Ancient meets modern

10 September 2009 | News story

In the Middle East, an ancient conservation practice is being joined with the latest conservation science as a way to achieve sustainable development at the local level.

Himas are traditional protected area systems where local people use natural resources sustainably, conserving the natural and cultural heritage of the area and by doing so, securing their livelihoods. They were once widespread across West Asia and North Africa, established by tribal chiefs and handed over to religious leaders to benefit underprivileged people. Control was later transferred to municipalities in countries such as Lebanon. However, during the last 50 years, most countries neglected the Hima system and other types of protected areas were created and managed by government agencies.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), an IUCN member, is now working with partners to revive the Hima approach. Since 2004, five Himas have been re-established in important biodiversity areas. One of them is Qoleileh, a coastal village in southern Lebanon. The beach has been a popular destination for years, but its popularity has led to over-exploitation of the area’s marine resources.

Qoleileh Marine Hima is rich and diverse, home to many species, particularly sea birds and globally threatened sea turtles. The people living around the Marine Hima largely depend on agriculture and fishing for their living but the 2006 war in Lebanon devastated the village. Most fishermen lost their boats and equipment and some turned to using dynamite as an alternative fishing method.

But the local people clearly value their landscape and are keen to preserve their natural resources and the concept of community-based conservation is taking hold in Lebanon after successful experiences elsewhere in the country. Community empowerment and job creation linked with nature conservation are at the heart of the Hima projects. Fishing boats and equipment are being supplied and fishermen are trained on seabird identification. The women of Qoleileh are offered training in cooking and food production to provide them with an income and are given a greater say in how their resources are managed. Dynamite fishing is banned in the surrounding communities, the beaches have been cleaned up and there has since been an increase in the numbers of sea birds and turtles in the Hima.

In the long term the aim is to conserve the southern beach ecosystem of Lebanon and its marine resources from southern Tyre to Naqoura, including the rich and diverse beach of Mansouri village which borders Qoleileh. All efforts are implemented collaboratively with the municipality, the site management team, the local community committee and other stakeholders. SPNL is hoping to gain stronger support for Himas as a viable and sustainable alternative to nationally designated protected areas.