“The people finally won.” With these words, in the fall of 2020, a young Lebanese writer celebrated the World Bank’s announcement that it would suspend a loan to the Lebanese state for the construction of a dam in Lebanon’s Bisri Valley. Without the $244 million loan, the controversial dam project could not proceed, and Lebanon’s Save the Bisri Valley Campaign could declare victory. Co-founder of the campaign Roland Nassour proclaimed “a new chapter for river defenders worldwide”; not only had the campaign “proven to the World Bank that they cannot claim to commit to climate change mitigation, sustainable development practice, and participatory projects while investing in mega-projects like the Bisri Dam”, it had also “proven what is possible with the power and momentum of a well-organized civil society.”
The Save Bisri campaign was a rare win – not just for environmentalism but for any activism in Lebanon. From Balaa to Brissa, Chabrouh, Janna, Qaisamani, or Mseilha, previous dams had mobilized resistance to their profound social and environmental impacts without being stopped. As it unfolded within Lebanon’s 2019 thawra (Revolution), the largest uprisings to date against Lebanon’s oligarchy, Bisri became a symbol of hope and possibility – and a marker of how environmental grievances, far from niche or localized, could epitomize widespread indignation at the status quo.
Three years after the Bisri campaign declared victory, amid an ongoing, brutal, and increasingly normalized economic collapse, some environmental activists still reference Bisri as a notable and memorable example of successful environmental civic action. But others are not so sure. Was Bisri really a success, they probe, or simply a momentary pause in the oligarchy’s relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of nature? Would the World Bank have canceled the loan were it not for Lebanon’s first default on foreign debt in March of the same year? Might we be guilty of romanticizing activist action?
Such questioning could be channeling the generalized pessimism that surrounds this particularly bleak moment in Lebanon’s trajectory, amid economic freefall and the persistent mental (and for too many, also physical) toll of the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on 4 August 2020. Alternatively, we could blame the “failure in the air” that overtakes activists in the hiatus between episodes of active confrontation with the regime. Yet these retrospective doubts about the Bisri campaign also betray a conceptual challenge for activists: What does the success/failure of environmentalism look like for Lebanon?
Zooming out of the Bisri Valley, but revisiting it throughout, this study analyzes the political economy of environmental degradation in Lebanon, the varieties of environmentalism that have tried to confront it, and the vicious pushback from those benefitting from ecological collapse. Against this analysis, it interrogates prevalent notions of success and failure in environmentalism in Lebanon. It concludes with a foray into the role of knowledge production in environmental struggle.
In terms of sources and method, the work engages with literature on social movements and environmentalism, existing research on environmental degradation in Lebanon, written and oral primary accounts by Lebanese environmentalists, and the author’s interviews with activists and observations as a participant in private and public convenings of environmentalists. In line with the aims of the broader series it is a part of, this study engages with activism, meaning civic action that seeks to enact change, whether in institutions, rules, policies, or behaviors. Excluded are the everyday informal strategies, social networks, and social relations that residents of different classes use to respond to environmental negligence and damage – what geographer Noura Wahby calls “environmentalism from below.” Though undoubtedly a critical form of contention that communities use to reassert their relationship to nature, and to resist and build alternatives, environmentalism from below lies outside the scope of this work.
The Political Economy of Environmental Harm in Lebanon
In Lebanon’s political economy, nature is a site for direct plunder and extraction. Acting with impunity, oligarchs – actors who personally command massive concentrations of material resources – have ravaged the country’s coast for private development and speculation and decimated mountains through unregulated and illegal quarrying to produce lucrative cement. In addition to the direct commodification of ecosystems, Lebanon’s postwar political economy creates environmental harms in a more indirect, though no less toxic, manner: through the logics of patronage and clientelism that characterize and sustain the current system. As Hannes Baumann outlines,
Lebanon is run by a confessional elite cartel. Their continued rule and their ability to deliver “their” community in the process of confessional bargaining depends on their control of patronage resources, which they redistribute through communal clientelism. The power of Lebanon’s sectarian elite cartel is therefore dependent on a political economy which concentrates wealth in the hands of an economic and political elite, which redistributes a small part of these resources through patronage.
How networks of patronage and clientelism cause environmental harm in Lebanon is most visible in the ways that critical infrastructures throughout the territory (do not) function. Across a range of different infrastructures – such as those that operate waste, water, or energy – the goal is to service patronage relationships rather than to deliver the vital resources that residents need to live. And it is this goal itself that causes infrastructures to accelerate environmental degradation.
Waste management is a dramatic example of the links between political-economic networks, infrastructure failure, and environmental harm. Since the end of the civil war, solid waste management has been in a cyclical crisis: The central government signs large, uncompetitive contracts with a politically affiliated company to collect and manage trash; landfill sites are designated as temporary arrangements; landfills begin overflowing; activists and residents living close to landfills protest and block the sites; trash accumulates on the streets; some trash is open burned; most trash is shuttled to another temporary landfill. And the cycle repeats. None of the 16 solid waste management facilities constructed with European Union funds (at least €30 million) and overseen by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reforms (OMSAR) have “delivered on their objective of providing locals with improved environmentally friendly waste management”, according to an independent review. Instead, they have “created the risk of environmental and health hazards, resulted in wastage of funds, and their poor monitoring increased the possibility of fraud.”
In parallel to the perpetual crisis at official facilities, around 950 ad hoc informal, open dumpsites are spread throughout the country, according to Minister of Environment Nasser Yassin. Open burning is routine, accounting for 10 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and causing respiratory illnesses, skin problems, cancer, and heart disease. Both open dumping and open burning of waste disproportionately take place in lower-income areas.
The apparent dysfunction of waste infrastructure functions for specific political and economic gains. By continuously designating policies as “emergency” or “temporary”, renewed contracting offers additional opportunities for personal enrichment and the ability to rotate among contractors and business partners. Sukleen, the private company contracted in 1994 to collect and treat much of Lebanon’s waste, and which had close ties to then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, made more than $170 million annually, or about $150 per ton of waste, one of the highest profit rates in the world. Moreover, waste management is also linked to lucrative real estate speculation: Time and again dumpsites established illegally on the coast have been pushed into the sea, creating new land for developments. In short, waste management in Lebanon is not about managing waste. Instead, as Sintia Issa argues, waste management is “a process involving engineering contractors, warlords, oligarchs, land speculators, quarries, public officials, urban developers, and international donors and lenders — all engaged in mutually beneficial arrangements that extend the life of the Lebanese political-economic system at the expense of existing socioenvironmental worlds."
Water in Lebanon is also managed through political-economic networks that not only fail to provide this critical life force but also leave environmental harm in their wake. After three decades of significant spending on the water sector – at least $2 billion only from 1992 to 2006 – almost all sewage and wastewater in Lebanon ends up untreated in watercourses and the sea. Of 11 wastewater treatment plants built since the civil war, two operate below capacity, and seven do not at all because they have not even been connected to collection networks. Heavy metals and carcinogenic pollutants are routinely dumped into the water system where they enter the food chain and threaten public health.
