One of the most bizarre consequences of the impact of the “Arab Spring” in Jordan is the new threat to the concept and sustainability of protected areas and natural reserves. After the wave of public protests sweeping the region asking for better governance and enhancing public services the government of Jordan started to feel the pressure and the political-social balance in the country is about to change with more empowerment and mobilization of the people and erosion of some state authority.
Jordan has a unique biodiversity despite its relatively small size and is home to 7 jewels in the form of natural reserves that attract local and foreign sustainable tourism activities, and harbor local socio-economic development initiatives that provide income and alternative livelihoods to local communities. For more details about Jordan’s protected areas and biodiversity go to www.rscn.org.jo
Yarmouk Protected Area in the north of Jordan
Although the expanded public space of freedom of gathering and expression has resulted in the mobilization of some genuine and effective environmental movements against the proposed nuclear programme and the destruction of Bergish forest to build a military complex, some other protests were detrimental to the environmental agenda. The public protests raised one of the most controversial and sensitive issues in Jordan which is the “historic claims to land” by local tribes that used to “manage” such lands and have historic rights prior to the establishment of the State. Many tribes and local communities requested the return of their “claimed historic rights” to lands they used to manage including some areas designated as potential Protected Areas.
This case was very obvious in Jabal Masouda (Petra) where members of local communities showed their open resistance to the establishment of the Jabal Masouda protected area by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which is the NGO officially mandated to establish and manage protected areas. The local administration, represented by the Petra Regional Authority provided support to the claims in an attempt to keep the area within the proposed economic development plans but not as a Protected Area. The RSCN had to find an alternative area that represents the targeted ecosystem/habitat in Jabal Masouda and found their aim in the Shobak area which is still under negotiation with the government. The same case emerged here with some local communities asking for land rights, while another main player, the National Resources Authority requesting the designation of large percentage of the area for mining purposes. Until now the designation file of Shobak is still frozen by the government with no apparent breakthrough in the deadlock.
In the Yarmouk Protected Area some local tribal figures leaders and parliamentarians asked the government to abolish its decision to establish the Protected Area, again on the basis of the historic rights to lands and to continue grazing and unplanned use of natural resources and ecosystem services. In this case RSCN took an uncompromising position to refuse any changes to the legal status and boundaries of the PA, fearing that such precedence may open up the door for more claims in other PAs.
This change in the context of political economy and power will certainly pose real challenges for RSCN and the environmental community in general to respond in an early, effective and participatory manner to the request to change the status of PAs. For any new PA as well a detailed socio-political assessment should be conducted to identify potential sources of risks and mitigate them before any area is about to be declared as protected.
One of the options that can be pursued is to conduct a detailed analysis of land tenure in any area that is considered suitable and important to have a protected area. With the current controversy over historic rights to lands by the local communities,it is vital to avoid any areas where local communities have a belief of historic rights and if such a case appears should go the extra mile in gaining the trust of local communities before engaging in the establishment of PAs. The development of sustainable socio-economic and conservation projects could be an entry point to strengthening relationships with local communities.
The RSCN and the protected areas themselves are unfortunately paying the price for the lack of trust that the local communities are showing towards the public institutions and policies. It is important that such marvelous achievements in the Jordanian environmental sector be protected from the impacts of the Arab Spring and the legacy of bad public policies.