Six years after the government enacted the Forestry Law No. 6 of 2018, President Bashar Al-Assad issued a new Forestry and Forestry Lands Law No. 39 in December 2023, replacing the old law.
Ostensibly, Law No. 39 of 2023 aims to protect, manage and preserve the forest environment on the principles of sustainable development in partnership with the local community. It introduces new concepts for forestry work and details the penalties for encroachments on forestry areas.
Law No. 39 distinguishes between two types of forestry lands: the first is state forests, including all lands owned by the state where the forestry cover exceeds 20 percent. The second type is private forests, i.e. lands owned by physical or moral persons, where the forestry cover exceeds 40 percent. The now-repealed Forestry Law No. 6 of 2018 had classified private forests as those with more than 60 percent forestry cover. Thus, the new law classifies more private lands as forestry, imposing restrictions on their owners that limit their freedom to manage them.
The new law also increases the area of the forestry buffer zone, which is the land surrounding state forests, extending 200 metres from all its borders. In this buffer zone, any construction harmful to the forest is prohibited. The size of the buffer zone may increase to one kilometre from all borders, depending on the type of forest, and is managed in special ways. The buffer zone in the repealed Law No. 6 of 2018 did not exceed 25 metres from all borders of state forests, which represents an increase in the area of private lands subject to restrictions that limit the freedom of their owners, such as prohibiting them from building except for residential purposes, provided that it is within the zoning plan and per the building code system.
Law No. 39 imposes restrictions to protect state forests, including prohibiting their sale, leasing and the creation of real estate rights over them, and prohibiting the transfer of their ownership, even to administrative units. However, owners of private forests are allowed to manage, develop and protect them under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform.
The new law also imposes restrictions on private forests. If they are affected by a fire, even partially, a fire notice preventing any transactions is placed on their property record. This notice can only be removed with the approval of the Ministry of Agriculture after an inspection by the local forestry unit within the ministry. Before this, a natural regeneration of at least 40 percent is required for the burned private forestry land. The owner must also reforest the land under the supervision of the local forestry unit, achieving at least 40 percent coverage, wait two years, and ensure the trees are in good condition and evenly distributed.
Owners of private forests must obtain a licence from the local forestry unit in their area for pruning and cleaning their lands. They must also obtain a licence from the same authority to cut, transport and char forest wood according to specific conditions. Owners of private lands with less than 40 percent forest cover also need a licence before reclaiming and levelling their lands for agricultural use.
Law No. 39 of 2023 stipulates that the Ministry of Agriculture is not responsible for any damage caused if and when it applies preventative measures to stop the spread of fires from private forests and agricultural lands to state forests and vice versa, including damages from building forestry roads. This contrasts with the general principles of liability established by the Syrian Civil Code, which holds that any harmful act causing damage obliges the perpetrator to compensation. Also, Law No. 39 exempts the administration from liability for damages caused by its actions and does not require it to provide compensation. This is also in contradiction with the judicial precedent set by the Court of Cassation in Decision No. 107, Appeal No. 20 of 1967, which states that the administration is responsible for its actions based on error and requires three elements:
- An error attributable to the administration
- Damage inflicted on an individual because of this error
- A causal relationship between the error and the damage
Finally, Law No. 39 imposes a prison sentence ranging from three months to two years and a fine double the value of the damage caused against anyone who uproots, damages or cuts down trees without obtaining a licence. The law considers this act a crime for which the court may not grant discretionary mitigating reasons to the perpetrator. The law also imposes penalties ranging from fines and imprisonment as well as criminal penalties such as life imprisonment and even the death penalty in cases of deliberately setting fire to forestry land with the intent of harming the national economy if this results in human death.