By Hana Namrouqa

BERGESH FOREST/AJLOUN – Fatmeh Zaytoun sat under an oak tree in Bergesh Forest on Friday, recalling her childhood spent between the nooks and crannies of the wooded area.

And as the sexagenarian baked taboon bread on a saj (convex metal griddle), she vowed that she would not abandon her land and family home for the construction of a military academy in the forest.

“I would cut the hands of those who cut one tree of Bergesh Forest,” the grandmother said, criticising the appropriation of her land for the project, which entails uprooting hundreds of trees.

Zaytoun was one of more than 400 people who gathered in Bergesh Forest on Friday with their families to express their objection to “executing the forest”.

The solidarity trip was organised by the National Campaign to Save Bergesh Forest in cooperation with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN).

But not all Ajloun residents oppose the construction of the military academy, with hundreds converging on the capital last Thursday to express their support for the project, which they said would generate job opportunities and address unemployment in the area.

Meanwhile, Abu Mohammad, a resident of the southern town of Karak, said he joined the trip with his wife and three children to see Bergesh Forest and enjoy the area’s cool weather.

“I heard a lot about the beauty of this place, but I never imagined that we had such a place in Jordan, where the trees are too dense to see what is behind… it is breathtaking,” he said pointing to the hills covered with evergreen oaks.

“It would be a great loss if Bergesh trees are cut down,” Abu Mohammad added, noting that the forest is one of the few remaining green areas in Jordan that people turn to during summer weekends to enjoy its views and moderate climate.

Bergesh Forest represents an integrated ecosystem that houses over 100 plant species – 13 per cent listed as rare, 4 per cent as locally or internationally threatened and 13 per cent as holding medicinal value, according to ecologists at the RSCN.

Forests constitute less than 1 per cent of the Kingdom’s area, while the green cover in Bergesh stands at 90 per cent.

Construction work on the military academy started in early January but was halted after several environmental NGOs and MPs objected to the site, located 90 kilometres northwest of the capital in Ajloun Governorate.

Following deliberations between the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF) and a Lower House committee probing the academy’s construction, the project was relocated to another site where fewer trees would be cut.

But environmental NGOs, activists, MPs and local residents claim that at least 300 centennial trees will be uprooted and they want to avoid cutting down a single tree, pointing to the Kingdom’s rapidly depleting green cover.

Last month, the JAF said the academy’s blueprints were “drastically” altered to limit the uprooting of trees in the site, a 1,200-dunum area, including 700 dunums previously acquired from citizens.

Ramzi Ghazwi, one of the campaign organisers, said the solidarity trip aimed at underscoring that Jordanians have the right to protect and enjoy their few forests.

“We support building a military academy in Ajloun, but we call for selecting another site that doesn’t entail uprooting those beautiful trees,” he told The Jordan Times.

The huge turnout for Friday’s event indicates a higher level of public awareness about the need to protect nature, according to Omar Shoshan, head of RSCN’s environmental policies section.

“The trip sends several messages to decision makers, mainly that people have a say and their demands should be considered and that a clean environment is a basic human right,” he said.