What A “Small Baby” Can Do: Making a difference as an environmental NGO in Lebanon

Green Line is an independent Lebanese NGO based in Beirut. After having been founded by a group of environmentally engaged students the team embarked on their first projects in 1991. Since then they have shown full commitment to their vision of enabling an “Environmentally Sound Development in The Developing World.” Currently, the youth-driven NGO is made up by two employees, an executive committee and a group of volunteers. Shortly after entering 2013, Neemat Abou Cham, one of the employees, and Dr. Ali Darwish, the organization’s General Secretary, answer questions explaining why they believe in working for the environment, especially in Lebanon, why the Heinrich Boell Foundation and Green Line make good partners, current problems they see themselves faced with as an NGO and which projects they are tackling this year.

I: How did you get involved, not only in Green Line, but in environmental development?

A: I am generally a volunteer in Green Line, I am one of the founders. So, basically what I do is what I do by choice. It is a conviction. I would claim that to a certain extent I am a conservationist. I try to live it. I am an Agricultural Engineer by profession, I work in community and rural development. How I got involved with Green Line? we were at university and we felt the need to conserve the natural and cultural environment in the post war reconstruction period; so we established the organisation. It was supposed to be a small baby but it grew faster and bigger than we expected. Until 2005, we were very big and our aspirations were even bigger. How did I get involved? Because I care. I think I care for my life, and the life of the coming generations. This is it. Very simple. Why I do conservation? Because I care for my rights too. I am very clear about that. Clean air. Clean water. Access to water; our current campaign is called "The Right to Resources". We have a right to our resources. This is why we have to conserve them, because others also, coming generations, have their right too. And this is it basically, we conserve them for ourselves and for the coming generations. I think this is enough reason for me to be here. Or not?

N: I did a Master's in Environmental Policy Planning, and I shifted to policies. I think that in Lebanon, this is what we need. So maybe I can do something about it in my own country. And because we have problems! We have environmental problems in Lebanon and we have to face them.

I: Can you define the "developing world" you have defined for yourself?

A: It is global. Though we are not yet as active. In the first decade of 2000 we worked more actively globally on issues of poverty alleviation, on the right to food, on global food security, lobbying with other NGOs. In our part of the world, in West Asia, for example, we did several cooperation meetings with NGOs working on food security andfood sovereignty . So it was putting community priorities into the political agenda, working with FAO together, with the countries in FAO conferences to promote the civil society agenda on food security and food sovereignty. We consider Lebanon as part of the developing world. Construction and real estate is the only development taking place right now - other things are not developing as fast if at all. Natural resources, community, social ties, culture. Can you imagine a community that is becoming more and more divided every day, can you imagine a community, instead of moving to secularism, going to an electoral law where you elect the representative of your sect, not even your religion, your sect?

I: What does environmentally sound development mean to you?

A: Environmentally sound development is what you call now sustainable development. It is basically, development which does not only take into consideration the concrete capital. Environmentally sound meaning that you do not deplete resources for the sake of economic development. Unfortunately, industrialists, real estate people, enterprise CEOs - they calculate mostly numbers. They see only figures, billions, millions. They do not understand, mostly, what the real value of a tree producing oxygen is. Would it be 10.000 $? Really? What is the ecological value, in money, of the Sanayeh Garden? It is very difficult. Because mostly development is seen as economic: the more money we have, more employment... You are a developed country because you have more money. I could be developed, but I could have less money. So, again, the criteria are different. Germany or Switzerland are developed. But again, their natural environment is also protected. You do not see Switzerland as a concrete block. Even next to Lake Geneva, you still see agriculture - which is very low producing, does not matter. I give this example frequently: how much does the wheat field produce? A hectare of wheat, two hectares of wheat, five hectares of wheat? Next to Lake Geneva, directly on the coast. 10.000 CH a year? 50.000 CH a year? You could make a resort there and you could get this money in only three months in summer. Like the Lebanese do it. Occupy the beach and do it. You could have both, serving the future for next generations. We are selfish too, I mean, just like all those capital holders. We are selfish, we are selfish in a different way. We want to conserve nature for ourselves and our children. We are human beings and we are doing it not simply for the beauty of a tree, not for the beauty of our diversity, not for the sake of animals. You can see that in all of this, the human factor is in the centre. We are running after our own interest. But this group of people, globally, sees its interest in preserving environment and biodiversity. Next to making money. For life to continue, so this is the philosophy behind it, I guess.

I: How was your connection with the Heinrich Boell Foundation established?

