23 Oct 2018

Looking to the past to create a better future: Assad Serhal interview

Assad Serhal, hunter-turned-conservationist, now Director of BirdLife Lebanon and winner of the MIDORI Prize for Biodiversity 2018, shares what motivates his important work to create community-based protected areas in the Middle East

Assad Serhal © SPNL
Assad Serhal © SPNL
By Dima Obeidat

Born in the village of Keyfoun near the foothills of Mount Lebanon, Assad Serhal grew up surrounded by nature and hunters, and he would get lost hunting in the wilderness with his father. However, as he grew older, he saw the effects hunting was having on wildlife, altering his path forever.

Conservation increasingly became one of Assad's main concerns. He went to the United States where he majored in ecology and wildlife management at Oklahoma State University, and lived for several years to gain field experience. Then, despite civil war, he decided to go back to Lebanon, where he became the Co-founder & Director General of the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNL), BirdLife’s Partner in the country. Now he also represents the Middle East on BirdLife International’s Council.

Assad has recently been awarded the prestigious MIDORI Prize for Biodiversity for 2018, alongside Dr Kathy MacKinnon from the UK, Chair of IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas; and Dr Abdul Hamid Zakri from Malaysia, Former Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia. The MIDORI is a biennial international prize organised by the AEON Environmental Foundation and the General Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, honouring individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity at global or local levels. For Assad, this is centred on his community-based conservation work in the revival of an ancient tradition called Hima…

© SPNL

Assad, you lived abroad for many years; why did you decide to go back to Lebanon during such a difficult time in its history?

When the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1976 I was only a teenager. After living in the US for several years, I decided to return home to contribute to the conservation of Lebanon’s unique and highly threatened ecosystems. I wanted to set up a system of protected areas, despite the fact that Lebanon was still in the midst of civil war – I thought in this way I can be helping save the Lebanese natural heritage and endangered wildlife, which belongs to everybody, not only to Lebanese people.

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What is your impression regarding the country’s environment?

The Middle East, including Lebanon, is positioned under the second most important, yet threatened, flyway for migratory birds on Earth. Lebanon is a small country with an amazing diversity of habitats. As Lebanese, we have the privilege and obligation to protect these jewels of natural heritage on behalf of the world.

What does nature conservation mean to you and what is the role of a conservationist in your society?

Since SPNL’s initiation in 1984 by a small group of nature lovers, our mission and goals have been focused on establishing a system of protected areas in Lebanon, ending wildlife poaching and advocating for a new hunting law, and to raise awareness about birds and wildlife among the youth of Lebanon.

Representing the Hima concept © Assad Saleh

It took us over ten years to help set up the first three protected areas in Lebanon, in partnership with the newly established Ministry of Environment, and with the support of BirdLife, IUCN, UNDP, and using funds from GEF. The focus was protecting the cultural and natural heritage of Lebanon and its services – together with people, and for people.

SPNL is blessed with a wide base of volunteers and experts in the field of nature conservation, who believe in the science and art of nature conservation: this involves partnering with local communities, government officials and agencies, the private sector and international organisations, working as a team towards a common vision.

Assad Serhal moderating a session at the UN Climate Change COP 18 © SPNL

How will winning the MIDORI Prize for Biodiversity affect your work?

For SPNL and myself, this means more visibility and responsibility to advocate Hima revival beyond Lebanon and the West Asia region, for the benefit of life on Earth for future generations.

Can you explain the idea behind reviving Himas? What is a Hima?

Hima means “protected area” in Arabic, but it is also a way of life: how you can use water without destroying it or using grazing lands without overgrazing. This legacy goes beyond you to your family since you only inherit it, you do not own it.

It is different from the idea behind western protected reserves (Mehmieh in Arabic), which keep people out; Himas are there for people to use. It is cared for and managed by local communities, empowering them and bringing them sustainable livelihoods too.

