Assad Serhal the pioneer hero of Himas
“The first time I held the binoculars to my eyes I fell in love with birds…”
This statement sums up Mr. Assad Serhal’s passion for nature as a whole.
From cofounding The Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL ) in 1983 to establishing 25 Hima Protected areas and serving three times as Birdlife International Global Councilor, representing the Middle East Region Partnership… Mr. Serhal has dedicated his life to making Lebanon a shining example for nature conservation and local empowerment.
18 km away from Beirut, in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, lies the quaint village of Keyfoun where Assad Serhal was born. Young Assad spent much of his time in nature and naturally went on many hunting trips with his father. While on a two-week visit to London in 1976, the civil war broke out, and, a teenager then, he was forced to remain there alone for one year. This harsh experience definitely made an impact on Assad’s outlook on life, his solace in nature, and the career path he chose later on.
Mr. Serhal completed his education at Oklahoma University receiving degrees in ecology and wildlife management, and after only a few years in the United States, he decided to return to his beloved Lebanon to start realizing his dream and goal of conserving Lebanon’s unique, diverse and highly threatened ecosystems and biodiversity.
He worked closely with IUCN, the Lebanese Ministry of Environment, GEF, UNDP, local NGOs & SPNL to initiate, in 1993, what is now known as the 1st Protected Areas Project for Lebanon. In 2004, he also initiated the Hima revival with Mercy Corps, with the 1st Hima at Ebel Elsaqi in Southern Lebanon.
While Lebanon lies on the second most important flyway for migratory birds as they travel between Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, iconic species such as Storks, Lesser-spotted Eagles, and Pelican are threatened by hunters as they rest to refuel on their long migration, twice each year.
SPNL partnered with BirdLife in order to ensure birds a safe passage during their annual migrations, protect nature and biodiversity, and to ensure sustainable use of natural resources by reviving the concept of Al Hima. SPNL took the initiative to support the Lebanese government with the enforcement of the hunting law. Clarifying the legislation, working with communities, and undertaking joint operations to ensure better law enforcement to help tackle the illegal killing crisis.
“Everything is interlinked, and culture and nature are two sides of the same coin…” explains Mr. Serhal when asked about how he came up with the idea for Hima.
Faced with the challenge of establishing the first nature reserve in the country, Serhal took into account Lebanon’s rich biodiversity that is highly populated, and how so many people were living in harmony with nature, especially in the rural areas and high mountains. He discovered that they had been using resources sustainably for such a long time, with wildlife that still existed, survived, and adapted to this Mediterranean ecosystem. He quickly realized that removing or changing the people and the various traditional practices they perform in nature, or taking livestock out of the protected areas would have a negative effect on the main aim of conserving biodiversity and nature.
Mr. Serhal came to the conclusion that people are part of the mosaic of a sustainable life with the wildlife and nature: “I had to deal with the communities, I had to listen to their problems and challenges… so I did my research and I came to learn about the ancient Himas!”
1500 years ago, the Arabian deserts and what we now call the Middle East, was home to nomadic tribes who frequently came into conflict with each other. In this harsh environment, a Hima, which in Arabic means Protected Area, became a place of peace and cooperation for everyone. In a Hima conflicts was forbidden and scarce natural resources were carefully and collectively managed for the good of both people and nature. And when the religion of Islam adopted this idea of Hima, this communal management of the natural world took hold in the Middle East region as a whole. And it was only in the early part of the 20th century that it began to disappear. But now Mr. Serhal and his organization are helping to bring it back.
The First HIMA
On September 4th 2004 the first Hima was announced. Mr. Sehal and SPNL took all they had learnt about Himas and applied it to Ebel El-Saqi which is located in the province of South Lebanon, on top of a hill at an altitude of 760 meters above sea level, 106 kilometers away from the capital Beirut.
second most important flyway on Earth, for the migrating songbirds
The faunal and floral richness of Ebel El-Saqi show the ecological importance of this region in the world of biodiversity, especially being an exclusive bottleneck area of national, regional, and international importance for the soaring birds migration, witnessing the passage of millions of birds over Lebanon twice a year, especially cranes that are traveling between Europe and Africa. It is an excellent spot for bird watching, and the perfect area for ecotourism, which requires ongoing work to protect, conserve, and maintain all its resources.
That was just the Beginning
“Himas helped us finally realize a local vision through a local approach that works to protect the western system of important bird areas or key biodiversity areas…”
Since then, 21 Himas have been established in Lebanon, 30 Himas in Jordan, a Hima Fund in Qatar, the Gulf States and other parts of the region.
The key to making these Himas work was making them beneficial for everyone: nature, animals and people. Serhal further explained that inhabitants of these biodiverse areas needed to be involved in them, managing and making decisions, feeling a sense of pride and protectiveness and bringing back the Hima did that.
