The gardens of Damascus: can Syrians reconnect with nature?

An edited version of this article appeared online in the Middle East Eye on May 26, 2019.

By Alex Ray

“When people pluck these flowers, it’s like they are plucking my heart,” said an emotional Fareed Notafji as we drank sweet, strong ‘labourer’s tea’ in front of the guard shed at Damascus’s Botanic Gardens.

The sound of the fast-flowing Barada river accentuated the gardens’ dreamy setting beneath the old city walls.  The location made it possible to momentarily forget the ongoing war outside the Syrian capital.

Notafji has been the gardens’ supervisor for ten years, staying on voluntarily since 2014 after a lifelong career with the Ministry of Agriculture. The gardens that cover more than two square kilometres have been his solace during the country’s recent violence and social upheaval.

Farid Notafji
Fareed Notafji, Supervisor of the Damascus Environmental Gardens

“I have managed to protect these gardens during the crisis, and thankfully nothing has happened here,” he says. However, he is dismayed by environmental attitudes shown by visitors to the gardens. “People these days are not like they used to be, they are more selfish and lack respect,” he says.

The gardens were established as the foundation project of the Syrian Environment Association (SEA) in 2001, with land donated by the Damascus Municipality and financial support from the Swiss Government.

The SEA and another group, the Syrian Environmental Protection Society (SEPS) were among a crop of non-government organisations that sprung up in the early 2000s after the Syrian government allowed the registration of NGOs.

Before war broke out in 2011, the two organisations were running projects that are still novel to the region. They included converting plastic bags into artwork and furniture, paper recycling and improving municipal waste management.

The SEA also established medical waste management and disposal systems in coordination with Lebanese and Spanish partners and the Ministry of Health. “We taught nurses and doctors in nine cities how to sterilise, sort and dispose of medical waste,” said SEA President Anissa Sidawa.

According to a report by Dutch NGO PAX, Syria faced serious environmental challenges even before war broke out in 2011. They included industrial pollution and water and waste mismanagement which threatened public health. However, European Commission research concluded Syria was attempting to catch up with international environmental standards until the outbreak of conflict.

War has forced the SEA to adjust its priorities from ambitious environmental projects to provision of more basic humanitarian assistance. The SEA now relies on limited funds from the Botanic Gardens café and small profits from ongoing projects, such as the collection and re-circulation of plastic bottle tops from restaurants and shops back to bottling plants.

Environmental concerns are commonly de-prioritised in wartime. However, extreme drought, failing agriculture and rural migration to the cities have been clearly linked to the outbreak of conflict in Syria. The impoverished outer suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo, saw rapid and unplanned expansion due to the influx of formerly agricultural populations.

Notafji said environmental education is vital to maintain urban Syrians’ links to the countryside and natural environment. “We often bring school children here to introduce them to nature. Many of them don’t get any education about the environment and their suburbs have no greenery,” he said.

Sidawa is proud that the SEA has been able to continue its school education programs despite the war. In 2018, the gardens hosted nearly 20,000 children from schools throughout the Damascus region. She feels that the SEA can have the biggest impact on children when they are young and impressionable. “We give them seedlings to grow and some come back to us in tears when their plant dies,” she said.

Damascus Environmental Gardens
The Damascus Environmental Gardens are located next to the Old City walls and the Barada River.

With significant rain over Syria in early 2019, Damascus’s Barada River – threatened by drought, over-extraction and pollution – flowed strongly again. Similarly, agricultural areas in the provinces of Damascus, Homs, Palmyra and Aleppo were blooming with rich spring growth.

Yet, as Tarek al-Assad, a Palmyra local explained, the land needs the knowledge and care of agricultural populations to remain healthy and productive. His family’s small farms grew olives, pistachio, grapes and dates as well as some livestock, bringing in income and greater food self-sufficiency.  Then ISIS captured Palmyra in 2015 and most people fled. “Except for some sturdy pistachios, the trees are all dead now, they haven’t been watered or looked after for five years,” al-Assad said. “I lost olive trees that had been fruiting for nearly sixty years.”

He said this year’s rains and the halt in water extraction from wells and bores during the ISIS occupation had seen the return of the Efqa spring. It is the source of the Palmyrene oasis and the reason for the ancient city’s founding but was dry for over 20 years until this past winter.

