Illegal logging turns Syria's forests into 'barren land'

Fuel shortages have led many Syrians to chop down trees to use for heating

Children carry sacks of wood cut from trees at Mount Abdulaziz nature reserve near Hasakah, north-eastern Syria. AFP
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On a riverbank in war-ravaged Syria's north, felling has reduced what was once a lush forest to destroyed trunks poking out from dry, crumbly soil.

Twelve years of conflict that led to a sharp rise in illegal logging, along with the effects of climate change and other factors, have eroded Syria's greenery.

The dwindling forest on the banks of the Euphrates "is shrinking every year", said Ahmed Al Sheikh, 40, a supermarket owner in the village of Jaabar, in the Kurdish-held part of Syria's Raqqa province.

Before, "the forest would attract tourists, birds, purify the air and protect the area from dust storms", he said.

But fuel shortages and rampant poverty during the war have pushed many Syrians to chop the trees to sell or use for heating, dealing a blow to the nature surrounding Jaabar.

Its ancient citadel had made the village a popular pre-war tourist attraction, with a reforestation project launched in the mid-1990s offering rare respite from the searing heat.

"Some people cut down the trees to sell them and earn money, others to keep warm during the winter," Mr Al Sheikh said.

"If this goes on, desertification will follow."

Residents have told AFP they hear loggers riding motorbikes into the forest at night to cut down trees.

Even in daylight, young men sneak into the woods to chop trees, evading the handful of forest guards patrolling the vast, green spaces.

Syria's war has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

It has also devastated the environment, triggering an "alarming" loss of forest across the country, Dutch peacebuilding group PAX warned in a report this year.

The country has recorded a "26 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000", from Global Forest Watch found.

'Barren' land

Ten kilometres from Jaabar, the same fate has befallen the trees of Tuwayhina.

"In my childhood, we used to come here with friends to sit under the shade of eucalyptus and pine trees," said Mohammed Ali, surrounded by tree trunks scattered across the sun-scorched earth.

"But now it is a barren land," said the 30-year-old nurse. "Now, there is no shade left, only the heat of the sun everywhere.

"The dust storms never stop, the lake is drying up and there are no trees left," Mr Ali said, referring to Lake Assad, Syria's largest freshwater dam reservoir.

Water levels have dropped and pollution has worsened in the Euphrates and the reservoir it feeds, with the river's flow further affected by upstream dams in Turkey.

Deforestation in Syria is largely attributed to logging and thinning for firewood, according to the PAX report.

"Soaring fuel prices combined with massive displacement form the main driver for large-scale deforestation throughout Syria," it said.

"Civilians are cutting down trees for cooking and heating, while there are clear indications that armed groups also use illegal logging and wood sales as a source of income."

The once-dense forests of Syria's west "have suffered the most degradation caused by the war", mostly from tree-felling and wildfires, PAX said.

Latakia, Hama, Homs and Idlib provinces lost at least 36 per cent of their trees in the decade following 2011, when the conflict erupted, it added.

In the north-east, authorities have "no precise data" about the damage but its impact is "obvious", Ibrahim Asaad, co-chairman of the Kurdish semi-autonomous administration's environmental body, told AFP.

The area was the country's breadbasket in pre-war times, but has suffered severe droughts and reduced rainfall in recent years.

On the outskirts of Hasakah, a city further east, the Mount Abdulaziz reserve has been plagued by dry spells and illegal logging.

The trees had provided a "blanket of greenery", said Hussein Saleh Al Helou, a 65-year-old resident of the village of Al Naseri.

But now "there is no water, the trees near the village have withered ... and people have started cutting them", he told AFP, surrounded by vast barren lands and hills.

"Logging has had a huge impact on the village.

"The temperature has risen and the weather is not the same any more."

Updated: August 20, 2023, 9:44 AM