A new PAX study based on satellite analysis and open-source research demonstrates the destructive impact of twelve years of war on Syria’s forests and orchards, with over one-third of all forest being cut-down. The report, titled ‘Axed and Burned,’ is the most in-depth scientific study conducted on the many causes and consequences of tree-cover loss throughout the conflict-affected country.
Findings show that deforestation is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of civilians and has long-term consequences for climate resilience. Armed conflict is a massive driver of natural resource destruction. The lack of access to electricity and fuel pushes large scale logging for heating and cooking, while displacement and intense fighting further contribute to forest loss.
Unregulated logging and intense forest fires
Using remote-sensing data, the research finds that in the west of Syria over 36% of the forested areas have been affected by unregulated logging and intense forest fires in 2018-2020. In other areas, such northern Aleppo, armed groups have been a main driver in heavy logging of natural forests, with nearly 60% of trees cut down. The war also directly caused destruction of large-scale commercial orchards, impacting livelihoods. In locations such as Palmyra over 52% of fruit trees were lost in intense fighting between regime forces and armed groups. In other areas, displaced populations were in dire need of energy, driving increased tree-cutting, while construction of military outposts in orchards northern Syria by Turkish forces spurred concerns over lost livelihoods In eastern Syria, few remaining nature reserves and reforestation projects around Raqqa and Tabqa, were severely affected during the occupation by ISIS.
Why Forest Matters for Conflict-affected Communities
The humanitarian consequences of the war have been exacerbated by natural resource destruction, robbing orchard farmers of livelihoods, impacting unique ecosystems, biodiveristy and leading to the loss of carbon sinks in a country facing severe climate challenges from rising temperatures and droughts. With this study, PAX aims to highlight the complex linkages between environment, peace and security by exploring how forest loss degrades soil and water quality and impacts biodiversity and ecological resilience. The report also explores the loss of green spaces in cities, for example, as the sieges of large cities such as Aleppo, Hama and Damascus drove increases in logging for firewood. The regeneration of the urban forest should be addressed in future reconstruction efforts to decrease city pollution, manage urban watersheds, mitigate the urban heat island effect, and increase the overall health of urban populations.
Making Forests Part of Environmental Peacebuilding
Understanding these specific drivers of environmental destruction is helpful to ensure that root causes are addressed and support is made available for restoration and remediation of affected areas. Environmental degradation, such as deforestation, soil loss and water contamination, can aggravate social and political tensions linked to scarcity, livelihoods and the cultural significance of the land or natural resources. Forest restoration in post-conflict Syria, including through nature-based solutions, could be an explorative project that taps into the potential of environmental peacebuilding by implementing reforestation projects through community engagement, thus seeking to ensure sustainability, buy-in, and use of local knowledge.