A: We met by accident! It was a meeting initiated by joint interests - many years ago, more than ten years ago. Joint interests, objectives, political views. Kirsten Maas, she was the head of the office in Ramallah and we knew Heiko Wimmen, a German living in this country. He got to know Kirsten and he introduced her to people, to his friends. A couple of years later, Boell wanted to open an office in Beirut, we became good friends, a vast relationship. So we supported them in opening the office. A year before the opening of the office we started a project with them, sustainable transport. We worked on a couple of projects and we became partners. Besides the funding, it is a joint interest. We should not forget that Boell is a foundation of the Green party, before doing issues of culture. They all come together, I mean, as a package, but again, it is a Green foundation. And as a Green foundation it has, on top of the line, green priorities. Coming from the Green party, I would say that the Greens went to politics because it is a must to be involved in defence policies, social policies, gender policies etc.. I think it is a relationship driven by common interests. Without any attempt by either party to manipulate the political views of the other.

I: What are the main objects you are currently faced with?

A: Economically the country has changed, negatively. So people cannot afford to dedicate more time as volunteers. In the past, I think it was easier to volunteer. Now you feel that it is either a generational change, a way of thinking, becoming more materialistic. I will not accuse this generation of being more materialistic, because again there are economic pressures coming with the evolution of life. For example, a mobile itself requires an annual budget. When we started Green Line, until, 1995 there were no cell phones, but then cell phones were gradually introduced. Not only the phone, other things affecting the cost of living. Lebanon is an expensive country. The country was in an economically different situation. Maybe I am mistaken, I am not sure. But I think that during that time, there were less economic pressures on the younger generation. So now there is a drive towards making more money. Because you have too many commitments, or at least too many pressures. It is the lifestyle, and everybody wants to imitate the other. They have to pay it, they have to work. 

In addition there is a mentality change. Why should I work for free? This is not specific to Lebanon. Again, go back to Germany. In the late 90s, the Greenpeace volunteer offices, in different parts of Germany, the local groups there, they were suffering from volunteer shortage. Can you imagine activists. In 1995, in the late 90s, people were hanging from bridges, Chaining themselves to railways. I chained myself to a container for one week, on a railway next to the reactor in Hamburg, Krümmel nuclear reactor, to block a nuclear shipment from going out. 16 degrees minus. The Elbe River was frozen, you could see ice blocks being broken, they were breaking the ice to keep the river open fortraffic. And I was not alone! We were many and we were not paid., none of us was paid. Except the two Greenpeace campaigners who were getting very good salaries. And they chained themselves occasionally with us, but we were doing the thing. We were chasing Castor, the nuclear transport, from place to place, between France and Germany. Free of charge. I spent four, five days in France, waiting for Castor. They paid me the ticket, the hotel and the food. No salary. People used to do it! Here, people used to come here and work three, four, five hours a day! Free of charge, on weekends too! 

There is a serious problem. Some people try to deny it. Personally, I have been saying this for years now. In Germany we experienced it when I was there in the early 90’s. They experienced some of it earlier, because, again, life is moving faster there. It was expected here. How can you work? If people are not willing to do it voluntarily and you have no money? What do you do? You have to find some crazy people, who will work until a certain period when they have more responsibilities, basically in this country that is when establishing the family. It is unfortunate that it is like this, when you start having children your time will be different. Your priorities will be different. So, we will have to see. 

Again, other factors affected the work. There was a donor boom six, seven years ago and basically there was a flood of grant money with few restrictionsWe have a saying in Arabic: "If you are not jealous, you are stupid”. NGOs were germinating like mushrooms in Lebanon. Every two Lebanese that would meet would establish an NGO. Now we have around 200 environmental NGOs. This corrupted the whole atmosphere! When you start seeing so much money, who would want to work for free?

Individual virtual activism has been on the rise for a couple of years now. The implications of this phenomenon on group and community work require an article alone!

Green Line’s plans for 2013 are set mainly in the fields of opening and improving public space and pushing forward issues with Lebanese traffic problems and food security. Concrete projects in public space will be lobbying for the opening of Horsh Beirut, a pine forest within the very capital which the general public is being denied access to. Moreover, the team will try to push forward action concerning the much-needed renovation of the Sanayeh Garden and other public gardens in Beirut. Converting the Hippodrome into an open public space is also part of the agenda.

Ensuring all Lebanese citizens are granted free access to beaches in Beirut especially is another project Green Line has taken on. Due to their critical view on controversial development plans in Tripoli, the NGO also plans to deal with this matter. As for the area of the Lebanese infrastructure, the team assumed the role of the coordinator of the National Campaign for Sustainable Transportation, a coalition of NGOs concerned with reactivating and improving faulty traffic laws. The third major objective lies in preparing a compilation of laws aimed at enhancing food security in Lebanon. 

Green Line’s formidable work in “preserving the past, conserving the present, and giving the future a better chance” will therefore continue to be heard of in the near future.


Interview with Dr. Ali Darwish conducted by Christine F.G. Kollmar