The Director General of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon or SPNL, Assad Serhal,
was nominated for the Midori Prize for his work to advance nature conservation within his homeland of Lebanon, working tirelessly for pragmatic win-win solutions that are equally good for nature and people.
The MIDORI Prize was established by the AEON Environmental Foundation in 2010 in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Foundation.
The nomination was supported by BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita , Shawn Lum, President of Nature Society (Singapore) , Khaled Irani, Chairman, BirdLife International, Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Thymio Papayannis, Director of Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA), Richard Porter, Adviser to BirdLife International’s Middle East , and Jesus Garzon Heydt, President of Asociación Trashumancia y Naturaleza.
In a message of support H.E. Khaled Irani, Chairman, BirdLife International said: “I do very much support this nomination. I know Assad for more than 20 years. He is a passionate conservationist who has done a lot to his country in that field. He is a true conservation leader in Lebanon and among the best leaders of conservation in the region. He had contributed to setting up the first integrated conservation project (reserve) in Lebanon. He has done many pioneer programmes to introduce biodiversity conservation and developed a fundamental change in national awareness. I would also emphasize Assad’s leading role on reviving the Hima in Lebanon, a community-based management approach of natural resources. I fully support his nomination”.
Mike Clarke, Chief Executive of The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) wrote in his nomination letter: “Assad Serhal is a conservation visionary. Over three decades, in spite of turmoil across his homeland, Ahe founded and then led the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon since 1984, maintaining their work against all odds: inspiring learning, building understanding, advocating for change, rebuilding dignity; and sowing seeds of economic independence; while protecting Lebanon’s most precious and fundamental resource – Nature itself. Moreover, his achievements resonate internationally, spreading new innovative approaches across the Middle East, and influencing the wider Islamic world and beyond. By promoting and leading the reestablishment of the ancient Islamic practice of ‘Hima’ as community protected areas that benefit nature and communities, Assad then pioneered using ‘Hima’ as venues for empowering children to learn outdoors – ‘Schools with No Walls’ – and for empowering women to support their families though micro-enterprise – ‘Souk Hima’. Under extraordinary circumstances, Assad Serhal has made extraordinary efforts and achieved extraordinary results, where so many others simply gave up hope. For all these reasons, I commend him wholeheartedly for the MIDORI Prize for Biodiversity 2018.
Thymio Papayannis, Director of Mediterranean Institute for Nature and Anthropos (MedINA) wrote in his nomination letter: ” I had the honour and pleasure of working with Assad for more than ten years. During this period, I have developed great respect for his dedication to nature conservation and his attempts to positively contribute to the livelihoods of local communities in Lebanon and beyond. He is a person who creates partnerships and builds synergies among diverse stakeholders, he is a creative individual who is willing to take on difficult projects and a committed professional that sees them to successful completion. As a person he has a warm and cheerful attitude to all and has a positive, extroverted personality. It has been a privilege to know and work with this brilliant and dedicated individual whose passion for nature conservation and the innovative approaches he uses to achieve it make him stand out from traditional conservation practitioners.
Richard Porter, author of Birds of the Middle East, the adviser to BirdLife International’s Middle East programme and the council member of the World Land Trust wrote in his nomination letter:
I have known Assad for over 40 years and have witnessed the great work he has done for conservation in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, most notably on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, of which is director general and BirdLife International, of which he is a member of the global council. His most notable achievements have been the promotion of the HIMA system for sustainable land conservation in the Arab world, the fight against the illegal killing of birds and the establishment of an education progamme to encourage wildlife protection. In these he has excelled.
Reason for Nomination
- Pragmatic and realistic, whilst preserving ideals: early in his career, Mr. Serhal realized that North American or Western European models for nature conservation and management did not resonate with local communities in the Middle East. He devised a program for preserving nature that was consistent with and even reinforced, local cultures and values.
- Visionary: Mr. Serhal helped revive the Hima, an ancient Middle Eastern model of community-based conservation. He reached back into the deep past for an answer to the conservation challenges of the future.
- Dedication to region: the Middle East is one of the most important, yet threatened, flyways for migratory birds; Lebanon is a small country with an amazing diversity of habitats. Mr. Serhal felt it was his mission to protect these jewels of natural heritage.
- Belief in local values and human potential: the Hima is as much about human empowerment and local culture as it is about nature conservation. Mr. Serhal proved that the two must progress together.
- Advocating the Hima concept: locally, regionally, and globally: the Hima Revival has gained traction far beyond Lebanon and the Middle East, and is now seen as a model for conservation at international level.
