The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with funds from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Italian Republic through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), and in coordination with the Ministry of Environment, has upgraded the infrastructure of eight nature reserves across Lebanon to make them accessible to persons with disabilities, with the aim of enhancing inclusion, boosting eco-tourism and preserving wildlife and ecosystems.
In Lebanon, around 50 000 people have physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities accounting for around 10-15% of the Lebanese population. There is a systemic lack of provisions for rights, resources, and services for persons with disabilities in Lebanon. In addition to not having full access to education, health services and employment, people with disabilities find it problematic to enjoy leisure and recreational activities in nature as they are not designed, nor equipped to accommodate people of various physical and mental needs.
To that end, the eight nature reserves have been upgraded to receive people with different types of disabilities by providing new inclusive technologies such as assistive devices and implementing the relevant infrastructure needed like accessibility trails to render them more accessible and improve the hiking experience for persons with disabilities.
In addition to the needed technical assistance and training of the nature reserve guides; five nature reserves (Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve, Tannourine Nature Reserve, Jabal Moussa Biosphere Reserve, Shouf Nature Reserve and Tyre Coast Nature Reserve) have been provided with all-terrain one-wheeled chairs “Joëlette” to enable mobility-challenged people or even the elderly to access their trails and enjoy their landscapes. Similarly, existing infrastructures and trails have been upgraded in three Nature Reserves (Bentael Nature Reserve, Jaj Cedars Nature Reserve and Yammouneh Nature Reserve) to improve accessibility for people with intellectual disabilities, kids with autism spectrum disorder, and the elderly. Consequently, nature reserve guides as well as volunteers have been trained to cater to the needs of persons with disabilities.
To mark the success of this pioneer pilot initiative, and to ramp up inclusive and health-boosting outdoor activities and enforce accessibility standards, especially within nature reserves, UNDP in coordination with the Ministry of Environment, organized an inclusive hike and bird-watching day within Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve, Ehden, during which a group of people with disabilities assisted by their caregivers from specialized non-governmental organizations, namely, “Sesobel”, “Anta Akhi” and “Message de Paix”, were introduced to bird watching activity by the Association for Bird Conservation in Lebanon (ABCL).
The inclusive hike within Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve was guided by both Lebanon Mountain Trail Association (LMTA) & Lebanon Reforestation Initiative (LRI) teams. Mobility-challenged persons were able to enjoy the long trail through the nature reserve thanks to the all-terrain one-wheeled chairs “Joëlette” that were recently introduced in the nature reserves for the first time in Lebanon.
The event was attended by the Ambassador of Italy, H.E. Mrs. Nicoletta Bombardieri who underlined that “one important aspect tackled by the STEP4Nature project which is facilitating inclusion through improving accessibility to people with disabilities. I believe this initiative should be replicated on a larger scale across all nature reserves. This concern is very dear to the heart of the Italian cooperation and Italian Government and this year through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS), an initiative focused specifically on inclusion of people with disabilities into the society will be launched in Lebanon.”
The Minister of Environment, H.E. Dr. Nasser Yassin, who was also present stated that “We need to connect our youth and their families, with or without disabilities, to nature reserves and show them the natural and cultural heritage it harbors. The Ministry of Environment believes that nature reserves can play a double role; in addition to the protection of the natural and cultural heritage, nature reserves shall significantly contribute to the sustainable economic development of local communities and the whole country. Moreover, decentralization of environmental management has proven to be successful as the management and operation of well-preserved protected areas including nature reserves is today, and according to the Protected Areas Framework Law 130/2019, a shared responsibility between the Ministry of Environment, the Appointed Protected Areas Committee (APAC) which includes representatives from concerned local authorities, local NGOs and scientific experts, and the management teams in the field.”
“It gives me great pleasure to be here today with our partners to see first-hand the benefits of inclusive eco-tourism that not only contributes to economic development but also ensures wildlife preservation. Access to leisure activities in nature should be made available to everyone especially persons with disabilities and today we were able to achieve this small milestone with the hope that one day so that no one is left behind” added Mohammed Salih, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative.