Environmental Activists Say Lebanon's Government Has Failed To Regulate Polluters

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 5:04 pm
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Lebanon's seas are dirty, and the air quality in the capital, Beirut, has now reached dangerous levels. Protesters say the government has mostly failed to take meaningful action. So as NPR's Ruth Sherlock learned, some Lebanese are trying to take matters into their own hands.

JOSLIN KEHDY: We also want to thank the Lebanese Surf Federation for being with us here today.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Joslin Kehdy often comes up with unusual campaigns to highlight Lebanon's environmental problems. This one is more inventive than most.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

SHERLOCK: It's a paddleboard some three meters long and made out of cigarette filters - yes, cigarettes.

KEHDY: Absolutely great - it's leakproof.

KEHDY: Kehdy speaks from the paddleboard and then sets off on it, armed with a net to scoop litter out of the Lebanese sea.

SHERLOCK: Cigarette butts have plastic in them and are, according to the World Health Organization, the world's most littered item. In Lebanon, a country obsessed with smoking, they're a real problem.

KEHDY: In the sea, in the streets; so it travels through the storm drains into the waterways. And it's really the silent champion.

SHERLOCK: You were about to say killer, right?

KEHDY: I wanted to say killer but, you know, what a product. You know, you've got to be a champion there to be able to create a product that just kills it all.

SHERLOCK: And yet cigarettes are a small part of the environmental issues in Lebanon, where quarries erode the mountains and factories spew carcinogens into the air. Activists allege the government fails to regulate many polluters. So as the crisis worsens, more and more Lebanese citizens are taking a stand. Kehdy quit her job in an events company in 2015, giving up a salary to start the environmental group Recycle Lebanon. They began with beach cleanups, so many of them.

KEHDY: Midway through 2018, I just...

SHERLOCK: Lost track.

KEHDY: ...Stopped keeping track.

SHERLOCK: Now Kehdy runs lots of projects. She's proudest of the EcoSouk, a plastic-free store that sells everything from environmentally friendly cleaning products to natural sponges.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: One day, I go to a protest outside the environment ministry in Beirut.

CLAUDE JABRE: So the garbage is like the weakest link because you can smell it, and you can talk to people about it.

SHERLOCK: Claude Jabre is an activist with YouStink, a movement that developed in response to the country's ongoing trash crisis. He says environment protests like these are also a symptom of Lebanese people's wider frustrations against the government over things like corruption and poor public services.

JABRE: And I think change is going to be from the garbage of this corrupt political class.

SHERLOCK: Jabre's activism has seen him brought five times before a court of law. In one case, he says, he was sued for swamping parliament with thousands of ping pong balls. He and others wrote on the balls, accusing some politicians of corruption.

JABRE: And the police were there seeing ping pong balls - (laughter) - bouncing. And then they grabbed a few showing, like, pictures of politicians and say, OK, we should file a lawsuit against these people to stop them. But it didn't stand in courts because it's really silly to file a lawsuit for ping pong balls.

SHERLOCK: So far, he says, he's never been charged.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: The protesters at this demonstration are of different ages and walks of life.

MARIAM SIDANI: I'm worried about my health.

SHERLOCK: Fifteen-year-old Mariam Sidani says she's here because she wants to fight for a better future for her country. She says too many people are fleeing the country in search of better prospects and a cleaner environment abroad.

SIDANI: I want to live here. I want my future here. I don't want to go to another country to find a job or to be healthy, better. I want to stay here - me and my friends.

SHERLOCK: She tries to educate others in recycling and comes to protests like these to send a message to the country's leaders. Yes, she says, things are bad. But for now, she and her friends still have hope.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.