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Volume 15, Number 5September/October 1964

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The Horned Dilemma

In the foothills of the Middle East the conflict has begun—between the goat and the tree ...

Written by William Tracy

In the distance, across the green valley, the goats moved erratically but swiftly across brown, nearly barren hills. Like a column of black warrior ants they nibbled their way upward and along the line of sheer bare cliffs, nimbly leaping from rock to rock, pausing sporadically to wrench a clump of grass from the ground, rearing up occasionally to strip a tempting leaf from a high bush or a slender tree. Behind them plodded the herdsmen, a bearded elder leaning on a staff and a boy aimlessly lobbing pebbles into the air.

Such a scene, pleasant, pastoral, at moments idyllic, is common in the Middle East. It is a tableau certain to engage the eager eye of the tourist in quest of the "picturesque." Yet it was just a scene that a United Nations representative was describing in an address at Duke University several years ago when she said: "Every time I saw a flock of black goats scrambling over those barren hills, I shuddered."

The U.N. representative bore no particular grudge toward goats; she was merely expressing her anguished reaction to what, in most of those lands which edge the eastern Mediterranean, is a serious problem: the impact of the goat on the efforts of man to halt the steady erosion of precious, life-giving soil.

Driving in the Lebanese mountains after a winter cloudburst, one can look down on the coast and see a graphic example of the effects of erosion—a straight brown front of rain water pushing into the blue sea. The water is brown because it carries with it great quantities of soil torn away by torrents that churn down the slopes in swift streams and rivulets. In the mountains themselves there is on every hand equally clear evidence of the effects of erosion—gullies and valleys gouged into the soft limestone cliffs where wind and rain have already worn away the thin but vital cover of vegetation.

The Lebanese mountains were not always this vulnerable. In ancient days, Lebanese cedars, those sturdy monarchs among trees, spread their graceful horizontal caps across the slopes in great forests that covered more than 650,000 acres, according to Herodotus. Joining their deep strong roots to the web of smaller roots and root hairs extending from the myriad grasses and shrubs below, the great trees kept a tight, protective hold upon the soil. Through the centuries, however, the great trees fell victim to the need and greed of Egyptian pharaohs, Levantine kings, Roman emperors and Turkish sultans, until, in the 19th century, Queen Victoria of England dispatched funds to build a wall around the pitiful remnants—a small grove of some 400 trees—and preserve them from extinction. As the trees vanished, the grasses and shrubs, deprived of their protection, gave way too, and soil followed, as it always does when nature's delicate ecological structure is thrown out of balance.

Over the years, of course, other men have tried to restore that balance. Lebanese farmers have hewn terraces into the mountain side to create steps and narrow ledges which check the destructive downward flow and funnel it toward thirsty crops. In modern times private electric companies have built dams and reservoirs such as those on the Bared, Adonis and 'Asi rivers. Today a small corps of planners, university professors and government experts is helping too. It has become clear, however, that to repair the ravages of many centuries of exploitation, and to restore the slopes to even a semblance of their once verdant and valuable condition, will require substantial reforestation. It has become equally clear that reforestation will have little chance of success until something has been done about that mortal enemy of the tree, the voracious, hollow-horned, sure-footed goat.

As in other parts of the world, goats in the Middle East are valuable elements in the economic structure. Hardy, ubiquitous, able to live off weeds, shrubs, and grass—in short, off vegetation—the goat, like its cousin the sheep, is an important source of several economically valuable products. Its hide produces soft leather. Its long, coarse hair is woven into tough, durable rugs. Its flesh provides a meat so tender that it is a staple of the area, delicious when carved from vertical spits and served with mint as chawarma or skewered with tomatoes and onions and served as shish kebab. And in many Middle East suburbs it is a common sight to see herds of nannies clicking stiff-legged through the streets, delivering, right into the jugs and pans of housewives, a daily ration of fresh milk which is not only free from any taint of tuberculosis, but is also richer in proteins and fats than cows' milk and, furthermore, is particularly suitable for the manufacture of a salty white cheese. Goats have, from the standpoint of the small farmer, an added advantage: they are inexpensive to get and keep.

