Arab media and the environment

Policy and decision makers in the Arab world are ignoring environmental issues and the importance of sustainable education and nature conservation. A recent report says the media can play a crucial role in raising public and governmental awareness on environmental issues like sustainable education and nature conservation by conveying what life is really like in rural areas and what farmers need to improve their conditions.
Lebanon Nabatiyeh  Environment and media
Volunteers help plant trees in the village of Mayfadoun, Southern Lebanon. New trees planted a year ago were also destroyed during the mini war, which erupted in May of 2008. October 2008. © Simba Russeau.

BEIRUT, July 10, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Conflict, the food crisis, water shortages, climate change and globalization - all directly impact the livelihoods of farmers in the Arab region by destroying the land, harvest and access to international markets. Arab countries’ policies and decision makers are ignoring environmental issues and the importance of sustainable education and nature conservation. The region is characterized by a wide diversity, not just in ethnic, social, cultural, and economic terms, but also in terms of rich fertile land and biodiversity.

There is a saying in Lebanon, "A strong man will come out of the thyme’s stem."

Thyme is one of the most important wild plants in Lebanon and has been for hundreds of years, since the Roman era. A traditional Lebanese herb, thyme is eaten in a vast range of foods, such as tabbouleh and kebbe.

“I started collecting seeds until I had about 4kg. I experimented with the plant and it produced around 5 million plants. I couldn’t believe my eyes, so I contacted the Agricultural Ministry of Lebanon and the municipality and other NGOs in the Nabatiyeh area but nobody visited me,” says thyme farmer from Southern Lebanon, Mohammad Nehme.

“The farmer is really neglected. I urge the Lebanese government to protect the thyme farmers just as it does tobacco growers because it is part of our tradition and is a blessed plant.”

It is also a medicinal herb, unlike tobacco. The leaves are excellent for bronchial and gastrointestinal inflammations. The oil has antiseptic and antifungal properties. A lot of drugs purchased in pharmacies have thyme oil as an ingredient.

But environmental issues are rarely covered by the Arab press. 

“Unfortunately, the local media fails to understand the importance of reporting issues related to the environment,” says Zeina Zouain, Community Development officer with the Economic Social Fund for Development (EFSD). 

According to a 284-page report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development titled, “Arab Environment: Future Challenges,” journalists play a crucial role as mediators between rural communities and civil society, policy and decision makers by supplying environmental information, which can enhance development, laws and citizen action.

Supporting local farmers

Reporting on the impacts of conflict, climate change, water pollution and shortages, urban expansion, depletion of natural resources and deforestation is a means of educating the public, which creates informed citizens who are capable of holding their officials accountable to both effective and ineffective policies that can alter their livelihoods.

The media also informs the international community of projects or initiatives by local civil society groups who are in dire need of funding to continue assisting small producers.

To fill the gap, local NGO’s and academia are creating community-based projects aimed at raising awareness, developing practical ways of increasing the livelihoods of small producers, linking individuals to their land and creating self-sustainable communities.

“Educating the community on the essentials of developing a relationship with the environment will not only raise awareness of Lebanon’s natural resources but also stimulates communities to become guardians of biodiversity in their villages and region,” says Arbi Sarkissian, Outreach Coordinator at the American University of Beirut’s Nature Conservation Center for Sustainable Futures (IBSAR).

The association Land and People aids in managing field crops in a scientific and practical manner, to minimize the production cost without changing the quality of the crop. They work with farmers in citrus, banana or vegetable production, or even alternative crops such as thyme.

“We are working on finding alternative crops for tobacco, in order to help Lebanese farmers who are struggling due to the increase of input cost, decrease in water availability, labor and absence of markets,” says local engineer and farmer Khalil Oleik who created the Land and People Association along with Dr. Rami Zurayk after the 2006 July war.

“We help the farmers by allowing them to use these facilities, providing them markets and advertising to sell their products.”

In addition, they fund alternative crops to tobacco, in order to help Lebanese farmers struggling to survive the increase of the input cost, decrease in water availability and labor and absence of markets.

Thyme is one of the crops Land and People works to support to ensure its cultivation.

“We still need the help of the government and the local and foreign NGOs because we are convinced that this plant has a huge potential in this area, right now we have around 50 hectors of thyme and we estimate that next year the production will increase to cover 100 hectors,” adds Oleik.

“This project increased the income of many farmers and offered a substitute to tobacco, which has a higher cost of production and more labor extensive,” adds Nehme.

“I have been selling my products in markets in Beirut like Souk el Tayeb, Dahiyeh and Biel, I sold 1 ton in 2008. Associations such as Land and People and the IBSAR have helped small producers a lot by providing a market for our products.”

The environment in the Arab media

Less than 10 percent of the Arab press has a full-time editor for environmental issues and sustainable development. However, when political, social or economic events occur those pages that are allotted for environmental issues are suspended permanently or temporarily.

Many media outlets in the Arab region receive financial support from the Ministry of Environment to maintain weekly environmental pages, which deprives the journalist and the reader of neutrality and criticism.

The percentage of environmental issues in reports, interviews and debates on Arab television channels is under 1 percent, in comparison to 10 percent in many European countries.

In Lebanon, Al Nahar, Al Mustaqbal and Al Safir offer weekly pages dedicated to environmental issues. However, Al-Bia wal-Tanmia is one of three publications in the region that address a regional pan-Arab audience, as well as Arab-speaking citizens internationally.

The monthly magazine, published in Beirut since 1996, is an independent media outlet specializing in key issues facing the region’s environment.

The Earth Summit in 1992 saw the participation of Arab countries and the signing of all major treaties. Major international conferences on the environment and development have offered contributions to more environmental reports.

Despite the increase in international environmental awareness, media coverage during the last decade has focused on re-writes from international news agencies on major conferences or meetings, while reports tackling in-depth environmental issues in the region have remained limited.

There is much to be gained from educating the public about what climate change and nature conservation really means, and media that is free from governmental control can play a crucial role in environmental change, through spreading awareness and instigating action.