Introduction

Using a three-pronged strategy, Zaher is leading a nation-wide initiative, Green Hand, to conserve the biodiversity of MEA (Medicinal, Edible, and Aromatic) plants in the Levant region. He is focusing on various community groups including farmers and landowners, the plants themselves, as well as policy reform in order to support a collective, grassroots effort to conserve biodiversity of local plants indigenous to the region.

Zaher has launched a nation-wide, non party-affiliated movement to promote the strengthening of Lebanon’s bio-diversity. Through income generating schemes and interactive initiatives, bringing citizens face-to-face with the country’s vast environmental wealth, Zaher is nurturing a cultural and ecological understanding of biodiversity to underpin new environmental national policy. By providing positive incentives for all stakeholders, Zaher is uniting them behind one unified interest and national strategy to conserve the biodiversity of local species of medicinal, edible, and aromatic (MEA) plants starting with Lebanon. To implement his strategy which targets three main foci- community, plants, and policy- Zaher established his own CSO, Green Hand in 1999 which started acting with a clear mission since 2007. To this end, he works with various target groups in the community to make local plants a profitable proposition, while categorizing and showcasing local plants in creative ways, and finally with policy makers to see the promotion of these plants as a national resource and on a priority on the country’s agenda.

Zaher’s idea raises awareness about and re-establishes the value of different varieties of local plants, which can be capitalized on benefiting the region, cover the local demand and generate additional income when exported. He is creating new trends of ecologically friendly practices in everyday life, while the farmers, landowners, and country as a whole reap the monetary benefits. Lastly, Zaher is closing the loop by spearheading national policy on biodiversity in Lebanon’s 26 districts using the 1,500 person volunteer network working through Green Hand’s 9 branch community centers located across the country.

Sitting at the crossroads of Eurasia and Africa where plants and animals of three continents were cultivated and spread, the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories) has a remarkably diverse and unique ecosystem.  Indeed, there are thousands of plant species that are rare and/or endemic to the region or its respective countries. However, war, instability and rapid urbanization have left the environment poorly managed or neglected altogether. Lebanon, for example, saw its forest areas dwindle to seven percent by the late 1990s, and despite the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity, four of the seven nature reserves were declared by law as lacking any kind of management or upkeep mechanism. The Palestinian Territories’ several non-coordinated conservation laws – with their corresponding weak budgets – are another example of the region’s neglect of the environment. As a result, the Levant has seen thousands of plant species listed as threatened or endangered, including 206 near extinction in Lebanon alone. With the disappearance of such plants, unique genetic material is lost. Indeed, the richer the diversity of life, the greater the opportunity for medical discoveries, economic development, and adaptive responses to sudden disasters and more gradual climate change.

Due to the volatile political situation, a lack of a national conservation strategy, and limited manpower, the few outside funders focusing on the environment in the Levant region have tended to bypass government channels and work directly with citizen sector organizations (CSOs). However, CSOs have largely limited themselves to awareness building and creating seed banks, which Zaher sees as a huge missed opportunity to leverage the manpower embedded in the larger citizenry to drive a comprehensive solution from the bottom up.

Zaher’s extensive, yet focused three-pronged strategy tackles the conservation of biodiversity of MEA (Medicinal, Edible, and Aromatic) plants in the Levant region while addressing the needs, changing the behaviors, and presenting new practices to different factions of the community, while documenting and preserving the local plants themselves as well as leading policy reform efforts. After 8 years of apprenticeship, formal study, and experimentation, Zaher was able to set a dynamic and constantly evolving 10 year action plan for the conservation of biodiversity. Starting in 2007, Zaher’s CSO “Green Hand” had a newly formed a long term mission to follow rather than working from project to project. Zaher knew he had to use a bottom up approach to educating, raising awareness, and changing habits to serve his ultimate goal of conserving the biodiversity of local plants of the region. Zaher started by involving the community and educating them about the uses of plants and their economic incentives, laid out multiple ways to conserve and showcase the plants themselves, and finally using his work and community mobilization to push for a national policy that upholds international standards for the conservation of biodiversity.

