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Conservationists battle Jordan government over plan to axe 2,200 trees

Environmental activists try to persuade government not to cut down old-growth trees in nation's beloved Bergesh forest for military project, despite plans to replace them.

Deer graze in a nature reserve near Bergesh forest in Ajloun, in the north of Jordan. Salah Malkawi /for The National
Deer graze in a nature reserve near Bergesh forest in Ajloun, in the north of Jordan. Salah Malkawi /for The National

AJLOUN // If a centuries-old tree falls in one of Jordan's rare and endangered forests, would the country's newly sprouted green movement make a sound?

The answer, as evidenced by a growing national controversy over a planned military academy, is a firmly rooted affirmative.

A recent outcry of support for the one per cent of Jordan that remains forested has pitted conservationists against the government, and could help cultivate new environmental policies for the country.

The debate began in January when Jordan's cabinet approved plans for a sprawling military school that would require chopping down 2,200 trees in the nation's beloved Bergesh forest, near Ajloun city roughly 90 kilometres north-west of Amman.

After unprecedented pressure from nature-orientated NGOs and activists, the construction was halted. It was one of the first examples of Amman yielding to environmental concerns, but it was only temporary.

In April, a parliamentary committee again gave the go-ahead for the plans after the Jordan Armed Forces (JAF) adjusted their designs so that only 300 trees would be cut down, and promised to plant new trees to replace them.

The compromise wasn't enough for a coalition of five environmental watchdogs that joined forces to stop the construction, or the dozens of protesters who staged intermittent rallies in front of government offices.

Tariq Abutaleb, executive director of the Royal Botanic Garden, an environmental project founded by Jordan's Princess Basma bint Talal, said: "We are not against the project, but forestry land should be off limits.

"The project can be relocated to alternative land in the area that has no vegetation cover."

Less than one per cent of Jordan is covered by forest, according to environmental groups, and most of what remains is concentrated in Bergesh forest.

The area is lush with oak, pistachio and fruit trees. It is home to native plants and animals, including Persian squirrels, red foxes and row deer.

A 2009 ecological survey conducted by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature showed that green cover in Bergesh is 90 per cent. The society described the forest as "an integrated ecosystem and is home to over 100 plant species, 13 per cent of them rare, four per cent locally and internationally threatened and 13 per cent with medicinal value".

Experts claim that Bergesh forest is virtually the last area in Jordan that still has an intact ecosystem.

Mohammad Asfour, a member of the environmental coalition and a board member for the NGO Al Shajarah, which means "tree" in Arabic, said: "As environmentalists, we are not only concerned about chopping trees but also other activities that may harm delicate plants and subsequently impact the ecological balance and biodiversity of the forest.

"Our aim is to ensure that the ecosystem remains healthy and to safeguard endangered trees, some of which are around 500 years old," Mr Asfour said.

The activists claim authorities would be violating various environmental laws if they move ahead with the building plans.

For example, Jordan bans "allocating, selling or trading" forest land to any person or entity for any reason. Laws also prohibit chopping trees and uprooting wild plants without the consent of the minister of agriculture.

The penalties for breaking these laws include a US $140 (Dh514) fine for every tree that is chopped, $750 for each rare or centennial tree cut down, and a three-year prison sentence.

Environmentalist are also outraged that the JAF has yet to submit an environmental impact assessment to the ministry of environment.

The military academy is set to be built on about 1.2 square kilometres, and officials say the area's ground cover and topography makes an ideal training ground for soldiers.

The JAF has maintained that only two per cent of the proposed site is forested. The military will plant 20 saplings for each uprooted tree, according to a statement released this month by the military to ward of the environmental backlash.

Saleh Wreikat, a member of parliament who heads the house water and agriculture Ccmmittee and has been in negotiations with the JAF, remain bullish on the project.

"Everybody wants to see the project materialise," he said.

Ajloun is one of Jordan's poorest cities, with 13 per cent of their estimated 150,000 citizens living on less than 677 dinars (Dh3,500) a year.

Unemployment in Ajloun is 15.3 per cent according the Department of Statistics, among the highest in the kingdom. On a recent visit to Ajloun, residents expressed hope the project would create jobs. Many feel this prospect outweighs the potential environmental cost.

"Ajloun city is clinically dead. It's as if we have a curfew," said Issa Ayoub, 44, the owner of a felafel shop and father of four children.

"We are in need of a project that would revive the city. The economy is very bad. If the trees are chopped, other trees can be planted. But for us if the project is cancelled we cannot have another one."

For now, the environmental coalition and their supporters have intensified their fight, taking it to the internet and social media websites. Observers say public advocacy against a government decision is almost unheard-of in Jordan.

"We have mobilised our campaign on Facebook and Twitter to raise public awareness about the environmental hazards of the government project," Mr Abutaleb said.

"Social media has proved to be a very quick and powerful tool."

A new group calling itself the National Committee to Save Bergesh Forest has managed to attract more than 1,600 members on Facebook. The group has organised four protests in the past two months.

One was held in front of the ministry of agriculture, another in front of the prime minister's office, and two were held in the forest itself, most recently on May 27.

"Scores of Jordanians came to the forest last Friday and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. We are all concerned that it will become a closed military zone," said Firas Smadi, an event organiser.

"Bergesh forest belongs to all Jordanians. It is the last and only forest that is left to us.

"We are willing to go as far as standing in front of bulldozers to prevent anyone from uprooting these trees."

 

SMaayeh@thenational.ae