Where have the funds to reform the water system – with around $3 billion from international donors or 70 percent of total funding – gone? For one, Lebanon’s postwar elites have used the funds to hire politically affiliated personnel lacking the necessary know-how and to distribute contracts in ways that expand their political capital and reproduce their economic power . But they have also – against the advice of hydrologists, engineers, geologists, and environmentalists – prioritized big-ticket projects like dam construction over less conspicuous but more necessary policies: making more efficient use of underground water resources, constructing small urban storage ponds, or repairing existing distribution networks to reduce water loss (which is as high as 50 percent in some areas). Despite their well-documented inefficiencies and environmental and social harms, dams have retained their “idealized place” in Lebanon’s national water policy. Dam construction even accelerated in 2012 with the National Water Sector Strategy, which included 18 new dams. In explaining decision-makers’ preference for dams, researchers cite their close ties to construction companies and cement factories – as well as the way these infrastructures allow them to consolidate territorial control.
A third sector that illustrates how the failure of critical infrastructures sacrifices environmental health is perhaps the most notorious of all: Lebanon’s electricity system, which has drained 3.8 percent of Lebanon’s GDP annually over the last decade alone with nothing to show for it. The electricity sector is a major polluter in a straightforward way: The reliance of its only centralized utility Électricité du Liban (EDL) on heavy fuel oil-powered plants has dire environmental and health consequences, especially those located in densely populated urban areas. Yet the sector’s greatest environmental harm derives from the failure of EDL to provide reliable (or any) electricity, which forces anyone who can afford it to subscribe to highly polluting local diesel generator networks. In 2018, diesel generators were responsible for 40 percent of Lebanon’s total emissions from electricity and 11.4 percent of all emissions.
Like waste and water, Lebanon’s decision-makers see energy primarily as another opportunity for rent extraction. EDL is a site for patronage-oriented employment opportunities, contracting, and exchanging political favors. And because people are forced to subscribe to private generator networks if they want electricity, billions of dollars are transferred from households to the cartels that import and distribute diesel fuel and have close relationships with politicians, political parties, municipal officials, and security forces.
The negotiation of infrastructural projects among sectarian leaders and their affiliated contractors is facilitated by captured state institutions. The most notable is the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), an extra-ministerial development agency controlled by sectarian leaders who oversee an uncompetitive procurement process.
The environmental harms of Lebanon’s political economy are often visible: in the hazy, dust-filled air, ravaged land and waterscapes, empty dams, overflowing and smelly landfills, uncollected trash, and even in rivers that run red. Other environmental harms in Lebanon, however, are invisible – because those responsible for them actively try to hide them. Such is the case, for example, of the infamous toxic barrels that came to Beirut from Italy 36 years ago. To this day, militias-turned-statesmen cover up where they illegally buried the industrial toxic waste.
Although Lebanon’s political economy is singular in the ways that patronage and clientelist networks are organized around sectarian bases of identification (for the most part), many of the dynamics described thus far are certainly not unique to Lebanon. In many states where decision-makers are not accountable, the “technical function of infrastructural projects (whether they operate or not) is subordinate to their role in creating a means to transfer public money into private hands.” Likewise, the preference of donors and decision-makers for mega-projects over less flashy but more needed maintenance work has been documented across the world, even inspiring its own word: megaprojectivitis. As Akhil Gupta writes, “Maintenance keeps infrastructures functioning, staving off decay, but maintenance is seen as unglamorous and uninteresting compared to the heroic masculinized activity of invention and construction.” The invisibility of toxic waste is also a global phenomenon; its dumping in lower-income countries or in sites of active conflict is what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” or the gradual and out-of-sight unfolding of threats to human and environmental health, often experienced unequally by the impoverished.
Varieties of Lebanese Environmentalism
Environmental imaginaries and concerns began to animate civic action and popular mobilization in Lebanon in the late 1960s. Inspired by the contemporaneous success of the conservationists and preservationists in Europe and North America, Western-educated Lebanese professionals established civic spaces to advocate for protecting wilderness from urban sprawl, population growth, and overgrazing. The most famous of these organizations, Friends of Nature, founded by botanist Ricardo Haber in 1972, sought to build consensus around the goal of preserving Lebanon’s natural patrimony, eschewing affiliation with sectarian parties but also accommodating and working within the sectarian status quo.
Around the same time, a vastly different type of environmentalism emerged – one that was explicitly political, sectarian, focused on the impoverished instead of the professional middle class, and on unequal access to nature as opposed to preservation. Drawing on traditions of leftist struggle and anticolonial and anti-state protests, and led by a Shi‘i imam, Musa al-Sadr, the Movement of the Dispossessed (harakat al-mahrumin) called primarily for a greater representation of Shi‘a in the state and an end to their economic deprivation. As such, the movement did not reference the environment in its professionalized sense. However, as Karim Makdisi argues, the combination of concerns over unequal access to water and land with more visible concerns for social and economic justice echoed the “environmentalism of the poor” seen in other parts of the world. The movement proposed detailed projects to target the unequal development of south Lebanon and the Biqa‘, including building water infrastructures (dams, irrigation networks, and reservoirs) to increase supplies of water, as well as lifting limits and the monopoly on tobacco production. Though al-Sadr forged partnerships outside the Shi‘a community – most notably with another religious figure, Gregoire Haddad, a parish priest who would become the bishop of the Greek Catholic community – “al-Sadr’s pragmatism and desire to increase the political standing of the Shi‘a within Lebanon’s sectarian political system precluded any genuine partnership” to form a national movement around environmental justice.
During the 1975-1990 war, amid devastating environmental damage, and in the absence of state institutions, most environmentalism took the form of what Makdisi calls “emergency environmentalism”, as ordinary citizens and local communities, sometimes aided by communal or social organizations, tried to handle environmental disasters. Yet the war also saw what Karam Karam calls ecologisme de base as grassroots activists tried to protect coastal sites (e.g., Committee for the Protection of Anfeh) or organize against quarrying (e.g., the Matn-based Lebanese Committee for Environment and Development). Also during the war, individual environmentalists ran cross-sectarian youth camps in the mountainous hinterland, inspired by the conviction that nature could calm hostilities and unify. Ideas about the communing powers of nature and unity-oriented youth activities persist to this day, now formally institutionalized into nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
All but one variety of environmentalism, the environmentalism of the poor, persisted into post-civil war Lebanon – which also saw the rise of new forms. As Shi‘i political parties were fully integrated into Lebanon’s political economy, the social justice components of the initial movement were extinguished, and no other sectarian or non-sectarian mass movement has articulated this type of environmentalism.
Instead, the postwar era has seen five distinct varieties of environmentalism: NGOs, professional coalitions, grassroots resistance and campaigns, national-level popular mobilization, and green parties and election campaigns. These types differ in their organizational form, though not necessarily in the issues that animate them or their repertoire of action, as discussed in greater detail below.