Making a difference
“For the first time in the Middle East and the Arab world we have been able to give back something to the international community worldwide…” says Assad Serhal, as this area has always been on the receiving end of the world’s discoveries about nature, science, and conservation, but now Hima – a proposal by SPNL – has been adopted by IUCN and resolution 122 in Jeju as a way to involve local communities.
SPNL identifies young local people from Hima villages, trains them, and passes on Hima management to them. These people are called “Homat Al Hima,” meaning protectors of Hima.
This 1500 year old title carries a lot of pride and responsibility with it, and those carrying it are a group of young people that are guardians and heroes that are trained to carry out a multitude of tasks that benefit their Hima, from social media to tour guides, up to legislating ecofriendly laws… depending on the situation and their interests. They take over the Hima management with the local municipality and replace SPNL’s presence and then they take over the governance and the land use and the implementation of the management plan.
Everyone is involved and stays involved or informed, from NGOs to governmental ministries to International partnerships… right down to the villagers, and not only those interested in nature but in socio-economic sectors. Legal help is needed for example in order to mainstream the Hima to the different sectors in the society, so it is adopted legally on the national level, like with a new law being adopted by the Lebanese government, and the Ministry of Environment being sent to the house of parliament.
The proposed National Park, National Monument, and Hima to the new law, now being passed at the house of parliament is an addition to the law we had which was only for one category, which is the nature reserve as defined by the IUCN. We are following the same international system, in Lebanon, but we only had one out of the six categories that IUCN adopts globally, which is the nature reserve.
Zonation plans have been developed, as have management plans, according to the nature of each Hima and based on scientific research. Local guides are now available and knowledgeable in the history and causes for conservation of an area, as per the zoning plans: from conservation of certain species to agriculture, birds, or sealife…
When a Hima is established under a policy, it regulates what is allowed or not in that area; what is in harmony with conservation, and at the same time generating activities in a community.
Hima for Peace
The first ever Hima saw light as a response to violence. It was a sanctuary where feuding parties dropped their wars upon entrance. Himas give people a common cause, a neutral ground that fills the gap of differences with responsibilities and pride in themselves. As an example, Mr. Serhal talks about the two neighboring Himas of Aanjar and KfarZabad in the Central Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
“They share a wetland important for birds, and we soon realized that it was very important for the endangered Syrian Serin and the river otter and other wildlife. It is a very endangered wetland and very scarce in the Middle East, and crucial for migrating birds from all over the world. These two neighboring villages shared this priceless wealth, but they never worked together, until these Himas were established in 2005. They had a common project, goal, and pride. They started sharing resources, food, dances, and festivals, and now they plant trees and work in the Himas together, to protect the water and the wildlife.”
Another project Mr. Serhal was working on was a Trans-boundary Hima between Lebanon and Syria, but unfortunately, the war erupted in 2011 and the project had to stop from the Syrian side, but he convinced CPF and Birdlife International, that they could still work from the Lebanese side of the same mountain that separates Lebanon from Syria. They established Hima Fakiha for a very special area that attracts semi-desert vegetation and wildlife and was able to prove that because of trans-humans, goats, and sheep that travel between Syria and Lebanon across this area, even though it is a semi-desert, it turned out to be one of the richest for biodiversity because of the Hima system.
“We found out that without this trans-human and this cultural way of doing things as a Hima, nature will be very mono, and it will be destroyed and the biodiversity will go extinct. And so we saved 2% of the Lebanese territory in that Hima which extends all the way from the anti-Lebanon to the Rift Valley, to Mount Lebanon.”
For The Love of Birds
“Birds are like little babies, they have emotions…”
Since he started learning about them, he wrote books about them and publishing them, released films and established nature reserves.
“I am thankful for Birdlife International that I’ve been with since I was in college, that we also work with as a partners in 120 countries all over the world, sharing one vision over multiple cultures and different background for the love of birds.
Mr. Serhal goes on to advise everyone to take the time to observe birds, how they raise their families, how they live in a very sustainable way, how they migrate… and to volunteer and help the community by protecting them. This not only gives us a better way life, but bridges the divide among differences and preconceived ideas.
“It is inspiring to see and learn about all these beautiful different colored birds that come from all over the earth, doing good wherever they go. We can be the same with faith and hope with Himas.”
The latest project Mr. Serhal is working on is a Model project connecting communities thanks to MAVA. These Connecting Himas will be in Greece, Morocco between Spain and Portugal, and in Hima Chouf Nature reserve connecting it to Himas in the West Bekaa Valley.
There is no limit to what nature can give when we learn to love and respect it.