The army: Friends of the scorched earth

The army: Friends of the scorched earth

Algeria Interface, 25 January 2002

Bainem Forest outside Algiers is an ecological disaster zone that grimly illustrates the toll civil strife has exacted on forestland.

Algiers, 25/01/02 – The Forest of Bainem on the western edge of Greater Algiers once thronged with picknicking families, canoodling couples and keep-fit freaks. It is now deserted. Not from fear of armed groups lurking in the undergrowth, though, but because it a bald ecological wastes, stripped of life and leaf.

Its closeness to Algiers made it an ideal base for guerrillas that began carrying out attacks on the capital in 1993. In their efforts to flush them out, counterinsurgency army units went into the forest razing vast numbers of trees to the ground. Armed Islamist groups and security forces waged war in Bainem Forest from 1993 to 1999, all but wiping it out.

Where 504 hectares of forest once tumbled down the hillside to the sea’s edge, there is now nothing but a stark scrubland. Gone are the pine trees, their trunks sawed away at the base in a grim testimony of the havoc visited on the forest. Here and there are bright new patches of green – eucalyptus saplings that seem to want to want belie the surrounding desolation.

« Security clearance »
The fate of Bainem Forest raises questions about the security forces’ wholesale destruction of forestland as they have hunted down terrorists, who are still a threat, albeit a lesser one. Frantic reforestation is now underway, but Algeria’s forest rangers are reluctant to speak of the forests’ destruction, a strangely taboo issue.

In 1993 when Islamist terrorists moved into the forest, the security forces began seeing a terrorist suspect lurking in every Algerian. They disarmed the forest keepers leaving them helpless in face of the guerrillas.

Mr Baaziz has been the local forest chief since 1994 when his predecessor snapped under the strain and fled. A drawn 40-year old with a sparkle in his eye, he hails from fine forestland in the region of Collo, one of the few in a country where trees and greenery account for only 2% of the total area.

He recalls 1997 as the time when the army began its massive tree clearing drive. That year five forest workers lost their lives in an ambush while the Algiers conurbation experienced its first two mass killings of civilians in localities of Miramar and Sidi Youcef. Local people decided to cut back the forest and set up spotlights on its edge.

« That was the year the army decided to take things in hand and when the army steps in nobody else has got a say in anything, » said one forest worker, adding bitterly that « taking in hand » is nothing but « razing and uprooting more than 70% of our forest ». His fellow workers listen uneasily – there can be a price to pay for speaking out against army atrocities… against trees!

Mr Baaziz adopts a philosophical tone, asserting that only 200 hectares were cut and adding: « If I had to choose between human lives and trees, I’d say trees grow back. »

But when asked if razing the forest was the only way he takes refuge behind heavily guarded, noncommittal language. « The operation undertaken in 1997 was not a forestry operation but a security operation. Only the security services can tell you what the strategy was. Trees are my trade and my passion. Techniques of forest management are second nature to me. But I don’t know anything about security management. »

Neither apparently did the security forces. Although the forest workers had already started clearing the forest to afford the military better visibility and freedom of action, the military was dismissive. In an act of sheer self-caricature, the army went for the radical alternative – what the foresters ironically dubbed « security clearance ».

One angry young official from the National Institute of Forestry Research recalls: « It was horrible, we heard chainsaws at work the whole year. It was like they were taking their revenge on the trees. They pillaged our forest, sold off the timber and woe betide anyone who tried to do anything about it. One guy did, they beat him up. »

The forest worker who fell foul of the security forces lives with his family on a little hillside of patch of land on the eastern edge of the forest. Like the rest of the local community he lived in fear of the terrorists. But the methods of the military still haunt him.

Unlike his periphrastic superiors, he speaks bluntly: « The chainsaws were bad enough, but what I just couldn’t take was when they sent in the bulldozers. Uprooting trees kills them for good. I said no, so they laid into me. »

French army methods
With forest razed, the military discovered terrorist hideouts and moved into Bainem Forest until 1999. But despite the heavy-handedness of their action, it turned not to be particularly effective. Arson triggered a forest fire last year which revealed new terrorist bunkers. Says the forester who hates bulldozers: « Just shows how efficient their plan was. »

It is difficult to assess just how much forestland the counterinsurgency struggle has cost Algeria. The forestry administration does not include war damage as a parameter in its estimates which are, consequently, rough. Two unforthcoming technicians grudgingly say « losses in the 1990s were average, » – i.e. between 25,000 and 30,000 hectares per annum due to all causes.

But the decade did hit a horrific peak in 1994 with the loss of 271,000 hectares to the ravages of fire, drought, and probably bombing or, in the words of the two forest technicians, « for a host of causes ».

They speak as if walled within a fatalism that Algeria’s forests have always been victims and war just has not made their chances any better. The subject seems to be taboo. Not because fear has imposed silence on the country, but because to talk about an army that bombs and razes the country’s woodlands immediately triggers collective memories of the French army’s methods during the War of Independence.

Meriem is a forest worker, whose boundless energy is in sharp contrast to the pervasive gloom over the forest’s future. He says the mudslides that engulfed Bab El Oued brought home to the authorities the importance of replanting the forestland near Algiers. « See for yourself. The pine shoots that have been replanted will grow tall in a few years, » he says.

« In a few dozen years, » is the muttered rejoinder from the forester who hates bulldozers.

Daikha Dridi