Table 1: Varieties of Environmentalism in Lebanon
|Form of environmental activism
|Environmentalism of the poor
- Movement of the Dispossessed, 1974
- Burj Hammoud landfill shutdown, 1997
- Green Line, 1991
- The Lebanese Ecological Movement
- Legal Agenda
- Green Forum
- Lebanese Environmental Forum
- The Waste Management Coalition, 2017
- Lil-Madina, 2013
- Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh of Raouche, 2013
- You Stink, 2015
- Save Bisri Campaign, 2018
|Political parties and election campaigns
- Beirut Madinati, 2016; 2022
- Taqaddum, 2022
- Green Party, 2002
- Lebanese Environment Party, 2005
The first postwar decade witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of all types of NGOs in Lebanon; around 250 new NGOs were established every year, reaching almost 6,000. This proliferation of NGOs matched a global trend: neoliberal economic policies (like those of Hariri’s premiership) saw states retreat from service provision while international funding for NGO work became readily available. Environmentalism, specifically, boomed after the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (better known as the Rio Earth Summit), when international advocacy networks multiplied, and international donors became interested in “green” causes. In the mid-1990s, Beirut became home to Greenpeace’s first regional office in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
A second wave of NGO proliferation in Lebanon followed the 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops, which unlocked millions in international aid money to civil society. By 2020, 816 NGOs with environmental objectives were registered at the Ministry of Interior, according to the Ministry of Environment. See Table 2 for a list of issues that animate NGOs.
Environmental NGOs work in the same way as other advocacy NGOs in Lebanon: Most depend on funding from European and American donors and express a rights-based advocacy-oriented discourse. They aspire to transform society – seeking to alter popular preferences, create new norms and discursive frames, and challenge mainstream narratives – but also policymaking. They meet with Lebanese decision-makers at various levels – mayors, MPs, ministers, and sectarian leaders (zu‘ama) – as well as European diplomats. Many have also engaged in litigation. On a few occasions, NGOs have also coalesced into formal, national-level networks, such as the Green Forum and the Lebanese Environmental Forum (LEF).
Some environmental NGOs and civic associations are the products of politicians themselves. As independent environmentalist associations spread in the 1990s, political parties and sectarian groups created their own associations. For example, Randa Berri, wife of the speaker of parliament, founded Amwaj al-Bi’a, which was described by its first president as “an NGO without people”. Several NGOs have also been linked to Druze leader Walid Jumblat, former Minister of Interior Michel Murr, or MP Bahiyya Hariri, among others. Like other civic spaces in Lebanon, the environmental one is crowded by familial and communal institutions that monitor the space, enter clientelist alliances with environmental associational actors, and benefit from external donor capital to protect and promote their own interests inside an environmentalist framing. More recently, Green Without Borders, an NGO registered in 2013 and operating in south Lebanon was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for “providing support and cover for Hizballah … under the guise of environmental activism” Other NGOs have been linked to commercial and industrial interests, such as the production of asbestos and cement and the importation of pesticides. As will be discussed in the next section, these partisan NGOs have helped successfully coopt and neutralize the advocacy space.
Table 2: Issues Animating Environmental NGOs
|Examples of NGOs in issue-space
|Reforestation and forest
- Association for Forest Development and Conservation (AFDC)
- Jouzour Loubnan
- Lebanon Reforestation Initiative
- Spéléo Club du Liban
- Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon
- Animal Encounter
- Amwaj of the Environment
- T.E.R.R.E Liban
- Bahr Loubnan
- Greenpeace MENA (Middle East and North Africa)
- Buzuruna Juzuruna
- Soils Permaculture Association
- Agricultural Movement in Lebanon
|Public spaces preservation
|Land resources and protected area designation and management
- Al Shouf Cedars Society
- Friends of Horsh Ehden
- Association for the Protection of Jabal Moussa
|Solid waste management and recycling
- Terre Liban
- Jafra Association
- Live Love Recycle
- Recycle Lebanon
|Energy and climate change
- The Lebanese Association for Energy Saving & for Environment-ALMEE
- Lebanese Foundation for Renewable Energy
|Energy conservation and green building
- Lebanon Green Building Council
- Vamos Todos
- Lebanon Mountain Trail
Using some styles of NGO advocacy, but not formally registered as NGOs or donor-dependent, environmentalists in Lebanon in the past decade have banded into professionalized coalitions to work on specific sectors or issues. These coalitions bring together multi-disciplinary groups of professionals to collaborate on studies that demonstrate the ineffectiveness and problems of proposed plans by the authorities, and to propose alternative projects.
Such is the case of the Waste Management Coalition, which was formed in 2017 “with the mission to pressure the authorities to adopt ISWM [Integrated Solid Waste Management] strategies and plans aimed at protecting the environment, protecting public health, and increasing resource recovery following the principles of a circular economy and sustainable production and consumption.” It is made up primarily of professionals – including lawyers, engineers, biologists, environmental management experts, producers, translators, and communication experts.
Professional coalitions have also formed around specific localized issues. In 2012, for example, traffic experts, engineers, urbanists, architects, and other professionals joined forces to form the Civil Coalition Against the Fouad Boutros Highway in opposition to a planned highway through Beirut’s al-Hikmeh neighborhood, which they argued would not solve the traffic problem and instead destroy the environment, landscape, and heritage of the historical quarter. Through the Stop the Highway, Build the Fouad Boutros Park campaign they mobilized people in the neighborhoods that would be crossed by the highway. In 2013, in the city of Saida, south of Beirut, architects and urbanists founded the Lil-Madina Initiative to oppose planned urban developments that threaten the city’s historic orchards, green corridors, and complex water systems (rivers, streams, and an ancient irrigation network). They then actively tried to mobilize farmers and orchard owners.
Grassroots resistance, campaigns, and popular mobilization
In parallel to the professionalization of environmentalism, informal and localized “emergency environmentalism” continued after the war. In 1997, residents of the Beirut suburb of Hayy al-Sillum destroyed a polluting waste incinerator in what Greenpeace’s first director in Beirut described as the Arab world’s “first environmental intifada”. That same year, fishers and residents of Burj Hammud shut down the garbage mountain next to the Dora fishing harbor. Similarly, in 1998 residents of Na‘ma south of the capital organized against a dumpsite in their area. In the Koura region, residents have organized demonstrations and roadblocks against the quarry and cement industries regularly since the 1990s.
In the past decade, collaborations between local communities and civil society activists around specific sites of harm have often taken the format of a campaign (hamla). It typically includes direct action, media outreach, and lobbying, and is run in a “fluid, semi-formal structure with a small number of highly active members and a larger network of interested individuals who join in taking action or in the meetings occasionally”. In 2013, for example, Na‘ma residents and activists launched the Campaign to Close the Na‘ma Dumpsite, convening meetings with political parties and municipalities, holding awareness-raising events, and eventually blocking the road to the landfill. In July 2018, inhabitants from the Karantina area on the outskirts of Beirut organized the Your Incinerator Is Our Grave campaign to oppose efforts to build an incinerator for Beirut in their neighborhood.