Goats, however, have other characteristics too. In foraging for food they not only snap up every trace of vegetation they come across in their wanderings, but do so in such a fashion that the vegetation cannot easily replenish itself. This characteristic, shared in part with sheep, was what roused the wrath of cattlemen on the western grasslands of the United States years ago and sparked the sometimes deadly conflicts between cattle ranchers and sheepmen over grazing rights. Sheep, unlike cattle, do not nibble the tips of grass, but crop it right down to the ground, leaving little or nothing for other grazing animals. And goats go sheep one better; they wrench the grass right out of the ground in clumps, roots and all. More importantly, with regard to reforestation, goats thrive on young trees; what damage results from this habit was described recently by a bitter farmer. Four years before, the farmer related, he planted thousands of trees on his farm in the mountain pass along the Beirut-Damascus highway. One night, while a careless watchman slept, a herd of goats wandered onto the land. By morning four years of painstaking efforts had disappeared into the stomachs of the goats.

Near Antioch in Turkey, there is a striking example of what this characteristic means to reforestation. Along the Syrian road leading to Antioch are rich green forests and lush meadowlands where cows graze peacefully. But over the border the forests suddenly, dramatically, thin out and give way to harsh, empty terrain. And there, above the deep gullies, silhouetted against the hillside, are herds of long-haired black goats. The lesson is plain.

Thus for the economists, naturalists and planners who are convinced that reforestation is a key factor in the struggle against erosion, the outlines of the conflict are clear. Goats are valuable, even essential, to large segments of the economy in the Middle East where the smaller farmers simply cannot afford cattle. They are, moreover, woven into the fabric of life in villages and rural areas. But they are at the same time a definite threat to reforestation. Which, then, are more important, goats or trees?

In maintaining the balance of nature, trees have a vital role to play. With their wide underground network of roots, they draw huge quantities of water from the earth or help channel it into porous strata far beneath the surface through which it can slowly seep into springs for controlled use in time of drought. On the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Lebanon, for example, the rainfall is sufficient to support extensive agriculture, but much of it comes during the winter months when ground cover is slight and so pours uselessly into the sea. Forests would catch and hold that water and direct it into the ground where it could seep into caves like Jeita, Afqa and Kadisha which honeycomb Lebanon, or into potholes—deep natural pits—as at Laklouk, through which underground rivers flow, to emerge in the hot rainless summer as springs and wells. And there would be an important defensive value too; forests would check the torrents of mud and water which in the past few years have regularly ravaged the low-lying river quarters of Tripoli, Beirut and Sidon, destroying valuable bridges, gardens and houses, and even taking lives.

Forests make many contributions. Their roots, forcing their way inexorably into formations of rock, break it down into soil. Their leaves, falling to the ground and decomposing, enrich the soil with precious chemicals. In swampy areas the network of roots reaches into the excess water and drains it off, assisting the reclamation of land and the elimination of malarial breeding grounds. In summer, forests cool the air above them as much as 5° F. In winter they slow the melting of snow. They reduce the force of winds, encourage the formation of dew, protect farms from frost and hail and even increase the frequency and amount of local precipitation. Forests, moreover, filter impurities from the air; scientists estimate that there are up to 28 times fewer bacteria in forest air than in urban areas and point to India where great cholera epidemics of the past rarely touched forested areas.

And to all those benefits are added the more tangible gifts of fuel and timber. Properly harvested, rather than exploited, trees could, in the Middle East, provide sorely needed fuel for such small enterprises as the smelting of copper in Jordan and iron in Lebanon, and provide more timber for packing crates in which to ship Lebanon's huge output of fruit. As a building material, timber is also needed, as proven by the famous "beehive" houses of Syria, ingenious domed houses of mud brick, made necessary by the lack of timber for roof beams.

Last, there is beauty—the shaded peace of a forest in which man can withdraw from the hectic pace of urban demands as he does in the villages of Aley, Broummana, Dhour Choueir, Ehden in Lebanon and Slenfih and Kassab in Syria.

Such riches, compared to other areas of the world, are sparse in the Middle East. The Arabian Peninsula, for example, is estimated to have 1,150,000 acres of woodland, mostly in the west, which is only 1.5 per cent of the total land area. In Palestine, Syria and Jordan there are an estimated 770,000 acres of forests, only 1.7 per cent of the total area. Such percentages contrast sharply with Europe, where forests cover 31 per cent of the land, North and Central America, 26 per cent, and Africa, 10 per cent.

