Bani-Hashem in northern Jordan was once a picture postcard landscape. In years gone by, its rich plant life and abundant water supply attracted Bedouin tribes, traditional pastoralists in search of good land on which to raise their cattle, sheep and goats. Then the landscape began to change. By the turn of the 21st century, pasture had become scarce, water was in short supply and life for the local Bedouin was tough.
Alongside all its other troubles, the Middle East is facing an environmental crisis. In a region where herding is a bulwark of food security, global warming is set to hit hard as it brings drought. But this is one problem that is now being successfully tackled. At Bani-Hashem, and other areas throughout the region, local people are rediscovering a traditional practice of land management, which is not just improving pastureland but also increasing biodiversity and bringing financial benefits and gender equality too.
Al Hima (Arabic for "protected place") is a centuries' old tradition developed by Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula to help communities manage shared rangelands effectively. Under Islamic law it became a method for the sustainable use of the region's limited natural resources and the conservation of its biodiversity. But in the latter part of the 20th century al Hima declined across the Middle East, as governments in many countries laid claim to rangelands and opened them up for anyone to use. Robbed of ownership, herders became careless about maintaining the land and its resources. Within a generation the situation went from bad to worse as global warming exacerbated the problem.
With the restoration of al Hima things are changing, and Jordan has been at the vanguard. In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) teamed up with Jordan's Ministry of Agriculture, the Arab Women's Organization and the European Union to begin a pilot initiative. Their efforts focused on Bani-Hashem and three other locations around the Zarqa River Basin in the eastern Jordanian desert. Part of the North Arab Desert, which stretches into Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, this is classified as the most environmentally vulnerable region in the kingdom.
At Bani-Hasham, the Jordanian government designated 100 hectares of rangeland for inclusion in the scheme and the local Bedouins then drew up a plan to restore the land and use it sustainably. Al Hima does not specify what measures a community should take but, rather, how to go about doing things. In essence it solves the "tragedy of the commons" - the problem that a shared resource is susceptible to overexploitation if all stakeholders try to take full advantage of it - by creating an open and egalitarian framework for management with checks and punishments for those who do not comply. So, once the locals had agreed their plan, a tribal charter pledging to protect the site was drafted and signed by community members; a system for policing was established and a committee was formed to coordinate the management of the al Hima following tribal traditions.
A key advantage of al Hima is its flexibility. In this case, the community decided to divide the designated rangeland into three enclosures and rotate grazing on them. For the first two years all grazing was prohibited - although access to neighboring land remained unrestricted. This almost tripled the dry yield of biomass in the enclosed areas from 40 to 113 kilograms per hectare. In subsequent years, the lots were grazed one at a time, in rotation. Decisions about how many livestock to admit and for how long were based on annual measurements of fodder yield (taken from the enclosure about to be grazed). The scheme has already dramatically increased the quality and quantity of forage plants and restored many indigenous floral species.
In 2015, the IUCN carried out a study to assess the impact al Hima could have if adopted widely in Jordan. The researchers used a combination of satellite images, soil characteristics; weather and land use data to predict how al Hima land use practices will affect the rates of groundwater recharge and soil erosion. They also considered rangeland vegetation and carbon storage in soils and plants.
"The models showed that al Hima restoration has a positive impact on all of these biological and hydrological processes and that they provide valuable goods and services to Jordanian society," says Vanja Westerberg, formerly of IUCN's Global Economics and Social Science Programme in Switzerland.
The study estimated the value of sustainable management to pastoralists in the four Zarqa River Basin communities, at some US$10 million in the next twenty-five years.
Along with environmental and economic benefits, the reintroduction of al Hima in Jordan is also narrowing the gender divide. Traditionally, al Hima gave Bedouin women little say or involvement in natural resource conservation and management despite the fact that they herd livestock, farm and collect medicinal plants. This time around they have been involved in all phases of the project, with dramatic consequences. It is widely recognized that participation of women has helped reduce the numbers of tribal conflicts over natural resources.
"Women's [involvement] has proved to be a major factor in restoring rangelands and improving standards of life in local communities," says Fida Haddad of IUCN's Drylands, Livelihoods and Gender Programme in Amman, Jordan.
Al Hima is not a panacea for the challenges facing pastoralists in arid regions today. Nevertheless, many see it as an important link between conservation of renewable resources and sustainable development. While other conservation schemes, such as national parks, often deny pastoralists in developing countries access to key resources, al Hima gives traditional communities an incentive to conserve because they manage and natural resources and allocate them equitably.
"What makes it unusual is the degree of cultural and social acceptability because it is effectively a traditional approach that also has religious endorsement in the qu'ran," says Jonathan DaviesCoordinator of IUCN's Global Drylands Initiative.
This is tried and tested indigenous knowledge, backed by one of the world's great religions that spoke the language of conservation long before saving the planet became vogue.
About This Author
Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades with his work appearing in numerous publications including New Scientist, BBC Wildlife Magazine, New African and Africa Geographic.
This article is part of a new content-sharing arrangement with the environmental magazine The Ecologist.