Often campaigns originated with residents themselves. Hammana’s NoDam campaign was initiated and run by youth from the village who later received support from a wider network of activists. The mobilizations not to privatize the Dalieh in Raouche were initiated by fishers and their families at risk of eviction and loss of livelihood, and subsequently attracted the attention of urban activists who launched the campaign.
From local to national mobilization
The most notable transformation of environmentalism in the past decade, however, is how it has emerged as a focal point for national-level, mass mobilization. Two major episodes of mass mobilization – in 2015 and 2019 – elevated to the national level claims, grievances, and demands related to the politics of waste, pollution, and the management of natural resources and spaces.
On 17 July 2015, members of the Campaign to Close the Na‘ma Dumpsite organized a sit-in to stop trash trucks from entering the dump. Across Beirut and towns of Mount Lebanon, streets filled with mountains of rotting garbage in the summer heat, and the humid air was heavy with noxious fumes and odors from open burning. The campaign expanded when civil society activists, identifying on social media as #Tol3etRe7etkom or as its English version #YouStink, posted videos, memes, and information online and then organized sit-ins in downtown Beirut. YouStink identified itself as “a Lebanese grassroots movement created as a response to the government’s inability to solve the ongoing trash crisis in a sustainable way”. They were soon joined by protesters and other activists; at least nine different campaigns and five NGOs were involved.
A few weeks later, the protests had become the largest Lebanon had seen to date outside of purely partisan and sectarian frameworks. This mobilization was also the largest yet where organizers explicitly framed an environmental issue as one of political governance. The motives of individual protesters, however, were naturally heterogeneous. Demands ranged from (only) taking the garbage off the streets, to protesting the lack of public services such as water, electricity, housing, education, healthcare, unemployment, and precarity of livelihoods. As many protesters repeated on TV cameras, “I am here today because this movement is not about the trash issue, it is about everything”. Some protesters called for the entire government’s downfall; others demanded the resignation of only the ministers of the environment and interior. The identities of protestors were also diverse; while organizers were mostly young, educated, urban, and middle-class activists, many first-time protesters were from impoverished neighborhoods or unemployed. The hirak (movement), as the media referred to the episode, petered out by the end of August, with the last small protest taking place in October.
Four years later, when on the eve of 17 October 2019, Lebanon’s revolutionary uprising (thawra) erupted, environmental issues were central to the claims of protesters. In addition to the infamous tax on the popular WhatsApp application, scholars cite the over 100 wildfires ravaging the countryside and the Lebanese state’s lack of emergency preparedness as triggers of the historically unprecedented uprising.￼ Moreover, the environmentalists who had launched Save Bisri two years earlier participated from the first night of the protests, viewing their campaign as “an indivisible part of the October 17th Revolution”. Other ecological struggles like the fight to preserve coastal areas featured in protest chants and ubiquitous graffiti (e.g., “this sea is mine”, “this sea is ours”), and inspired direct actions in contested coastal private development sites (such as Zaituna Bay or the Eden Bay resort). Activists organized public discussions about air quality surrounding the Zouk power plant, the Litani River’s pollution, and garbage management in public spaces turned into protest sites.
Electoral campaigns and political parties
No overview of contemporary environmentalism in Lebanon is complete without mention of the fact that environmentalist activists have become electoral candidates at the municipal and national levels. In the May 2016 municipal elections, an electoral list under the name Beirut Madinati (Beirut, My City) grouped professionals, academics, and urban activists under a discourse of the “right to the city” focused on achieving “daily well-being” and “livability” – which included environmentalist projects such as expanding green public spaces (from 1 to 52 square meters per capita within six years) and viable public transportation. The campaign also aimed to reduce water and air pollution and proposed a solid waste management program for the Municipality of Beirut that would recycle at least 40 percent of the city’s solid waste. The list was able to win 32 percent of total votes, though this was not enough to clear the steep threshold of the majoritarian electoral law (and only 20 percent of voters turned up to vote, as is often the case in local elections in Lebanon due to a registration system that is based on family origin as opposed to place of residence).
After its defeat in municipal elections, two-thirds of the campaign voted not to participate in the parliamentary elections of 2018, but members of the party and other environmentalists ran under the independent list Kulluna Watani, with only one independent candidate able to break through. Beirut Madinati then contested parliamentary elections in 2022 but none of its candidates were successful. In that election, however, one of the party’s cofounders, now running under a different group, was among 13 independent candidates who won seats. Moreover, a new explicitly environmentalist party Taqaddum (which included veterans of Beirut Madinati) won two seats.
Finally, two political parties in Lebanon claim to represent environmentalist agendas, though both are moribund. Lebanon’s best-known environmental journalist and prominent leftist activist, Habib Maalouf, founded the Lebanese Environment Party in January 2005. Established one month before Hariri’s assassination, it has been mostly inactive since its unfortunate timing. Three years earlier, the former minister of the environment Akram Chehayeb had established the Green Party – a move seen by independent environmentalists like Maalouf as nothing more than a partisan attempt by Jumblat to control the environmental movement. When Phillip Skaff, president of a prominent advertising company which had also worked on promoting Sukleen’s public relations campaign, was elected as the first president of the Green Party in 2008, it became associated with a form of elite-based engagement as opposed to concerns about environmental justice.
Confronting the Oligarchy: Challenges and Fault Lines
In confronting environmentalist mobilization and advocacy, Lebanon’s oligarchy – both its sectarian/political elite and the commercial/financial interests that support it – has pulled on the repertoire of actions many regimes use to undermine demands for social and political change: a mix of repression, cooptation, and appropriation.
When investigative journalists, researchers, and civic activists have outed politicians or challenged their power, they have sometimes been physically assaulted, intimidated, legally targeted, summoned for interrogation, arrested, and become targets of character assassination. Such was the fate, for example, of the journalists, scientists, and activists who tried to get to the bottom of the toxic barrels scandal (including the first head of Greenpeace in Beirut Fouad Hamdan), as well as the journalists who decades later told their story. When a water researcher at the American University of Beirut was critical of a controversial dam in a documentary, the university leadership received a letter from the Ministry of Energy and Water, signed by the minister herself, accusing him of “undermining the nation’s interest and serving the Israeli enemy.” During the 2015 and 2019 mobilizations, protesters faced tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and sound grenades, and some faced arbitrary arrests and military trials. Politicians made use of their ownership of various media outlets to smear activists – portraying them as delinquents, foreign agents, drug addicts, and anti-religion atheists – and to call on their supporters not to join the protests. Some political parties routinely deploy their followers to intimidate protesters.