The implementing arm of Green Hand is predominantly made up of young university volunteers. Serving as a role model for youth, Zaher’s passion and conviction to his cause drew in a 1500 volunteer network of young, but committed university students and others, who act as natural stewards to Green Hand’s mission. They are spread across Green Hand’s head office in Aley and 8 branch offices including cities like Akkar, Tripoli, Nabatiyeh, and Saida (spanning from North to South of the country), split in to 23 groups. Zaher balances leadership and a united mission, while giving students ownership and room to innovate and co-create their own initiatives. They are responsible for raising additional funds to carry out the activities of their own branch and successfully raise money from the community. When locals donate money, they become interested in seeing what happens with it and are more likely to participate than if a service or development effort is given for free or by an outsider. Instead of creating the traditional CSO branch office, Zaher decided to set up a “community center” model, acting as a haven for each community, involving them in ongoing events and hands-on ways to participate in the conservation of biodiversity. To accommodate the cultural, political, geographic, and religious diversity of Lebanon and specific needs of each region, Zaher’s Green Hand head office in Aley acts as an umbrella organization, while preserving the uniqueness of each region.

The first and main focus of Zaher’s strategy is the community, where he reaches out to farmers, landowners, beekeepers, herb pickers, craftsmen and other community members who are integrated in different parts of the process to improve their standard of living. To address the needs of small farmers, who have suffered economically since urbanization and new technologies have replaced traditional farming, Zaher established two training centers in the rural areas of Aley and Akkar to re-introduce lucrative local plants and ways to cultivate them. The distribution of seeds and know-how are given for free to small farmers. An agricultural expert follows up with them and is available for any questions and concerns, as they farm and cultivate their fields. Tobacco farmers, for example, who essentially earn one dollar a day after taking into account all of the year-round family labor involved in the practice, have transitioned to farming native species of herbs like oregano, thyme, and rosemary, and are generating a much higher income while only working a few weeks a year — which is all the time that is needed for these crops. Since opening the training centers in 2009, Zaher has trained over 765 farmers.

The ongoing trend in the region has been characterized by landowners who are selling agricultural land to urban developers. Zaher found success in approaching private landowners of non-farmland who, once they are also exposed to some key figures —like the fact that there is so much demand for oregano in Lebanon that the country actually imports the herb from Jordan-also sign up to cultivate the crop. In this way, the distribution of seeds and know-how are cross-subsidized, with existing small farmers receiving the assistance for free, and private landowners paying for a full system plan, including irrigation.

In another example, beekeepers have also become enthusiastic supporters of the planting of local herbs after Zaher revealed that the honey produced when bees feed on oregano plants fetches twice the price of regular honey. Given that the Levant region population is a high consumer of MEA plants, supporting herb pickers is important. Zaher replaces bestial harvesting, which threatens the species, by sustainable wild harvesting techniques, including proper timetables that encourage regeneration and by organizing their families into a loose association called Green Home, which can be called upon to make meals based on “authentic food” flavored with the herbs they gather. Up to date, over 125 families from across Lebanon have served food at tourist as well as local festivals, conventions, and gatherings. Beyond sustainability techniques, Zaher is also capacitating these families in the appropriate marketing techniques.

To include more actors, Zaher volunteers as the Executive Manager of the Syndicate of Lebanese Craftsmen (SLC) to involve craftsmen in the process. He has absorbed the syndicate’s 485 members into this initiative, recognizing that craftsmen also often use biological resources without attention to sustainable harvesting techniques. Green Home has become the recently become an official partner of Lebanon’s annual Garden Show. With 22,000 average visitors, this is Lebanon’s largest exhibition.

Zaher’s second focus is showcasing the plants themselves and preserving the local species to keep what is there and prevent endangered ones from going extinct by involving the world of academia with its students and professors in the process and developing “green” tourism focused on MEA plants. Zaher is nurturing a new generation to be more knowledgeable about the environment and thus, its natural stewards. Zaher uses this network of students to raise awareness about the richness of the country’s natural resources. This network currently works in 100 schools and has brought interactive educational sessions, including different games to better understand their ecological footprint, to over 100,000 students. Zaher works closely with university students who conduct research for Green Hand, while receiving credits at their university and producing published materials which help both parties.

To showcase local plant species and give students from the Lebanese University credit for research they conducted for Green Hand on biodiversity, Zaher jointly published Lebanon’s first book of its kind, “Green Hands Endemic Species Guide,” which was developed in to a course being taught at the Faculty of Agriculture.   Zaher uses such types of research and documentation as a foundation to the “Green Hand Botanical Garden” (GHBG), which should be finished by 2013 and will act as an interactive resource centre for farmers, students, underprivileged families, and the community. It will house 3,600 native & endemic species of MEA plants in addition to an Eco-library and Eco-School, which has already catered to nearly 100,000 students since its inception in 1999. A UNOPS grant has been secured to sustain the completion of the botanical garden.

