By Hana Namrouqa

WADI ARABA – Creating protected areas in the south of Jordan appears to have become difficult as local communities resist the idea and authorities’ cooperation is weak, which may leave some of Jordan’s unique landscapes vulnerable to destruction.

Four areas in Wadi Araba were proposed to become protected areas, including Ghor Fifa, Qatar, Rahmeh and Jabal Masouda, under the Integrated Ecosystem Management-Jordan Rift Valley Project (IEM-JRV), a World Bank-funded project.

But according to conservationists, progress on the project, implemented by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), is stumbling, particularly after Jabal Masouda was recently dropped from the country’s nature reserves network.

IEM-JRV Director Tarek Abulhawa said Jabal Masouda was removed from Jordan’s list of proposed protected areas because it lost its ecological significance that qualifies it to become a protected area.

Having carried out studies in Jabal Masouda for two years, RSCN teams saw land usage in the area changing, resulting in the destruction of natural habitats and landscapes, Abulhawa said.

“The area is very wide, it needed time to study, but by the time we decided to grant the area the statute of nature reserve, we found that there was nothing left to protect,” the conservationist said during last week’s media tour to RSCN’s protected areas in Wadi Araba.

Jabal Masouda inhabitants had their hopes pinned high that the association would turn their area into a nature reserve. With each passing day of the long two years it took to monitor the place, the local community, expecting immediate gratification, started losing hope and trust in the RSCN’s intentions. Worse, they were turned into strong opponents to the idea of creating nature reserves in their areas.

“With every day of delay, people’s doubt in the society’s goals and credibility was increasing, until we reached a point where they completely rejected our presence in Jabal Masouda,” Abulhawa noted.

Sheikh Salamah Suleiman Ben Srour, the tribal leader of the Seideyeen tribe, said that his people are against creating a nature reserve in Jabal Masouda because that would include their tribal wajihat lands.

Wajihat, lands allocated to Jordanian bedouin tribes in the pre-state era for grazing and cultivation purposes for nomadic tribes, was partially documented by authorities during the British mandate and continue to be a source of ongoing disputes.

“We are against the nature reserve because it goes against our daily life activities such as grazing or logging. We don’t want any change,” Ben Srour said speaking on behalf of his tribe, which includes 10,000 members spreading across Karak, Tafileh, Aqaba and Petra.

Their rejection is based on the wrong belief that a nature reserve would be a fenced-in area that would prevent people from going about their daily life uninhibited.

Jabal Masouda, located in Maan Governorate, is named after the highest mountain peak in the area. The site, with an elevation ranging between 180 and 1,500 metres above sea level, contains three bio-geographical zones – Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo-Arabian.

Director of Wadi Araba District Sameeh Darawsheh said a campaign is needed to raise the local community’s awareness about the concept of protected areas and how they contribute to raising local communities’ living standards, rather than taking away their livelihood.

A similar battle faces the RSCN in the proposed Qatar nature reserve; the society is working around-the-clock to convince the Heiwat tribe that a nature reserve in their area would help generate income and create job opportunities.

Qatar is located 40 kilometres north of the Gulf of Aqaba. It has a population of 207. The area consists of different habitats, including acacia woodland, sand dunes and mudflats, according to the RSCN.

The proposed protected area would cover over 45 square kilometres and is home to 16 types of vegetation, six kinds of mammals, five of reptiles and 32 of birds. The protected area’s land is state-owned and located on Jordan’s western borders with Israel, according to the society.

Illegal logging and agricultural activities are among the major violations in the area, which is inhabited by Al Heiwat tribe, Abulhawa said.

Like the Saideyeen tribe, members of the Heiwat tribe are against announcing Qatar as a protected area, fearing for their interests.

Faraj Al Kbeish, who spoke for his tribe, questioned the goals of the RSCN in announcing the area as a nature reserve, saying that it has a hidden agenda.

“Qatar is part of our tribal wajihat lands; it is where our cattle graze and where we plant crops. If the society makes it into a reserve, our daily lives will be disrupted,” Kbeish said.

Al Heiwat tribe members are also counting on the implementation of the Red-Dead water conveyor, saying once that passes through their tribal wajihat lands, it will attract investments and raise the price of their lands.

“There is nothing to protect here, there are only sand dunes and an empty mudflat; there are no birds or animals; why did they choose Qatar?” Kbeish said, questioning the society’s selection of the area.

Abulhawa said Qatar represents a unique ecological system which deserves to be protected, noting that socio-economic projects such as sustainable agricultural ventures would be created to employ the local community and improve their living conditions.

Trying to reach Rahmeh was a dangerous endeavour. Members of Al Heiwat tribe expressed their strong objection to the idea of creating a nature reserve in Rahmeh by blocking the street leading into the village to prevent the RSCN team from entering.

Some 1,279 people live in Rahmeh which is located 55 kilometres to the north of Aqaba. The proposed protected area’s landscape would be 53 square kilometres. It is home to 24 types of plants, 13 animal and 17 bird species, according to the RSCN.

In Rahmeh, destruction of wildlife habitats is common, as residents drive their cars inside the proposed protected area and destroy plants and shrubs in the area, according to the society.

“We will continue working with the tribes in Wadi Araba, but if they persist in their position and remain opposed to the creation of protected areas, we will have no option but to pick up and move somewhere else,” Abulhawa said.