Environmentalists Try to Save One of Jordan’s Last Forests

In the early 1990s, Jordanian King Hussein Bin Talal launched a campaign under the slogan “Turning Jordan Green by 2000,” based on his aspiration to see his country turn into a green paradise. The king died on Feb. 7, 1999, without realizing his ambition. This goal has yet to be realized, and now seems impossible in light of the latest statistics issued by

Mohamed Fdilat

Jordanian Journalist

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In the early 1990s, Jordanian King Hussein Bin Talal launched a campaign under the slogan “Turning Jordan Green by 2000,” based on his aspiration to see his country turn into a green paradise. The king died on Feb. 7, 1999, without realizing his ambition. This goal has yet to be realized, and now seems impossible in light of the latest statistics issued by the Ministry of Agriculture indicating that less than 1% of the kingdom is covered by plant life.
With the death of the king the slogan faded away, while during his life it remained a mere slogan without any actual mechanisms of action or serious implementation plans.
In 2010, Jordan adopted an official slogan contrary to [that of King Hussein], aimed at eliminating the last green space. This slogan was enforced by choosing Bargash forest, [one of] the last of Jordan’s forests, as the location for the establishment of a military academy.
Bargash Forest is located 80 kilometers [50 miles] north of Amman [in Ajloun Forest], with an estimated 2 million trees, [many of which are more than] 300 years old. The forest could lose 2,200 of its trees according to the construction plans for the academy. 
The Jordanian government decided on Dec. 16, 2010, to allow cutting down perennial trees, in violation of Article 28 of Provisional Agriculture Law No. (44) of 2002. The government’s decision also violates Article 35, Paragraph B, which specifies, “It is prohibited to cut down any perennial trees or unique trees, or any wild endangered trees, or to destroy them or commit any type or form of aggression against them.”
Trees are of no value compared with this dream project, whose cost and partners have yet to be announced. The government believes that this project, which is expected to attract students from various countries around the world, would generate millions of dinars for the state treasury. Moreover, in order to persuade the local population about the usefulness of the project, the government promoted it as a development project in this region, which has been lacking any development projects since the establishment of the state.

Suspension, not cancellation

In 2011, with the start of the project’s implementation and amid the roar of logging machines, environmental activists launched a campaign to stop the project under the slogan “The National Campaign to Save Bargash Forest From Its Death Sentence.” The campaign invoked laws that prevent logging perennial trees and revealed that the development project will transform the forest into a military zone. It will be closed to local residents — who would be ousted — and inaccessible to visitors.
The government did not heed their calls at first. Logging machines were waiting for orders to pounce, faced by activists who had camped at the site and were forming a human chain, obstructing any movements. The government finally acceded to the demands of protesting campers, after hundreds of sit-ins were carried out by activists in front of the Office of the Presidency, the House of Representatives, and the ministries of agriculture and environment, which are charged with implementing the law on the protection of the forest. This came following a campaign that turned the forest into a holy site visited weekly by Jordanians, who discovered their lost forest — a forest that some of them said they previously never knew even existed. Furthermore, in November 2011, the government announced that work on the military academy project in Bargash had been suspended. While work was suspended, it was not cancelled. This suspension will continue until the rules of the game change and activists are reassured. In this respect, activists asserted that they will remain vigilant at all times.

A palace and a mud house

At the top of Bargash Mountain, which stands 875 meters [2,871 feet] above sea level, 80-year-old Salem al-Zaitoun lives with his wife in a mud house built in 1961. Facing the mud house atop an opposing peak, the huge palace of Jordanian King Abdullah II stands tall. While Salem climbs up and down the mountain daily on foot, the king arrives to his palace by helicopter, only visiting occasionally. Salem’s house was built before electricity and water networks. It is lit by oil lanterns and rainwater is collected in a special well. On the other hand, in the evening the king's palace turns into a giant bulb of light, with flowing water pools. Salem eats the food he grows himself, and raises chicken and cattle. Meanwhile, when the king visits his palace he enjoys delicious and extravagent meals. Salem’s house is not protected by a fence, even though neighboring predators such as wolves, hyenas, red foxes and wild cats live in the forest. The king's palace is surrounded by a fenced-in natural reserve … inhabited by deer, elk, mountain sheep, peacocks and partridges.
Salem opposes the construction of the military academy, whose plans require him to move out of his home. On the other hand, the king supports it, which will not affect his palace. Salem’s house — in which he resides — and the king's palace — which he only visits — are both surrounded by oak, pine oak, hawthorn and terebinth trees in addition to more than 100 species of plants, including 13 medicinal plants, 13 rare plants and four endangered species.

Cave theft

Under the towering mountains, with 90% of their surface covered by trees, a cave was discovered in 1995. It is called Dhaher cave and is estimated to be 4 million years old.
This is not an ordinary cave. Its surface area is nearly 4,000 square meters, and it is located 20 to 30 meters below the surface of the earth. It is composed of a large number of cavities and narrow rocky passages connected to one another in a complex pattern. This cave is the only natural cave known in Jordan.
On the day it was discovered, it was dotted with stalagmites and stalactites, some of which were up to two meters in length. These were kept safe, away from thieves, protected by the rocky narrow corridor of a width no more than half a meter. What happened? In 2003, the authorities excavated part of the corridor to widen it and facilitate access to the cave. They did so without assigning a guard or controlling its access, which allowed thieves to get in and steal stalagmites and stalactites. Today, visitors to the cave are told, “in this place there were stalactites, and these are some of the stalagmites that remain.” Moreover, when you reach the end of the part of the cave that has been explored thus far, bottomless valleys prevent any further access. Visitors are told that there may be stalagmites and stalactites which have yet to be discovered, yet they require additional attention by official authorities to explore the cave.
According to advocates, “The forest does not need any construction development in it; and certainly not a military academy. It only needs to be listed on Jordan’s tourism map.”

Translated by Al-Monitor


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