Oligarchs have also successfully coopted and neutralized the civic space of environmental activity in postwar Lebanon by creating their own associations and planting partisan representatives in coalitions. As Paul Kingston documents, this strategy was most brazen in the case of the Lebanese Environmental Forum (LEF), a coordination committee established by activists as a platform for national environmental advocacy and a venue to distribute funds from the United Nations Global Environmental Fund earmarked for the establishment of three environmental protection areas. Shell NGOs set up by political leaders and their family members quickly penetrated the LEF and established dominant leadership positions. NGOs linked to the production of asbestos and cement and the importation of pesticides also joined the umbrella organization. The unsuccessful repeated attempts to take back the LEF as an environmental advocacy platform “engendered a significant degree of disillusionment and cynicism among the country’s larger environmental NGO community,” with some “deciding to withdraw from active national advocacy altogether”.
Beyond simply crowding out or sidelining independent environmentalism, by assuming the form of civic associations, political elites have also been able to subvert and exploit external donor assistance to environmental causes. Through their domination of the LEF, oligarchs used this venue to channel donor funds to forest and nature reserves in their strongholds.
Politicians have also used state institutions not just to organize and facilitate the process of accumulation and rent-seeking that has destroyed ecosystems (such as through the CDR), but also to undermine resistance. The Ministry of Interior – with its regulatory power over the activities of civil associations, businesses, and local administrations (most crucially, municipalities) – has blocked the formation of alternative independent venues and protected polluting industries. For example, throughout the 1990s, Interior Minister Michel Murr, himself heavily involved in the quarrying business, obstructed efforts by activists to formalize alternative environmental associations and coalitions outside the LEF.
Lebanon’s politicians also sow divisions among the ranks of civic actors – especially during moments of heightened contention such as street mobilizations. A favorite tool is the accusation that mobilizations are infiltrated by mundassin, or agent provocateurs. Such a framing activates existing class, sect, and racial cleavages in society in ways that “reproduce the segregational ethos of the political system these actors are mobilizing against”. For example, during the 2015 Hirak such accusations worked to dampen and exclude the participation of migrant workers and refugees in protests. Also, the identification of some protesters as “Shi‘i youth from an Amal bastion automatically made them suspects in the eyes of a predominantly middle-class, Beirut-based circle”.
Another favored tool is accusing, discursively and legally, certain protesters of being “violent”. Dividing protesters into good-civilized versus bad-violent paves the ground for security forces to harshly repress, and for judges to choose harsher sentences. But this insidious discourse also seeps into civic space as well. Like in other settings, notions of non-violence in Lebanon often carry commitments to “civility” (for example, calling for a hirak musalim wa hadari). And interpretations of civility often carry classist and identitarian connotations. Lamia Moghnieh and Moe Ali Nayel observe that confrontations with security forces by middle-class activists were celebrated as heroic acts, “but when this same violence was taken by ordinary and low-income angry protesters they were called ‘infiltrators’ and ‘undisciplined elements’ by You-Stink activists”. In the abstract, the activation of salient cleavages naturally reinforces pillars of the status quo. But in more immediate terms, it also actively divides and breaks upfront, such as when You Stink organizers called on state security forces to clean up the protest of infiltrators.
Politicians are also able to play on sectarian tensions to divert attention from the environmental impact of infrastructural projects, usually by portraying community resistance to these projects as motivated by sectarian calculations rather than environmental wellbeing. For example, during the construction of the controversial Qaysamani Dam in Hammana, and as grassroots resistance gained steam with the NoDam campaign, government officials blamed the village’s residents, who are primarily Greek Orthodox, for wanting to block surrounding villages, with primarily Druze constituents, from accessing water. According to environmental activists, “this was one of the main reasons why the NoDam campaign in Hammana was not supported by the villages around it”. Police and local political parties also reverted to a common accusation loaded with connotations of sectarian conflict – “threatening the civil peace” – to force the removal of anti-dam banners.
On Success and Failure in Environmentalism
How should we assess the impact of the various environmental movements? Given the dire state of environmental well-being in Lebanon and the fact that conditions have only gotten worse over the past twenty years, it can be difficult to see anything but failure in environmentalism if the measure is stopping or reversing environmental degradation. The Litani River, the largest in the country, is one of the most polluted in the region and is on the brink of being declared a dead river. Since 2005, water-borne disease cases associated with bad water quality have nearly doubled. That year, only 5 percent of households relied on bottled water as their primary source of drinking water; by 2019, 69 percent did. Lebanon is one of the highest consumers of plastic bottles per person in the world. Bottled water has also not been spared contamination; an analysis of 48 major bottled water companies carried out in 2021 discovered that approximately 80 percent carried chemical and biological matter. Lebanon has the highest rate in the Arab world of people dying prematurely due to air pollution from fossil fuel burning. In 2018, Greenpeace ranked Jounieh as fifth in the Arab world, and 23rd worldwide, in nitrogen dioxide pollution. Since 1996, the number of quarries, many of them illegal, has almost doubled. In 2021 alone, the loss of forests in Akkar was about 1,200 percent higher than the average over the previous 20 years. The list of devastating environmental conditions goes on.
The failure to stop environmental degradation is unsurprising. As we have seen, environmental degradation is thoroughly enmeshed in Lebanon’s political economy and its oligarchs have mounted a multifaceted, violent defense against demands for environmental protection and accountability. As such, short of dismantling networks of patronage and clientelism – in other words, short of change that would qualify as revolutionary – it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.
What then has been accomplished after thirty years of environmentalist civic action? The following discussion interrogates notions of success and failure in environmentalism (see Table 3 for a summary of distinct categories of success). It looks at issues like mobilization, the ability to re-establish and re-define relations with nature, and to set up an alternative discourse in the face of repeated crises and ever-growing clientelist networks.
Table 3: Categories of Success and Failure in Environmentalism
|Type of Change
|The centrality of environmentalism in popular mobilization
|Hirak 2015; Uprisings of 2019
|Changing discourse and narratives
|[Nonspecific and ongoing]
|Code of the Environment, 2002
|Parliamentary proposal to grant 50-year private leases of public areas, 1998
|Creating more inclusive policy institutions
|Ministry of Environment, 1996
|Policy changes, national & local
|Designation of 18 nature reserves;
Municipal-level waste management
|Stopping specific projects
|Bisri dam construction, 2020
Highway constructions, several
|Modeling alternative ways of being
|[Nonspecific and ongoing]
Centering environmentalism in popular mobilization
One of the most notable developments is the centrality of environmental demands in the national-level struggle for political and economic change in Lebanon. In contrast to countries like Jordan, Algeria, or Morocco where deep environmental grievances remain largely localized, in Lebanon they have been successfully connected to broader national-level grievances about infrastructural failure, captured state institutions, and corruption. As we have seen, environmental demands were at the heart of the historic uprisings of 2019 and may have even contributed to its eruption: anger at the state’s inaction around the wildfires, the construction of a dam at Bisri, and the more distant precursor of the 2015 garbage hirak.
