BEIRUT, Lebanon, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- An old American story tells of Johnny Appleseed who carried a large bag of seeds planting them wherever he ranged -- Levantine native Maurice Zard is offering much the same in Lebanon giving away fast-growing Paulownia saplings to farms, municipalities, schools or anyone else who wants them.
Though he calls his mission to reforest the country a "hobby," he is more devoted to this cause than the average hobbyist, expending a great deal of his time and money to fostering Paulownia saplings, transporting them to recipients and espousing the need to replant empty mountains and valleys.
"We have not enough trees left," the 76-year-old Zard laments.
Forests covered 30 percent of Lebanon in 1980 but by 2011 had fallen to 13 percent, the Ministry of Agriculture reports. The toll of urban sprawl, use of lumber for building and regional rainless summers being some of the chief factors responsible, experts say.
"You have only to look at the mountains, they were once covered in cedars and many other types of trees" Zard said.
Zard's father Assaad, who went Nigeria in the 1920s to find his fortune, died when Maurice was 12 years old. As a principal in what became the Zard Group, starting in his late teens, Maurice Zard and his three brothers built a business empire in Nigeria in the agribusiness sector starting with their father's simple cocoa exporting firm based in Ibadan.
Returning to Lebanon in his 60's, Zard pondered what use there might be for a large land tract he owned in Northern Lebanon. He opted for growing trees for both domestic use and export.
"The best use of the land seemed to be trees" he said, adding that it would be a return to Lebanon's heritage, by recreating the once verdant Levantine forestlands.
For Zard this could solve two problems at once -- recreate the forests of Lebanon and recreate a once-profitable industry sector. His solution, however, wasn't to replant the hard-to-cultivate cedar but to use another type of hardwood tree. He found in the course of researching what might be the fastest growing hardwood on the planet -- the Chinese Paulownia tree, which could be harvested with less than a decade of growth.
Zard said 250 acres can produce 50,000 trees, worth $15 million-$25 million after 10 years "and the beauty of it is when cut down those trees they simply grow back again (no need to replant) at a faster rate this time because the roots are already well established."
He estimates that Lebanon has 2,000 square kilometers of vacant or neglected lands; the equivalent of 2,000 projects of the size mentioned above, which can yield every 10 year cycle $3 billion per year.
"This would return timber to its logical primacy in the economy of this country," said Zard, a resident of the Jal El-Dib suburb of Beirut.
The Paulownia is an extremely quick growing, fine-grained, warp-resistant, hardwood, growing at roughly twice the rate of the cedar. He estimates that a concerted program of planting the Paulownia tree could result in reforesting and with careful harvesting and replanting yield billions of dollars in lumber sales to the region.
Not wanting to take all the credit himself, Zard wanted to note that though doing the majority of the legwork, he has a partner, Lebanese MP Ali Adel Osserian, who represents the Zahrani district of South Lebanon near the city of Sidon.
"When I first imported the original saplings of this tree in 2003, I got to hear that someone else brought the same saplings before me," Zard said. "Anyway we became friends and continued consultation and experimenting with growing the trees in various locations in Lebanon for trial purposes. About five years ago I persuaded him to go together and start distributing the saplings on a countrywide basis and we are known as joint distributor of these trees."
Osserian laughs to remember his first two Paulownia trees; one withered in a pot though watered but the other planted in his banana plantation shot up at "surprising" speed.
"I ordered 1,000 more (saplings) from Morocco" several years before he and Zard met.
He said that "the Paulownia is not for every soil type but would be appropriate at many locales throughout Lebanon."
Osserian noted that while he and Zard are philanthropically giving away saplings, the larger use of the tree will come once Lebanese agriculturalist realize there is money to be made from establishing plantations of the trees. Observing, that at heart, the Lebanese are business people, he said "the tree that yields money will (naturally) boom in popularity."
In 2012, they distributed 35,000 saplings.
There are a number of initiatives separate from Zard's two-man effort.
The Agriculture Ministry in 2010 set goal 20 percent forest coverage by 2020, which experts say means the addition of some 2 million trees each year. The various organizations working with the ministry include: the Lebanon Reforestation Initiative, supported with $12 million in funding from USAID; and the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation, a non-governmental organization which has created the National Forest Program in coordination with the Lebanese government.
Thus far the Lebanese Reforestation Initiative has planted more than 200,000 native tree seedlings and is reporting survivability rates of 60-80 percent at their target reforestation sites.
Many growers around the world have taken to Paulownia tree with very positively but there are concerns among ecologist that because the tree is so fast growing and not native to the most regions it holds the potential for becoming an invasive species.
Zard takes a realistic approach to answering this question, acknowledging possible problems but also noting that the solutions are fairly simple.
"They are right to be concerned. To counter this concern one has to remember that no country has complained that it is menaced by the invasiveness of this tree and there are quite a number of countries that have embraced this tree," Zard said.
The way to counter the invasive nature of the Paulownia roots is by watering the trees via drip irrigation, and when this is done, the roots grow downwards and do not wander about,"
He added that common herbicide: "kills the tree immediately and its roots. So if anybody is bothered by any invasion of Paulownia roots he has the means to put a stop to it very quickly."
Zard, who has done extensive research, said the Chinese practice intercropping with the Paulownia plantations reap a double harvest for their efforts.
"I know of no other tree that can be intercropped as is practiced with Paulownia," he said.
While the Paulownia is well known in the Orient, and considered something of a "lucky" tree as it is planted at the birth of a child, the species is newer not only to the Levant but to Europe and the United States.
Zard said that the greatest challenge is the training for recipients on working with the trees, such as using the drip irrigation method.
"I did a follow up exercise to see what happened to all those trees that we gave to the municipalities the result has not been encouraging, many of them were wasted or neglected," he recounted. "As a result six month ago, on the advice and encouragement of an interested school headmaster, I decided to distribute the trees through secondary schools.
Zard's project continues under the banner of "a tree in front of every house," and he is being helped by educator Mohamad Chalhoub, Headmaster of the Al Rawdah school, Beirut, to network with secondary schools throughout the Levant.
"This is how it works. A school invites us and we speak to the senior graduating classes and then distribute a sapling to every student to take away and plant it at their house" Zard said. "The student would also be given a brochure that tells them how he should look after it. This way I thought we would have a better penetration and distribution all over the country with the chances that more trees would survive by the law averages."
He noted from experience with the school handouts thus far, that "the young men and women are thrilled with the idea of having something to grow, and being part of helping Lebanon."
Zard and Osserian are planning a large distribution of the saplings this spring through their school network.
While hoping that the Paulownia project catches the imagination of Lebanese children, adults and agriculturalist, this particular tree has a good track record around the world already.
International reports indicate the Paulownia is being used as a reforestation tree in Australia, Germany, China, the United States and Panama. Organizations such as Scotch Timber, Inc., ECO2 International, Ravinia Invest, Eco Sustainable Systems, Silva Tree and Kari Park Projects are using the tree in projects based on the Paulownia's fast growth and additional environmental benefits.
For those interested in more information, contact Maurice Zard: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Chief business editor for UPI until 2008, T.K. Maloy is a business correspondent for Marcopolis.net, covering the MENA region; and a contributing writer to the Beirut Daily Star, Now Lebanon and Entrepreneur magazine (Middle East edition). (Contact: email@example.com. Twitter: @tkmaloy)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)