For all those reasons, forestry and other agricultural experts, in recent years, have been pushing forward with ambitious reforestation projects, such as Lebanon's "Green Plan" to recapture large areas of desolate mountains with fruit trees and covering forests. A United Nations Special Fund Ground Water project is also underway, in collaboration with the Ministry of Public Works, to tap underground water sources. Bulldozers are lent out at low cost and seedlings are distributed. This year 50,000 young cedars are being planted in addition to 1,000,000 olive and apple trees and vines, which were sold recently to farmers at token prices. Over 5,000,000 ornamental trees from government nurseries like that at Choueifat were sold to home owners or planted along highways. Private enterprise has joined in by planting 40,000 pines and hardwoods at the summer and winter resort of Laklouk. In Barouk, under a U.N. forestry project, bulldozers have opened forestry roads and plowed a series of deep horizontal ditches along the slopes to break rock slides, loosen the earth and catch rain water. In these narrow, temporary "terraces," rows of delicate, slow-growing cedar shoots have been planted and half covered with barricades of rocks. Alternating with the cedars are plastic-wrapped shoots of hardier, faster-growing locust and pine which will soon offer shelter to the cedars. The huge mountain-amphitheater or "bowl" at the Cedars ski resort has been similarly planted.

Elsewhere in the Middle East other projects are under way. In Kuwait, broad green belts of trees have been planted and are being irrigated with distilled sea water. In the south of Jordan are fenced trial plots on opposite sides of the main road for miles, each plot containing six experimental varieties of trees. The government there has also replanted the sacred Mount of Olives and has begun forestation on rugged hills along the Jerusalem-Amman road. In Syria, on the Homs-Aleppo route, large fenced tracts of pine have been planted as roadside parks outside hot, dusty villages. North of Latakia on the Syrian coast there is a surprise for the tourist. "Welcome to the Forests. Be Careful With Fire," reads a large billboard stuck into a naked chalk-white hillside and soon, as the road winds into the mountains, a few young trees appear and the tourist finds himself in the midst of misty green hills reminiscent of North Carolina's Smoky Mountains.

By such projects the experts hope to reverse the destructive cycle of drought and flood, recarpet the land with vegetation, turn back the desert, and—since trees can thrive where other vegetation cannot, even without irrigation—introduce trees into lands where they have never occurred naturally. Naturalists even hope that trees will extend the moderate climate of the Mediterranean basin into the arid, barren areas beyond.

In the face of these projected accomplishments the goat's value fades into relative insignificance. Yet the fact remains that the goats are present in large numbers—there are some 500,000 in Lebanon alone—and are a constant threat. For even if the present plantings can be safely guided to maturity the grown trees will only be safe for their lifetime; they will not be able to reproduce themselves and spread as long as the goats roam freely about, hungrily devouring seedlings. Furthermore, cedars, although they last hundreds of years once they are established, require a full decade to grow their first few feet, and during that time are vulnerable to the voracious appetite of goats.

A start, however, has been made. Following the example of Italy, Cyprus and Tunisia, where governments clamped strict controls upon the large herds that roamed the countryside, Middle East authorities have begun to cope with the problem. The approach adopted has been to substitute cattle and sheep for goats. In Lebanon, authorities have begun the substitution program with 50,000 cattle, enough to reach about a fourth of the rural population. Substitutions will be made village by village over a five-year period in all four provinces. It is a slow process, but one, experts believe, that can avoid the sudden economic upsets to farmers, deprived of livestock, and consumers, deprived of meat, that would be bound to occur if goats were simply banned outright. Moreover, the goats that are retained will be restricted in their formerly wide wanderings and live more on fodder than forage. Authorities have begun to attack the problem from an educational standpoint too; each summer, volunteers from nearly 100 secondary schools swarm into the hills to help plant and tend seedlings.

Even with this approach, of course, patient education of herdsmen and villagers will be necessary. Last summer, driving over the crest of the 8,000-foot pass from the Cedars into the broad Beka' Valley in Lebanon, a writer was struck by the stark contrast of the slopes to the seaward—gouged perhaps, but generally green—with the rocky aridity of the eastern slope. He stopped to talk to a young herdsman about the government's efforts to replace goats with sheep. "We don't like the government to interfere up here," the herdsman said immediately.

Discussing it further, he acknowledged that goats did destroy trees, but added, "That's why we chase them out of the apple trees in the village and send them up there." He pointed upward to the boulder-strewn gorge where herds were busily stripping the slope of every surviving twig and blade of grass. "All I could do," the writer said, "was shudder."

William Tracy, a teacher, free lance writer and photographer, has lived in the Middle East on and off for 14 years, and is now working toward an advanced degree in political science at the American University of Beirut. His photo book, A Photographer on the Phoenician Coast, was published this year.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the September/October 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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