Goodbye Nature
Urban Crossroads #56

  Building activity in the hills of the Ajlun area. (Mohammad al-Asad)

  Building activity in the hills of the Ajlun area. (Mohammad al-Asad)

I recently drove up north to the Jerash and Ajlun areas. It had just been raining. The dust that accumulates during the summer months had been washed away, and the landscape had a very fresh and clean feel to it. The winding roads that pass through the region provide pleasant and often striking vistas of its mountains and valleys, revealing wooded expanses and agricultural fields, with town interspersed in between.

In spite of this elating scenery, one could not but also feel a sense of concern and distress. The reason behind this is urban sprawl. The often unregulated, insensitive, and chaotic growth of Jordan's cities and towns is gradually, but surely, destroying the country's few precious green areas. Every year, wooded and agricultural areas are being razed to make way for buildings (usually shoddily built ones) that are scarring the landscape, and in many cases completely taking it over.

Cities and towns do grow. In a country with a high rate of population growth such as Jordan, the expansion of constructed areas seems bound to continue to accommodate population increases, at least until the country's population stabilizes. However, there are good ways and not-so-good ways of allowing this expansion to take place. Jordan has a very limited supply of wooded and cultivated areas. Statistics indicate that they occupy less than 5% of the country's overall area (with forests making up less than 1% of the country's area). It therefore is only logical that serious efforts be made to protect those zones. Unfortunately, most population pressures continue to concentrate on them, and they are being sacrificed regularly to feed the insatiable demand for parceled pieces of land on which construction is allowed.

What are the reasons behind this disturbing development? Part of it is the accumulated effect of poor planning policies. Indications that Jordan would be experiencing very rapid population growth as a result of both high birth rates and migration have been very clear for over a half a century. Effective policies should have been put in place since then to regulate the sprawl resulting from urban growth. Green belts that would be dedicated to agricultural activities or developed as wooded areas should have been planned between urban settlements. Moreover, construction activity should have been directed towards the more arid parts of the country, such as areas to the east of Amman (traditionally known as those "east of the railway tracks"). A very important manifestation of this policy is to prohibit any fragmentation of large tracks of land. Minimum plot areas (preferably one hectare) consequently should be heavily guarded in wooded and agricultural zones.

One important reason why this has not been realized is that too many people are pushing for increasingly lax regulations that allow for the fragmentation of land into small parcels. The intentions behind such widespread pressure unfortunately boil down to financial greed. Once the parcelization of a tract of land into small lots is allowed, its value shoots up and owners are able to sell it for a price that greatly exceeds its pre-parcelization price. I got a clear and direct feel for this attitude towards the land a few years ago, when I was driving in an area of considerable natural beauty located not too far from Amman, accompanied by one of its residents. This gentleman pointed to an attractive hillside covered with oak trees and mentioned that he owned it. He then proceeded to say that he would not sell it no matter how high a price may be offered for it. Before I could come to admire what seemed a noble attachment to the land, he went on to say that he was waiting until regulations would allow him to parcel out the land into tracts of 500 square meters instead of the 4000 square-meter minimum requirement that existed then. He added that once such parcelization is allowed, the price of the land would skyrocket, allowing him to make a tremendous profit on it!

Most appeals for protecting Jordan's green areas are ignored, and are viewed as the pleas of romantics who are over-concerned with the luxury of natural beauty, but have no realistic understanding of the forces of the marketplace. Aesthetics in fact are important, and having access to natural beauty is a basic right that all human beings should be able to enjoy. Maintaining environmental sustainability is another reason why these areas should be protected. Green cover goes a long way towards helping achieving goals such as the moderation of climate, keeping dust in check, and minimizing water loss through evaporation. There also are economic reasons why Jordan's green areas should be preserved. Tourism is one of the major sectors of Jordan's economy, and the country's diverse natural beauty is an important component of its attraction to tourists. If urban sprawl and development are allowed to continue destroying the country's natural beauty, we will end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Green areas in Jordan simply have to be protected in spite of the strong private interests that fiercely resist such protection.

The diversity of natural landscapes in a country as small as Jordan is remarkable. Jordan has the semi-deserts (or badiya) of the east, the forested hills of Ajlun, the low areas of the Dead Sea, the rocky mountains of Dana, the lunar-scapes of Wadi Rum, and the polychromatic terrains of Wadi 'Araba, all located within a few hours' drive from each other. Many of these zones unfortunately are being seriously threatened by sprawl. Much of this sprawl could have been averted, and it still can be stopped. However, it doesn't seem that any slowing down is about to take place in the near future. As a number of articles in the Jordanian press recently have pointed out, an amendment to Jordan's Law of Agriculture has been proposed to allow the selling of government-owned forests to private investors who wish to set up tourist resorts. If such an amendment is allowed to go through and if the present rate of urban sprawl in the country continues, the protection of Jordan's green areas soon will become a moot issue since the country will not have many green areas left to protect.

The Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash once commented - half-sarcastically - that if this present rate of destruction of green areas in Jordan continues, the day very well may come when those who wish to enjoy greenery in the country will only be able to do so if they own their private protected forests! There is a serious chance that this gloomy prophecy may be realized. Those who care about Jordan's natural diversity need to come together to make sure it does not.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 26, 2006