Paul Abi Rached is an atypical figure. As a trained lawyer, one can imagine him haranguing jurors with his energetic voice but instead, he has chosen to speak to young people with the help of his guitar. Paul Abi Rached is an environmental singer.
It all began in 1980. Paul was passionate about the environment and decided to move towards environmental law. He obtained his degree but rapidly realised that “it was obsolete to talk about environmental law within the context of the Lebanon war”. And yet, he wanted to stand up for the Earth’s environment. In 1988, he read a book about environmental education and this led him to teaching. “I understood that children would be the most receptive to the green message I wanted to promote”. These younger generations could become future sustainable development heroes. From 1992 to 1996, Paul taught Civics to children aged between 11 and 15. He included the environment in his lessons and strove to teach them the right moves such as healthy food and waste collection. Unlike the audience in a courtroom, those in classrooms are attuned to environmental issues and pay attention to them.
As Paul was enthusiastic, he rapidly looked to the future and wanted the project to expand. He wanted the message to be heard by as many people as possible, not just the students in his establishment. The only solution: get as many people as possible involved. Paul knew he could not count on politicians and that government institutions had been weakened by the Lebanese conflict. He decided to try spreading the message from the bottom up, on a local level, and turned to other teachers for help. From 1990 to 1993, whilst teaching, he also taught teachers about sustainable development. Little by little, thanks to his colleagues’ participation, the right moves developed and spread to the region’s classes. The young students enthusiastically put into practice what they had learnt and even better, they encouraged their families to do so on a daily basis. Their efforts were rewarded and the message got through. Following this success, Paul wanted to go further.
In 1995, he decided to start a national paper recycling campaign in schools. He and Maria, a fellow teacher, created an educational bin that made recycling easier, the “Papivore malin.” The principle: a box with an explanation of the sorting and recycling mechanism written on it. It was a simple tool that was easy to distribute. Five thousand containers were built and distributed throughout the country. As this first experience yielded good results, Paul then started a campaign to stop a motorway being built: the project was threatening the Baabda forest, the last natural forest next to Beirut. Paul organised educational outings in this forest and the children enjoyed being in touch with nature. They realised how fragile it was. The students were supervised by teachers and by Paul’s friends who were Red Cross volunteers. Over the following years the environmental educator successfully undertook various environmental projects such as the development of environmental gardens and “The Lebanese Eco Citizen” project with their help.
As well as these activities, Paul was composing. Music has always been part of his life. He started playing the guitar when he was a Scout, then kept up the tradition of gatherings around the campfire during his First Aid missions at the Red Cross. Paul knew how powerful music could be and he wanted to use it to further the cause. And so, he developed a repertoire of songs about the environment. In 1996, Paul tested a new teaching technique whilst giving his environmental lessons: sung conferences. He sang an original tune with environmental messages and concrete advice to students while accompanying himself on the guitar. The songs were mainly in Arabic but also in French and in English. In some songs, Paul used modern Lebanese and mixed the three languages much to his audience’s delight. He was thus speaking to all the communities within the country. From village to village, Paul thus spread his musical environmental message to young Lebanese generations all over Lebanon. At the beginning of the 2000s, his action was noticed by the government who then decided to include some of the songs in the national curriculum.
Almost 10 years after he began and thousands of delighted children and a dozen successful operations later, Paul decided to give his volunteer association more visibility and a legal framework. In 2002, the NGO “T.E.R.R.E Liban” was born. The acronym stands for “Tentons Ensemble de Réaliser un Rêve pour nos Enfants”*, Paul’s brother’s idea. Since then, the organisation has kept undertaking the same projects as before: short missions that target problems or particular areas. T.E.R.R.E. Liban is completely self-financed by its campaigns. For example, money from the sale of notebooks made out of collected recycled paper is reinvested in other programmes. By functioning in this way, the NGO can make its choices as freely as it did in the beginning. However, it has evolved: Paul now thinks that T.E.R.R.E. should start lobbying. “Back then, the war had degraded the country’s environment, but today such destruction is done consciously. It is dictated by the country’s economic development and a thirst for riches. Lebanon has been invaded by neighbouring desert countries’ petrodollars because they want to get hold of Lebanese water and forests”. The investments are arriving faster than associations’ safeguarding actions. “We must talk to politicians so that they take responsible measures against all degradation”.
* Let us try together to realize a dream for our children
When asked if he was optimistic about the future, Paul answered that he had witnessed a double environmental phenomenon: the first was intergenerational as the pupils passed on what they had learnt to their parents and the second was generational. Indeed, former students who are now heads of businesses have started green projects in the private sector. “I am not optimistic about the future, neither am I pessimistic. I am now happy to see the results of our actions and I am ready to keep fighting for the planet and future generations”.