health problems,” said Rabiha, a housewife living in Dlaybet village near the Al-Shoaira.

Doctors also report an increase in lung disease in mountain areas.

The government should protect the environment but also create job opportunities for the residents of the villages, she said.

“The authorities are pouring money into the cities at the expense of rural areas,” she said.
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