Bid to save dying Forest of God faces extinction

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LEBANON is struggling to rebuild itself after years of civil war but its cedar trees - its most potent national symbol - are dying.

The war has hidden from the West the fate of the country's ancient cedar forests, whose wood was used in Biblical times to build the Temple in Jerusalem but which are now falling victim to a variety of diseases.

The Forest of the Cedars of God in the mountain range beyond the north Lebanese town of Bcharre is the 102-hectare (252- acre) remnant of woodlands that once covered the country. A handful of the 2,000 Cedrus libani trees there are more than 100ft tall and believed locally to be more than 1,000 years old.

The Egyptians traded gold and papyrus for the dense and durable cedar wood five millennia ago, and the Phoenicians and Romans used it for building their boats. Many of the famous scented, red-branched cedars are now under attack from the insect parasyndemis cedricola and the drying disease armillaria, as well as from rodents, caterpillars and a secondary disease known as botryodypodia.

Photographer Helene Rogers describes how dead branches lie scattered on grass strewn with violets and poppies. "Walking through this spectacular forest is unforgettable, because these trees are so enormous and so old. But you can see that the forest is in trouble," she said.

Though Lebanon has another, younger forest, it is the Forest of God itself, surrounded by a vast and crumbling wall, which has become almost a place of pilgrimage for local and even foreign tourists. But there is little money to spare for trees in a country recovering from 17 years of bitter conflict.

Jani Antonios Taouk, who lives by growing and selling tiny saplings to visitors, is the son of a man who devoted the last 40 years of his life to growing new trees and looking after the forest. Jani Antonios hopes that help will one day come from environmentalists in the West.

"Research like that done into Dutch Elm Disease could be used to help our cedars," he says. Not content with just waiting for foreign help to arrive, however, Jani Antonios and a group called the Friends of the Cedar Forest, based in Bcharre, are trying to raise money. They intend to remove 350 tons of dead wood from the forest, replace nutrients in the soil, build lightning conductors to protect the tallest trees, repair the surrounding wall, and mark out pathways for the visitor in order to avoid further erosion.

But any saplings that Jani Antonios plants now will take 40 years to mature and centuries before they reach the size of some of the trees which are now dying.