- Unwavering personal conviction and bravery: Mr. Serhal completed his university studies and returned to a Lebanon engulfed in civil war determined to care for its irreplaceable natural heritage. He has shown that even under the most trying situations nature and human dignity can flourish. His commitment to conservation and to people is a source of inspiration for all.
Candidate’s Work and Achievements
Mr Assad Serhal has dedicated around 40 years to the conservation of natural habitats and biodiversity in Lebanon and the Middle East, demonstrating that ingenious ideas, empathy for people and cultures, and practices based on principles of both science and social equity have universal appeal.
Mr Serhal studied ecology and wildlife management at Oklahoma State University. After working in the U.S., he returned home to help conserve the rich biodiversity of his homeland, which was not adequately protected at the time.
Return to Lebanon (1980s):
SPNL was founded by Mr Serhal in 1984. In its early years, SPNL focused on raising public awareness on the conservation of nature and biodiversity. It also addressed the unregulated hunting sector. Plans were started to regulate hunting and to reduce its threat to birds and other wildlife. The first bird sanctuaries in Beirut were established in these early years.
First Nature Reserves (1990s):
With the cessation of civil war, SPNL redoubled its efforts in lobbying for Nature Reserves, and for the establishment of a Ministry of Environment. Achievements during this period include (i) establishment of Lebanon’s first 3 nature reserves in 1996, (ii) recognition of 4 Important Bird Areas, and (iii) gradual establishment of additional reserves. SPNL joined the IUCN and was named as country partner for BirdLife International.
Revival of the Hima (2004 – present):
SPNL revolutionized conservation in Lebanon by revitalizing the Hima (“protected area” in Arabic), the traditional system of community based conservation. Mr Serhal and SPNL revived the ancient Hima system and reinforced it with scientific and social research. The breakthrough came as Mr Serhal sought alternatives to conservation and nature reserve management methods that suits the Middle Eastern context.
The Hima revival has been an enormous conservation and social success. The first Hima, Ebel es Saqi, was established in 2004. By 2018, there were 21 Himas, covering terrestrial, wetland, and marine habitats. Hima safeguard wildlife habitats, grazing land, and precious water resources, while empowering local communities and providing sustainable livelihoods. Today, Himas are not confined to the Middle East.
Five programmes were developed under the Hima: Hima School, Homat Hima, Souk Hima, Hima to Hima, and Hima Farm.
International groups such as the IUCN, MAVA Foundation, and BirdLife International have adopted the Hima approach, and Mr Serhal assisted Qatar in establishing a Hima Fund.
A New Strategy (2014 – present):
With pillars of (1) Preventing extinctions, (2) Conserving Priority Conservation Sites, (3) Promoting Ecological Sustainability, and (4) Engaging with People to Support Nature Conservation, SPNL oversees projects of dazzling breadth and depth. Some recent initiatives include:
- Assessing and supporting cultural conservation practices in the Mediterranean
- Migratory Soaring Birds conservation project
- Restoring Hima ecosystem functions through sustainable community-based water management
- Social, Ecological, and Agricultural Resilience in the face of Climate Change – working across sites in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon
- Regional Knowledge Network on Systemic Approaches to Water Resource Management
- Enhancing livelihoods of Lebanese communities in Hima territories
- Promoting Hima Womens Empowerment for Conservation and Livelihoods
- Restoring and strengthening the socio-cultural fabric which sustains its biodiversity and cultural values
- Outreach and Education: Produced several TV spots and films on nature and biodiversity; published numerous field guides including Soaring Birds of Lebanon & the Middle East, A Field Guide to the Mammals of the Middle East (also guides to butterflies, wildflowers)
Mr Serhal began his career with the dream of protecting the biodiversity and habitats of his homeland. He has done that and much more. He is an effective conservationist, a passionate humanitarian, and a source of inspiration to colleagues worldwide.
Candidate’s Record of Awards
- UN-Habitat Best Practice Award (2013) in recognition of work done at the Qolieleh marine Hima conservation site
- BirdLife International (2013): elected as a member of BirdLife’s governing Global Council
- BirdLife International (2013): SPNL awarded BirdLife International Partnership Award for its work in reviving the Hima and for promoting responsible hunting
- United Nations Women’s Fund for Gender Equality (2014): Recognized the Al-Hima System as a model for women’s empowerment, at the First Arab States Regional South-South Development Expo
- IUCN Congress: adoption of Motion 122, for promoting and supporting community based resource management and conservation (including Al Hima), during its 5th World Conservation Congress in Jeju- South Korea during September 2012, which was co-presented by SPNL and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water in Austria.