That environmentalism is a prominent frame in national-level popular mobilization is a success. As Jeffrey Karam and Rima Majed argue, irrespective of its unfolding, a revolutionary situation was indeed created in Lebanon in the fall of 2019. Power was threatened and an alternative way of doing politics emerged – even if temporarily or fleetingly. If environmental grievances and claims are at the center of popular demands for change and can help create revolutionary situations in Lebanon, that is a success for environmentalism.
Understanding why environmentalist demands have been channeled into episodes of national mass mobilization in Lebanon, but not elsewhere in the region, requires a comparativist research agenda that is beyond the scope of this work. One explanation may be the interaction between country size and the nature of environmental degradation. Environmental issues are often experienced differently across territories. In large countries like Algeria and Morocco, rural protest movements that invoked environmental issues could not channel them into national-level contestation as protest coalitions grew to include urban populations. In contrast, Lebanon’s small size and the relative homogeneity of environmental problems – e.g., 80 percent of the coast is privatized, waste management is disastrous everywhere, and pollution is widespread – could account for environmentalism erupting on the national stage.
A second explanation is less about how environmental degradation is experienced and more about discursive frames. In their comparison of Lebanon and Jordan, Jérémie Langlois and Marwa Daoudy argue that the state’s discourse on resource management explains the difference in levels of mobilization. The Jordanian state’s cohesive messaging around water and water-related infrastructure, in which threats always originate from outside forces or seditious internal movements, keeps water protests confined to rural areas. In contrast, the Lebanese state never developed a unified message around water or waste management because state actors and elites treated them as arenas for rivalrous competition, creating political opportunity.
Mainstreaming environmentalist discourse
Relatedly, another measure of success is that environmentalist demands are now central in public discourse in Lebanon. In a sense, Lebanon was primed for it. Ideas about nature and the environment underlie competing projects for political authority and power in many modern states, but such ideas have been integral to the making and remaking of national identity in Lebanon. Even more than cultural heritage, it is the territory’s ecological diversity that animates national pride in “green Lebanon” and tourism marketing about its “uniqueness”. The national symbol itself, the Lebanese cedar, is a loaded ecological icon that Maronite elites have used to link the state to pre-Islamic Biblical and Phoenician pasts. Other elites of the post-independence period also wove themes of nature and landscape into their political programs – most notably Kamal Jumblat, leader of the Druze community, who incorporated mystical concerns about humanity’s distance from nature into leftist ideology. More recently, Hezbollah’s projects of political and cultural production connect military resistance to intimacy with nature, whether through scout groups and youth summer camps or manifested physically and symbolically in its memorial sites.
In this context, environmentalists have successfully occupied symbols of nature and heritage originally propagated by political elites. In the Bisri campaign, for example, organizers turned the Bisri Valley into the ultimate symbol of a “green Lebanon” that was being destroyed by its own leaders, thereby repurposing the symbology. One can say that environmentalists have forced elites to “contend with at least normative challenges at a discursive and deliberative level”.
Many environmentalists have tried to work within the institutions of the Lebanese state to create new policies, and legal frameworks, change laws, and forge more inclusive policy deliberation institutions. With the notable exception of one issue – the creation of protected areas – these elements of traditional advocacy work have proved to be limited in the Lebanese context.
Unlike some other issues in Lebanon where the lack of law enforcement is the main hindrance, ecological laws themselves are flawed. For example, although large projects are required to have an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study, it must be provided by the contracted company itself (decree 8633/2012). Such a requirement creates a clear conflict of interest and leads to absurd situations, like when the cost of environmental degradation in the EIA of Bisri Dam was estimated to be a mere $148,000. Politicians have effectively mobilized and allied to block efforts to change the rules so that independent parties conduct EIAs. They have also undermined all attempts to establish clear rules with respect to activities like quarrying. Finally, the laws they have changed, such as the 2018 Integrated Solid Waste Management Law, were amended only amid severe criticism from environmentalists.
Making policy deliberation more inclusive
In addition to legal changes, another indicator often used by scholars and activists for assessing change is whether policy deliberations become more inclusive. At the national level, environmentalists have routinely engaged with politicians, ministers, and bureaucrats to push for specific policies. Yet while access is not the issue, politicians have resisted institutionalizing it in policymaking.
An informative example comes from the late 1990s, when a young Ministry of the Environment became a site of political access for civic actors – a period some environmentalists refer to as the “golden age” for environmental advocacy in Lebanon. In parallel with the emergence of global environmentalism and associated international funds, then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri created the ministry in 1993 “to soak up international donor aid”, according to Makdisi. As a second-tier ministry, it was then relegated to an opposition politician from one of the smaller sects. Yet three years later, as Kingston documents, with the appointment of Akram Chehayeb, a member of the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party, the ministry became a meeting ground for NGOs. Chehayeb, previously a high school science teacher, active participant in numerous environmental activities, and president of the NGO Association for Forests Development and Conservation (AFDC) was welcomed favorably by NGOs, which went on to collaborate closely with him on two key issues: regulating quarrying and protecting the coastal area from illegal commercial developments.
The motivations of the ministry in the late 1990s, Kingston highlights, “did not emanate from civil society” but rather from a “disadvantaged Druze political network under the leadership of Walid Jumblat, who saw the appointment of a Chehayeb, a member of his party, as minister in 1996 as a chance to turn environmentalism into a political resource. Chehayeb, in turn, “rode on the coattails of his communal leader Jumblat’s attempts to regain a seat at the center of political power in the country”. The Ministry of Environment became a location for “enterprising oppositional politicians to strike alliances between the ministry and environmental activists as a way of increasing its—and their—own voice within more central political networks”.
The major success of this era was blocking a parliamentary proposal to grant 50-year private leases of public areas, thereby preventing the formalization of large-scale privatization. Otherwise, there were no policy changes and none of the ministry’s draft legislation was passed into law by the parliament. Although some quarries were closed (namely Jumblat’s), the larger industry carried on with impunity. Though there were repeated efforts to institutionalize NGO access to ministerial policymaking, they also failed. Moreover, as environmentalists remembered during the 2015 waste crisis, it was Chehayeb’s mandate that instituted the failed waste management policies in 1997.
Beyond Chehayeb’s mandate, depending on the specific political-economic network in control of it, the Ministry of Environment has fluctuated between either being powerless to stop environmental degradation or actively complicit in environmental crimes.
The discussion thus far raises the limitations of “access” in and of itself as an indicator of success. In conversation, civic actors routinely reference their access to certain institutions or decision-makers – like current Minister of Environment Nasser Yassin who comes from civil society – as a success. It is also not unusual for civic actors, when asked to recount successes, to reference their own institution’s reputation or principal place in the ecosystem of civic space. Yet, while it may increase a particular NGO’s visibility and therefore help it acquire funding and sustain itself in time, access for access’s sake (i.e., unaccompanied by change) cannot be counted as a success for environmentalism if it does not improve environmental conditions. These problematic notions of success drive, in part, the impassioned criticism among activists and researchers of what they call the “NGOization of politics” in Lebanon (and elsewhere).