Zaher’s third focus deals with strengthening national policy to meet Green Hand’s international standards and measures towards the conservation of biodiversity. To further his goal and grow his organization, Zaher positions himself at local, regional, and international events and arenas, forming valuable partnerships. Locally, he has formed formal relationships with government decision makers in each of Lebanon’s 26 districts. More so, Zaher solidified his partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, which provides agricultural experts to further support farmers who have switched to cultivating local plants. A memo of understanding has been signed with the ministries of Tourism and Environment to break ground on Lebanon’s first Botanic Garden. Zaher also works with the coalition of Lebanon’s 20 largest CSOs, to pass a tobacco control law because doing so would further encourage a move away from the cultivation of that crop. As the President of the Coalition for Tobacco Control in Lebanon, he has access to changing policies to help farmers plant MEA crops by providing them with the necessary safety regulations to protect them. Zaher is currently coordinating with the Head of the Parliamentarian Health Committee to pass these policies.

Regionally, Zaher was selected by UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Science and Technology in Arab States to attend the expert group meeting on “Promoting Green Economy in Biosphere Reserves of the Arab Region in Tunisia, November 2012. For regional expansion purposes, Zaher positioned himself in Jordan by serving as President of the Jordanian Tobacco Control Alliance and formalizing an agreement with Jordan’s Royal Botanical Garden, owned by H.H. Princess Basma Bint Ali. Internationally, Zaher has participated in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Korea (Sept. 2012), where he was invited to register Green Hand Botanical Garden in the Botanical Gardens Conservation International. These efforts will help Zaher reach his strategic objectives to place biodiversity at the center of national policy and community life.

Zaher grew up in Aley, a mountain city with a mix of religions and one of the few cities that completely reconciled after the war in the 1980s. As a young boy, Zaher watched with inquisitive eyes as his father practiced the sport of hunting. One day, as he watched one bird slowly dying, Zaher felt he had to stop what he felt was unethical and wasteful to nature. So, he mustered the courage to demand from his father to stop this sport and managed to convince him with reasons. With childhood spent in nature, Zaher’s respect for nature continued on in to his young adult years. When Zaher reached university, he founded the BAU Environment Protection Club and was a founding member of the “Environmental Union” which grouped all other environmental clubs from other universities in Lebanon. As an emerging leader, Zaher spotted the importance of forming grass-roots coalitions to further a cause.

With a long standing dedication to conservation and university experience in organizing, Zaher wanted to formalize his efforts and develop beyond student activities so at the young age of 20, he decided to set up his own CSO, Green Hand, in 1999. At the time, Zaher did not know how exactly he would tackle such a large issue, so he went to work on the ground right away to try out different activities according to the needs he saw in different areas. While noticing a school where children played in the mud using wooden planks as ping pong pads, Zaher was moved to act and ran a deforestation campaign raising awareness, planting trees, and providing environmentally and child friendly recreational options in the school. Random groups of youth planting trees along the street caught the attention of the local municipality officials and the community, who were not used to citizens taking action to improve their surroundings without a top down program implemented by the government.

Zaher coupled his field experience, scanning the community for conservation opportunities and problems, with specialized post-graduate studies at Mastricht University and others in the U.S. and Europe. This combination allowed him to gain an enriching understanding of the policy and community development conversation worldwide.

With a high learning curve, by 2007, Zaher was able to create an elaborate network of organizations and supporters to help him implement his dream of a Levant region that capitalizes on its natural resource of over 1,000 species of local MEA plants. At the same time, Zaher’s mission is improving the lives of many members of the local community, while on its way to making major contributions to national income and bringing in tourists to share this beautiful environmental wealth. Green Hand is already internationally recognized as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN.)

At every step in his work Zaher has steadfastly remained non-partisan. That has created obstacles – for example, when he went to officially register Green Hand it was delayed several years because both of the political parties in his area opposed him because he would not ally himself with one or the other. Zaher was finally invited by the Minister in charge to explain why Zaher invited him to so many events over several years, and Zaher was able to convince the Minister to over-ride the political objections and register his CSO. Zaher continues to grow and develop more strategic partnerships and can greatly benefit from Ashoka’s support network of social entrepreneurs, who can help him scale up regionally and internationally.