Coastal privatization approval causes concern
A coastal resort project in the northern town of Anfeh has been thrown back into the spotlight in the past week as reports emerged that it would be approved before the Cabinet entered caretaker status. News of the plans for a sprawling, high-end seaside project circulated again after Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Joumblatt tweeted last week that the “historical salt marshes of Anfeh,” had been “evaporated with the stroke of a pen.”
A Baabda Palace source told The Daily Star that Cabinet had approved the proposal in a session last Wednesday, but reports that the project was not agreed to, or even put forward, have also emerged.
What is certain is that on May 16 Cabinet approved a similar privatization plan related to plots near the southern coastal town of Damour in Chouf and in Kesrouan’s Zouk Mikael up north – in defiance of the Higher Commission for Urban Planning’s unanimous objection.
The Zouk Mikael project includes roughly 33,000 square meters of public land, 19,000 of which are in the sea. Numbers for the Damour project were unavailable, but both locations are said to be meant for tourism and leisure.
The day Cabinet endorsed the plan, the commission – an expert body in the Public Works and Transport Ministry that ministers are legally required to consult on large-scale projects – separately announced its opposition to the Anfeh project.
Roughly 70,000 square meters of public coastal land are set to be made accessible to private developers for the resort, which includes two hotels, chalets, bars and nightlife, a golf club and a marina.
“It’s a huge project – 31,000 square meters on the coast, and 39,000 square meters on water [in the sea],” member of the commission and head of the Order of Engineers Jad Tabet told The Daily Star.
He explained the 70,000 square meters are only part of a mammoth 550,000-square-meter project.
Tabet said that a lack of an urban planning justification and the threat of vast environmental and cultural destruction had led the commission to oppose it.
He argued it was incumbent on the government to preserve what’s left of the open coast.
“Just 20 percent of the coast is free for people to access,” Tabet said – or 45 kilometers of Lebanon’s roughly 225-kilometer shoreline.
Tabet noted a Cabinet endorsement of the Anfeh project would directly contravene the 2009 Cabinet-approved Comprehensive Plan for the Organization of Lebanese Territories, which noted the “unparalleled” biological and cultural significance of the Anfeh area and called for it to be preserved.
The Anfeh project has been under discussion for more than a decade.
An initiative by former MPs Mohammad Safadi and the now deceased Maurice Fadel, as well as industrialist Jacques Sarraf, the project was named the Natour development, after Deir al-Natour, a Greek Catholic monastery that lies on a headland surrounded by salt marshes and endemic vegetation.
The natural ecosystem still exists in that area, beside decades-old salt marshes, ancient ruins and cultural artifacts. Along with Gozo Island in Malta, Anfeh has the oldest salt pans in the Mediterranean.
Hafez Jreij, an Anfeh environmental activist and former salt marsh worker, has been trying to preserve the practice since he caught wind of the Natour project in 1999.
“Anfeh, without salt and the salt marshes, is like Lebanon’s mountains without the pines and cedars, and like Baalbeck without its temple. The salt marshes are an icon of Koura’s shoreline,” he told The Daily Star. “[Salt marshes] don’t create pollution, they don’t block the sea, and they don’t prevent you getting from the shore – while the proposed project doesn’t have any of these benefits,” he said.
Along with a group of other academics and activists he called the “Salt Revolution,” Jreij said that he would file a lawsuit to prevent the project from breaking ground.
The group calls for the Deir al-Natour area to be protected as a site of national cultural heritage.
Nadine Haroun, director of the department of archeology and museum studies at Balamand University, said she had worked in the area for seven years.
“Anfeh in general is extremely rich in tangible and intangible cultural history,” she told The Daily Star.
She said that years of neglect had damaged much of the local heritage, which dates back thousands of years to the Bronze Age.
Her own excavations have been unearthing long-forgotten layers of Lebanon’s past, “reacquainting local residents with their history.”
The place where the project is set to be developed is particularly special, given that it combines a natural area with archaeological remains and more recent expressions of culture in a single context, in what the U.N. cultural body UNESCO calls a “natural site,” Haroun said.
“They are very rare in the world, and in Lebanon we have one. Why should we destroy it?”
Cabinet’s decision last week agreed to grant “permission to work on the public maritime domain” for the Zouk Mikael and Damour projects, and, according to Tabet, details of the projects will be submitted to the commission for consultation at a later stage. But according to current interpretations of legal texts, the commission has no power to stop the projects going forward.
While on paper these types of projects are categorized as a “temporary occupation” of the coast, Tabet argued they amounted to de facto privatization. “When you build hotels and chalets and marinas, you not going to be removing them later,” he said.
Caretaker Health Minister Ghassan Hasbani, affiliated to the Lebanese Forces, told The Daily Star that the LF has reservations on the projects regarding their environmental impact and was also “opposed in principle” to the concept of privatizing the coast without a legal framework. He said a law setting out that framework was with Parliament, though he could not say when it would be passed.