Changing policy at the national level and municipal levels
In terms of actual policy change, there is one prominent exception to the trajectory of environmentalism in Lebanon: establishing protected areas. That 18 nature reserves exist today (2.5 percent of Lebanon’s territory) shows that change is possible when it is beneficial to dominant political and economic interests. As has been discussed, conservationist advocacy goes back to the late 1960s but was revamped in the 1990s when global capital for designating protected environmental areas became available through the UN Global Environmental Fund (GEF). Far from seeing conservationist advocacy as a threat, Lebanon’s political strongmen saw an opportunity. Kingston’s in-depth research on this dynamic is worth quoting at length:
First, conservation-oriented environmental advocacy does little to constrain general processes of economic accumulation by the country’s postwar economic elite; at best, it promotes the creation of “islands” of conservation in the larger sea of “generalized constructability.” This limited reach of conservation activities is accentuated by the fact that much of the land designated as protected has been public land anyway, land that is limited in quantity and that entrepreneurs have no legal right to develop. Second, conservation has proven to be a useful way for powerful politicians and landowners to reconsolidate “sovereignty” over local territory—while attracting the financial support of foreign donors in the process. Previous analysis of the GEF-funded protected area project in the 1990s, for example, reached the conclusion that rather than promoting “grassroots in situ biodiversity conservation,” the project facilitated the emergence of “environmental monopolies,” especially in the Barouk reserve in the Shouf region, which, though public land, also lies within the political realm of the Druze leader Walid Jumblat. Conservation also has proven useful for landowning families interested in reestablishing control over their estates and the villages that surround them. In that sense, conservation must be seen as part of broader efforts to consolidate the territorial power bases of certain “family systems” in the country. Finally, the politics of conservation in postwar Lebanon also must be seen as part of a wider sectarian competition for land, with one commentator referring to the “systematic buying of land” by a variety of communal parties.
Kingston’s description points to how certain short-term “successes” can risk longer-term commitments by environmentalists. Environmentalists who critique conservationism – sometimes known as “brown” versus “green” environmentalists – perceive the domination of a conservation agenda as a failure, both because of its counterproductive consequences as well as its eclipsing of environmental justice.
In contrast to the limitations at the national level, environmentalists have been able, at the municipal level, to encourage small-scale interventions in a few places. Engagements and negotiations between civic actors and mayors have led to the implementation in very few municipalities of more sustainable waste-management systems – ones that sort the source to minimize the waste sent to landfills. Replicating these initiatives, however, is exceedingly difficult because in Lebanon’s highly centralized system, municipalities are beholden to national-level networks and calculations. Municipalities have extremely limited financial resources and are forced to pay for the solid waste management contracts negotiated by the clientelistic Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR), therefore being left with no leeway to contract on their own. This makes implementing independent projects impossible unless additional funding is available – which is why many projects are dependent on international agencies like UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), the European Union, and USAID, and disappear once the funding dries out.
Moreover, where municipalities have been able to institute new systems, the reasons are not only idiosyncratic but depend on them not being replicable. As Cynthia Kreidy documents, Brih, one of the very few municipalities that terminated its contract with CDR and was able to retrieve fees paid to Sukleen and therefore implement its own waste management system, was able to do so through the intervention and support of a prominent political figure. Naturally, this wasta-based strategy works because it cannot be replicated on a scale.
Whereas policy change has proved unmovable, problematic, or non-replicable, civic actors have been more successful in blocking specific harmful activities and projects. With a long history of environmentalist campaigns behind us, some lessons can be extracted (see Table 4 for a summary).
First, campaigns that succeeded in their goals were able to exploit strategic opportunities that arise from the fragmented, and competitive nature of elite networks, which sometimes create fragilities and points of entry for activists. Such was the case of the Bisri dam, where Jumblat’s PSP (Progressive Socialist Party) was both insecure in the support of its constituents in the Shouf area and experiencing tensions with political allies (where Bisri might be used as a trading card). Environmentalists were tuned in to these dynamics and actively tried to turn Jumblat against the construction project he had initially backed. Eventually, four PSP-affiliated municipalities in the Bisri valley announced in official statements the withdrawal of their support to the dam. An interviewee in a report on environmental justice by the organization Jibal captures these dynamics well:
The environment here in Lebanon is like this: I give you the dam of Janneh, you give me the dam of Bisri. It is not a water dam, it is a political dam (...) if Jumblat changed his mind, and is now against the Bisri dam, it is because he is not on good terms anymore with the Free Patriotic Movement. Is he seriously now a friend of nature?
During the campaign to close the Na‘ma dump, activists blocked the road on the very day that the contract with Sukleen, the trash collection company, expired. They knew that representatives of the different political parties who served as Sukleen board members could not agree on a new formula for the operation of Sukleen – a disagreement that reflected a general political gridlock between March 8 and March 14 politicians over electoral law reform. With no contract and no place to dispose of garbage, Sukleen stopped operating.
Second, campaigns that were able to mobilize residents had to effectively convince them that their personal interests – not abstract environmental commitments – were at stake. According to organizers of the Stop the Highway, Build the Fouad Boutros Park campaign succeeded because “activists were able to convince owners of the affected neighborhoods that their plots were worth much more than how authorities had priced them”, which in turn raised the cost of expropriation so much that authorities could not proceed with the project. Along the same line, Lil-Madina activists were only able to mobilize Sidonians whose homes were directly in the path of a planned road because others believed a wider road would increase their land value. As a result, authorities agreed to divert the road around one neighborhood, but the project altogether was not stopped as activists had hoped.
Third, campaigns that have succeeded in their goal have connected environmental issues explicitly to the political economy. According to Roland Nassour, the Save Bisri campaign was successful precisely because it “exposed the corporate interests and sectarian drives of the project”. He calls on environmentalists “not to be afraid of confronting the core issues behind environmental degradation in Lebanon … the neoliberal policies and the interconnection between public policies and the political system”. Previous successful campaigns also used direct confrontation, such as the campaign to stop the Fouad Boutros highway from destroying the green spaces (and cultural heritage) of al-Hikmeh neighborhood, the campaign to protect the Dalieh seacoast from becoming a touristic resort, and the campaign to reopen al-Horsh, the largest park of Beirut, to public use.