Hima Kfar Zabad wetlands, Lebanon © Olivier Langrand

What inspired you to apply the Hima approach in Lebanon?

In search of new models for habitat conservation and management, I realised that the answer had been in the Middle East all along – even though Hima had been neglected for centuries.

People of the region centuries ago discovered that what is best for people is also best for natural habitats, where limited resources and tough conditions required careful and long-term stewardship. Hima is as much about human empowerment and local culture as it is about nature conservation and the two must progress together. Residents’ long-term interests were best served by managing water, game, timber and grazing areas in the most sustainable way possible.

Our Hima Revival began in 2004 and has proven an unprecedented success, spreading well beyond Lebanon’s borders. We at SPNL realised that enhancing every aspect of the lives of local communities is critical for nature conservation, leading to the simultaneous development of local crafts, job creation, nature-based activities for displaced communities, and women’s empowerment, alongside technical and policy innovation.

What were the challenges in applying the Hima approach in Lebanon?

Leading beyond authority and comfort zones is always difficult, especially when you are operating from an NGO in a region troubled with war. Nature conservation is not high on the political agenda in our region, and so we realised fast at SPNL that we need to work with local communities to mainstream nature conservation into social and economic sectors.

But Hima resonates well with local communities, fishers, farmers, shepherds, giving them ownership and pride, and is hence sustainable for years to come – as seen in our work with Homat Al-hima teams (young nature heroes from Hima communities). Not to forget that the Hima holds other noble values, such as equality, equity and peace.

Al-Shouf Cedar Reserve © Olivier Langrand

What is your proudest moment as a conservationist?

Perhaps I could consider the most fitting tribute to my work as from the senior executive of a major Japanese corporation that we’d taken on a visit to Al Shouf Cedar Reserve. Upon arrival, the executive walked straight to a grove of trees and he began speaking, as if to himself. I watched him respectfully from a distance and later asked him what he had been saying. “Until a few minutes ago I felt I was a very important person”, he said, “but in the presence of such majestic and ancient beings I realise and admit to the trees just how small and humble I really am.”

Al-Shouf Cedar Trees © Olivier Langrand

What is the next step for the Middle East in term of conservation?

While the Middle East is still facing continued challenges in the years ahead, my hope is to create a network of likeminded people, who are committed to strengthening local communities and having natural area management consistent with the physical, ecological, and cultural environment of the region. A network of Homat Al-hima are our best investment for the present and the future of nature, wildlife conservation and peace for all.

Thanks Assad for your great work and congratulations. Is there anyone you would like to thank?

I was selected as one of three international winners not only as an individual, but as a Director of SPNL, the Lebanese Partner of BirdLife International. From SPNL and myself, I like first to thank all the co-founders, staff and Homat Al-hima of SPNL, and in particular recocognising my late friends Bertel Bruun, Adel Osseiran, Luc Hoffmann, Ramzi Saidi and my Dad Adel Serhal .

I am honored and thankful for this global recognition from AEON Environment Foundation, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the MIDORI Prize International Committee. I also feel indebted to Dr Shaw Lum, a fellow member of the BirdLife Global Council, Richard Porter from OSME, and Patricia Zurita from BirdLife International for their trust in my work, and for honouring me with a nomination for this award.

There are many organisations that have contributed to SPNL’s success over the years. I am thankful for EU delegation, the SDC Swiss Embassy and the Japanese Embassy in Lebanon, the MAVA Foundation Switzerland, Story of Success Netherlands, the Critical Ecosystem Partnerhip Fund (CEPF), Alreem Bahrain, RSCN (BirdLife Jordan), LPO (Birdlife France), MedINA Greece, TYN Spain, Audubon Society (Birdlife USA), RSPB (Birdlife UK), and IUCN for their support, contributions and encouragement over the years.

Mike Evans (BirdLife) & Assad Serhal launching the Important Bird Areas in the Middle East in 1994 © SPNL