Urban expansion threatens one of Lebanon’s last remaining turtle sanctuaries

If it’s not the garbage, the illegal fishing methods, or the pollution, it’s seaside construction. The threats facing marine turtles that come to south Lebanon’s Mansouri beach – one of the only remaining sanctuaries – to lay their eggs, now include the “illegal construction of a resort right off the coast” of what’s commonly referred to as the turtle beach.

Cement blocks and columns, by the many, can be seen in the various photos and posts published on Facebook by Mona Khalil, the woman behind The Orange House, a turtle conservation project.

The Orange House Project is an organization with a mission to protect and conserve the sea turtles of South Lebanon, and Khalil, who is also known as the “guardian angel of turtles,” has been actively working for over a decade to protect the beach by raising awareness on the ecological significance of the area and petitioning the authorities.

Construction site on al-Manssouri beach, South Lebanon | Source: Facebook/MonaKhalil

“This illegal construction work started two months ago. At the beginning we confronted them and they said they are only building a private house with a small swimming pool which was OK according to HIMA laws [a guideline manual for local involvement in distinctive landscape management],” Khalil wrote in a recently published Facebook post.

“This whole area is an agricultural land where they can only build in a small part of it, a house ….. During Ramadan and especially at night, the construction at this site reached its peak and [it’s] becoming a huge illegal resort with cabins and two huge swimming pools … This is all illegal and means BYE BYE to the Turtles Beach very soon …!  HELP!!! This massacre should be stopped NOW before it’s TOO LATE [sic].”

Not the only illegal construction site

According to Khalil, the construction of yet another illegal building is also underway. Emboldened by the actions of their neighbors, they “thought that now is their chance to complete their illegal work too,” Khalil wrote.

Construction of ‘illegal restaurant’ in al-Mansouri recommences, Khalil writes | Source: Facebook/MonaKhalil

 

What’s being done:

Aside from Khalil’s personal efforts, and the work of other conservation groups, Greenarea, an environmental organization and website, has relayed Khalil’s complaints to Tyre’s District Commissioner (Qaem maqam), Mohammad Jaffal, who confirmed that he “hadn’t granted any license to construction sites located near the reserve.” On obtaining licenses from the Directorate General of Urban Planning (Tanzeem Modani), he said: “They can only be given after going through the District Commissioner.”

Greeanarea has asked Jaffal to submit a written letter so as to facilitate a follow up on the matter with the concerned authorities, since in the case that a license were granted and if the site were found to pose a threat to the reserve then the only solution would be to resort to the Environmental Public Prosecution.

Coastal vegetation in al-Mansouri beach | Source: Fadia Gomaa

 

Powerful parties at play:  

LBCI reporter Sobhiyya Najjar and cameraman Samir Baytamouni were attacked Wednesday as they were conducting interviews for a report on said beach. A man, who has been identified as H.Ch. and who has since been arrested, verbally and physically assaulted the crew saying: “Do not come close! I will burn tires in front of your home under the command of [Hezbollah] and the [Amal Party].”

Najjar and Baytamouni had to be escorted back to Beirut under the protection of the Lebanese army.

“People in Tyre were absolutely terrified of speaking to us,” Najjar later on said. “That’s how we know that the parties behind this resort are extremely influential.”

“Tyre’s District Commissioner promised that he would give us the permits pertaining to the construction site … if we show him the video [of what happened to us today],” she added.

 

A virgin beach: 

In 2008, the then-municipality declared the beach a nature reserve with the aim of protecting its natural resources – the turtles especially. However, al-Mansouri’s municipal council has since been dissolved, Khalil says, allowing for such illegal works to continue albeit in the dark of night. The first and perhaps most important step is for the government to officially declare the area a natural reserve, a petition raised on the matter a few years ago says.

Khalil has been going to convention after convention in the aim of obtaining international recognition for the beach.

“The beach is internationally recognized as a nature reserve,” Najjar says when speaking of Khalil’s efforts. “People were shocked to learn that this small spot remains clean amid the country’s environmental woes.”

But it’s not just about turtles per se, it’s about an entire environmental network. Marine turtles are vital for the health of the beach ecosystem, fisheries included. If marine turtles are unable to lay their eggs in the manner in which they are supposed to, they will decline in number. If that happens, it will have a direct impact on us. Here’s why:

Dead loggerhead turtle found on in al-Ghazieh, South Lebanon. Several dead sea turtles have been found on Lebanon’s coast from the north all the way to the south. | Source: Facebook/MonaKhalil

– Sea turtles eat jellyfish, preventing the reproduction of large blooms that would otherwise wreak havoc on fisheries, recreation, and other maritime activities.

– Coastal dune ecosystems rely on the nutrients deposited by sea turtles that come to the shore during the warm seasons to nest. Sea turtles use sandy beaches to lay around 100 eggs per nest, 3-7 nests per season. Not all will hatch and not all hatchlings will make it out, thus becoming the much-needed nutrients for beach vegetation, which in turn prevents beach erosion.

– As the vegetation becomes stronger -thanks to the nutrients deposited by turtles- the health of the entire beach ecosystem becomes stronger. If sea turtles go extinct, dune vegetation would lose a major source of nutrients and would neither be healthy nor strong enough to maintain the dunes, allowing beaches to wash away.

– Sea turtles are keystone species. Without them, the health of seagrass beds – which in turn provide breeding and developmental grounds for many species of fish, shellfish, and crustaceans – deteriorates. The reactions could result in the decline of several marine animals dependent on seagrass beds for survival.

– If sea turtles go extinct, the entire health of the ecosystem will be affected because if one goes, the rest will follow – us included.

The Mansouri turtle beach must be protected. As though it weren’t enough that many turtles do not survive due to dynamite fishing or choking on plastic bags, their nesting grounds are now also being taken away from them. It’s about time we realize that the seas aren’t only ours. They are home to a long list of wild animals whose survival is completely dependent on the choices we make.

Here’s a documentary that highlights the importance of Mona Khalil’s work.

To support Khalil, please follow her Facebook pages, here and here. Raise awareness and petition against the ongoing violations threatening the turtle sanctuary.

It’s about time the area is declared an official nature reserve, once and for all, regardless of the intimidations, regardless of the power that be.

 

About 
Nadine Mazloum is an Australian born, Beirut bred multimedia journalist, editor, and blogger. She most recently worked as news editor and resident blogger for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International [LBCI] and has held several positions with well-known media outlets both locally and internationally. Her work appears online both on LBCI and on her personal blog, NewsroomNomad© .

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