In contrast, the 2015 Hirak may have been undermined by the decision of the civic actors who positioned themselves as its architects and managers to delink their demands from the broader political-economic landscape – as several participants and scholars of the 2015 Hirak argue. Because the Hirak included actors from a wide ideological spectrum, coordination attempts between the different groups “remained fraught with the incisive debate of whether to focus solely on the garbage ‘to make a win,’ or whether to focus on the root causes of this and other crises by placing it within its macro-political and economic context.” According to Carole Kerbage, first-time participants she interviewed identified with the “You Stink” slogan’s opposition to the ruling class, but once they had to set a common political agenda, there was “a clear contradiction between the protesters’ interests, values and beliefs and the demands, slogans, and actions taken by the Harak’s organizers.” YouStink intended to focus on specific sectoral measures limited to the waste management portfolio; other groups like badna nhasib (we want accountability) or al-sha‘eb yureed (the people want) insisted on going further, explicitly connecting the garbage crisis to corruption generally and calling for the downfall of the consociational system. They demanded “‘clean environment, water, electricity, [and] housing,’ without articulating the politico-economic underpinnings behind their lack and without offering a structural reading of the problems plaguing Lebanon that could pave the way toward alternatives worth vying for.”
Behind these opposed preferences lie fundamentally different theories of change and levels of comfort with political conflict. Some environmentalists (and other activists) believe that political conflict and direct confrontation are not conducive to change. They therefore seek to defuse tensions and believe that technocratic expertise is the way to do so. One illustration is in the origin story of the Waste Management Coalition, created in 2017. As some of its members explain, the coalition meant to use “technical knowledge and neutrality … to differentiate themselves from Harak (although it includes groups that were part of the Harak like You Stink), and to rebrand into something the politicians could not tarnish as they did with the Harak”. Such a strategy assumes that the key impediment to solid waste management in Lebanon is the lack of technical knowledge or the dearth of comprehensive plans and proposals. Yet this is far from the case, as the Waste Management Coalition itself acknowledges. Moreover, despite the best efforts of the Coalition to provide a comprehensive solid waste management strategy, its efforts have fallen on deaf ears.
Modeling alternative practices
Finally, when asked about success, and like the case of other activists around the world, some Lebanese environmentalists do not reference the categories of change discussed above, but rather emphasize the practice of an alternative way of being – either through an individualized sense of self and new subjectivity or through collective experiments with imagining and living otherwise. For Ibrahim, for example, an engineer in his young 30s who has actively volunteered in a range of campaigns over the past 12 years, environmentalism is as much an ethos as it is a goal. Speaking specifically about preserving the coastal area from rampant private development, he says: “Look, I am not under any illusions. Those who have economic interests in the destruction of the coast are themselves either MPs or ministers, or closely tied to them, or can buy them. But I believe we should still do something, and it is meaningful, and anyway,” he adds jokingly, “what else would I do with my time?” Ibrahim’s sentiment echoes the conclusions of Sophie Chamas’s recent work on activism in Lebanon.
The determining factor in what made something an activist success for my interlocutors was not necessarily the scale or impact of a particular strategy or action, but its effect on their sense of self. The desire to not have one’s talents wasted, to cultivate a more acceptable Lebanon where one did not feel completely devoid of purpose or belonging, can be seen as one source of the drive to continue with activism despite the likelihood of failure.
Ethnographers of activist circles in Lebanon have recently grappled with the implications of such conceptualizations of failure/success, arriving at quite different conclusions about their implications. For Fuad Musallam, the ability of individuals and groups to keep hope, solidarity, and purpose alive even when specific goals have not been met or in the hiatus between moments of mobilization, is a success on its own terms because it keeps political possibility in the future. For Chamas, in contrast, the very emotions that keep activism alive – personal joy, satisfaction, pleasure – themselves stand in the way of tactical and strategic success and long-term growth. The middle-class activists she studies derive a sense of fulfillment and gratification from working in small groups with strong ties carefully cultivated over time, in ways they found enriching – but which also make coalitional work across weaker ties and in less intimate spaces less enjoyable and seen as an invasion or disruption. The danger is that activism becomes “a good in itself, rather than a means towards a particular end”.
Conclusion: Knowledge Production and Environmentalism
Environmentalism in Lebanon models exemplary collaborations between activists, scientists, academics, artists, and journalists. From the fight to uncover the toxic barrels scandal, to the resistance to the Bisri dam, to the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche, urbanists, biologists, chemists, or artists have been at the forefront, demonstrating how science and academic knowledge can be employed creatively in concrete environmental justice struggles.
In their opposition to and coverage of dams, for example, activists, journalists, and even some mayors routinely reference the technical reasons why dam building and management in Lebanon are inefficient and costly: the fact that dams either fail to collect water efficiently due to their location on karstic limestone or atop sinkholes and chasms (e.g., the Brissa, Qaisamani, Balaa, or Chabrouh dams), or that they are extremely contaminated with heavy metals and Cyanobacteria, which makes their water unsuitable for irrigation or for domestic use (e.g., Qamarun Dam). Environmentalist coalitions have not only argued against existent or planned projects but proposed detailed, comprehensible, and actionable projects, such as the Waste Management Coalition’s plan for solid waste management in Beirut or Li-Madinati urban plans for Saida. Such coalitions are as much knowledge production collaborations as they are activist endeavors.
Academics have also produced robust documentation to counter the false discourse around water scarcity that fuels dam projects. They have demonstrated that narrow economic incentives, not scarcity, are behind the problems of water access and contamination in Lebanon. Admittedly, however, the hegemonic scarcity framing has been hard to shake because knowledge production goes both ways. Promoted by international donors such as the World Bank who support dam construction and programs for the commodification and corporatization of water as a utility, scarcity framings routinely appear in public discussions and news reports. Moreover, government-hired experts produce biased reports, and contracted companies produce their own environmental assessments for the projects they are paid for.
Independent, uncompromised knowledge production has helped connect seemingly separate environmental issues to each other and to broader political and economic grievances. It has been less effective in convincing decision-makers to adopt policies because, as we have seen, the driver of environmental degradation is not the absence of knowledge. Activists are routinely “disillusioned with the notion that knowledge alone can guide actions on a more enlightened path”, as a member of Li-Madinati puts it in her discussion of how “in Saida, political patrons certainly ignored and suppressed the knowledge that was produced by the environmental and urban activists who did not have the power to make their opinions heard.”
Yet there is a second type of knowledge production that is worth highlighting; one that is not about environmental degradation and protection per se but about environmentalists. This type of knowledge production, like the present work, engages with the trajectories, actions, strategies, and lessons of environmental activism. As the citations in this work demonstrate, a few social scientists have documented environmentalism in Lebanon – especially moments of mobilization. Some environmentalists – such as those in the Lebanon Eco Movement – actively study and evaluate previous campaigns in Lebanon and globally to draw lessons. They also connect with global organizations to exchange tactics and strategize. Less prevalent are common spaces for environmentalists in Lebanon to reflect and strategize forward, together, across individual organizations or campaigns. Such dialogues between activists and organizers in different contexts have proved invaluable in Lebanon and beyond for forging solidarity, deriving lessons, and inspiring the radical imagination. They can be particularly useful in the aftermath of a setback – which unfortunately is not an anomaly but the norm.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.