Al-Assad said some of the earliest returnees to Palmyra were semi-nomadic Bedouin families. They can be seen grazing sheep and goats and selling dairy, meat and skins on the peripheries of Syria’s major cities.  Farmers and Bedouin also run the highest risk of stepping on unexploded ordinance according the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Syria’s fields bloom with poppies but are also littered with burnt, twisted metal from destroyed buildings and vehicles and improvised rubbish dumps that mostly contain plastic, which are often cleared by burning. “People want to live, so they will live,” Notafji said reflecting on the rise in plastic burning.

Tightened US sanctions have worsened shortages of fuel for transport and heating leading to increased burning of plastics and building materials for heating, says Myriam Youssef, a Damascus-based freelance journalist. Intermittent power shortages have increased private diesel generator use and worsened the air quality in Syria’s big cities.

While trucks can be seen gathering scrap metal along highways, children are also noticeable participants in the waste crisis. Many are unable to go to school because their impoverished parents put them to work to bring in extra income.

In poor suburbs like Jaramana in eastern Damascus, a steady stream of children took rubbish from apartments to open ground surrounding a large waste bin. Other children searched through the trash pile for sellable recyclables like cardboard and aluminium.

Jaramana Rubbish
Children collect recycling and dump rubbish on a neighborhood corner in Jaramana.

Shoghig Sarkissian from the Greek Orthodox church aid agency GOPA-DERD, which operates the “Baytouna” social centre in Jaramana told me they have seen a significant wartime rise in the number of children doing dangerous tasks like producing charcoal or collecting and sorting rubbish.

SEPS chairman Ghassan Shahin said there is desperate need for large-scale recycling services given the extent of destruction and breakdown of commercial and municipal waste services.

“We must deal with millions of tons of concrete, cement and metal from all the destroyed areas. Not recycling those building materials would mean another environmental crisis added to many crises that the country suffered,” Shahin says.

Khanasser Highway
A bus on the Khanasser highway. Syria is littered with the metal, concrete and plastic wreckage of war.

Despite Syria’s extreme environmental challenges, there is hope in cultural elements reflecting a legacy of respect and reverence for the land. Damascus’s Botanic Gardens preserve key plant species used as traditional medicine and perfumes. Syrians still purchase such remedies from fresh herb and spice shops – “attaar” in Arabic – nearly as often as they patronise pharmacies.

Before retiring from the Ministry of Environment, Notafji was developing natural pesticides and herbicides to help farmers avoid the use of expensive and harmful chemicals. He has continued this work but progress has slowed – his extensive home library of botanical books in the suburb of Dumayr was looted before the building was reduced to rubble in fighting. “I lost much of what I knew there and now I have less time and resources,” he said.

In the gardens of the National Museum in Damascus, where ancient stone monuments stand among shady eucalypts and vines, caretaker Ahmad al-Zara’i showed me how he collects orange blossom flowers for use in topical concentrations for aching muscles. The former woodworker has worked in the gardens for 16 years and said his knowledge of plants came from growing up in the once-rich agricultural lands of Ghouta, on Damascus’s eastern outskirts, now heavily damaged by fighting.

Ahmad Al-Zarai
Ahmad al-Zara’i uses natural remedies he is able to find in the gardens at the National Museum in Damascus

Sidawi confirmed the significance of the loss of Ghouta as the capital’s agricultural centre. She said it meant not only the loss of thousands of trees, jobs and food supplies to the capital, but also the loss of knowledge and resources. “All of Ghouta’s agricultural machinery and technology was looted and we even lost a major seed research centre run by the Ministry of Agriculture. Decades of research was destroyed,” she said.

Environmental concerns should be given higher priority in current humanitarian responses in Syria, according to the PAX report. Notafji says a healthy environment has the potential to be a point of common ground that can help bridge social divisions.

“I like people, I don’t care about where they are from, their religion, or their politics, these things don’t interest me…. I love music and plants,” he says.  “If someone who likes music wants to listen together, that’s what we’ll do. If he loves flowers, great, let’s sit together. Other than this I don’t need to get involved in any discussions.”

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