“Ever since I was a child I used to go to the forest near Ajloun,” says Roqaya Al-Orood, a resident of Jordan’s most wooded region. “We always went to the same picnic spot and we had many happy times.” North-western Ajloun is close to Syria and the West Bank – locals refer to Jordan being surrounded by a “ring of fire” that also encompasses Iraq and Aqaba – but Ajloun’s forests have always been peaceful. “Then, one day in June 2014, I arrived at my favourite spot to find the forest had been annihilated. All the trees had been burned down.” These trees were several centuries old and Roqaya was appalled at the destruction. “It was very, very hard for me.”
Forest fires are a perennial problem in the Ajloun area, but their frequency jumped dramatically in the years following 2006. High energy prices were prompting some locals to circumvent rules forbidding the use of living trees for fuel. Retrieving wood from dead trees is permitted, so it was obvious why, as energy costs spiralled, the number of deliberately started forest fires was also spiking.
“This couldn’t be solved from a security perspective,” says Fadi Huwarat, who as head of the Agriculture Department in Ajloun at the time was tasked with finding a way to stop the trend. Many of the initiatives put in place only sought to clean up the garbage dumped in the devastated areas. Even these did not impress Mr Huwarat’s department. “They were all words and no action,” he adds. But he felt he had one piece of information which he could work with: “We knew the people violating the forests were young, because they were able-bodied.”
Mr Huwarat was still pondering this when the biggest violation of all took place. In late 2013, 27,000 square metres of forest were destroyed in one huge fire. Those working in civil defence were under intense pressure; many of those responsible for violating the forest had learned to deliberately set several fires at once to ensure firefighters could not combat all of them.
It was clear the threat faced by Ajloun’s trees was reaching a new alarming level. “In Ajloun the forest is a symbol for the town and for nature,” Roqaya says. “Every time you plan a family trip, you immediately think of the forest. I love the forest in Ajloun and think about it with pride and love. Everyone who lives here has a deep-rooted relationship with the forest.”
The forest’s biodiversity and its status as a source of oxygen are important in environmental terms, but they matter because of their economic benefit too. Almost 20% of the population benefit directly from tourism, driven by the healthy air and pilgrimage sites attracting both Muslims and Christians. Officials believe if Ajloun’s potential is realised 50% of local residents could benefit. Yet as the woods near the famously scenic road into Ajloun began to be despoiled by blackened wood and widespread fly-tipping, all that seemed in danger.
It was at this point, in September 2014, that a young man who had recently started working at the Princess Basma Youth Resources Centre approached Mr Huwarat with a proposal. Suleiman Al-Qudah – who grew up in a village near Ajloun – was among those selected for participation in a youth leaders’ training programme. The sessions, run by the Jerusalem Centre for Political Studies in 2013/4 and funded by Westminster Foundation for Democracy, aimed to increase citizen participation in the political process. Our goal in funding the training was to equip around 60 young Jordanians with the skills they need to make a real difference. Report-writing, editing, networking, policy drafting, interactive workshops and study visits to assess the Moroccan experience in this field were all included in the sessions.
“If I hadn’t taken the training,” Suleiman told us, “I wouldn’t have had the motivation or the ability to try and start an initiative dealing with the forest fires. I got to learn about my rights and duties. I was given a framework for my thoughts and identity.”
Suleiman wanted to come up with a proposal which could tackle the crisis faced by ‘the lungs of Jordan’. His first draft, says WFD’s Country Representative Ruba Fraihat, was very strong, but it was improved by the additional support she provided in helping him focus on its key stakeholders.
Just 27 years old at the time, Suleiman risked rejection on the grounds of his age. In Jordan, young people are usually expected to defer to their elders and challenging this approach risks encountering outright hostility. “Once when I was speaking at a symposium,” Suleiman remembers, “a tribal leader challenged me, saying; ‘who are you to say you know all the answers?’” The Arabic word for ‘old’ – kabeer – is the same as that used for ‘big’ or ‘important’. Suleiman’s message to young people in Jordan is that “you don’t need to be kabeer to be kabeer”. It was never guaranteed that Suleiman’s proposal, which sought to engage a wide range of stakeholders, would get the green light.
In the event, it was exactly what Mr Huwarat needed. He had recognised that engaging with the young people responsible for many of the forest violations needed a youthful initiative. So ‘Rabaty’ – ‘My Forest’ – received approval in October 2014 and support. “The violations of the forest were giving me a pain in my heart,” Mr Huwarat says. “I chose ‘My Forest’ because the subject was very important; this was about reinvigorating the forests, not just cleaning them. It was innovative. And it engaged all parts of society, including a very important component of the community, women and young girls.”
The 45-day programme, which began in earnest in January 2015, saw the distribution of products, attendance at workshop events and a re-planting initiative. Suleiman’s was a comprehensive effort to reduce the number of forest fires. Both Christian priests and Muslim imams were engaged and spread the need for restraint. The programme saw academic groups highlight the environmental damage caused by the fires: citizen awareness about birds leaving the area, plant extinction and the shrinking forest’s falling oxygen production levels was raised. The programme’s supporters pushed for stronger punishments for forest violators, which led to a change in Article 43 of the region’s forestry by-laws.
“Ajloun represents a model of co-existence between Christians and Muslims,” Mr Huwarat adds. Suleiman, he says, helped strengthen those bonds. He did so in a “tactful way” which engaged the views of elders in the local communities the project was helping.
The programme achieved a tangible result. In the year before the programme, there were about 70 forest fires which were thought to have started deliberately. In the following 12 months, that number fell to about 30.
But there were many social benefits, too. In April 2015, Roqaya obtained permission to appropriate 6,000 square metres of land as an investment with her Loyalty Foundation. School students from all groups of society participated in her work. “The experience of ‘My Forest’ was the most important and effective so far,” she says. “I learned from Suleiman about the effectiveness of carrying out partnerships with local institutions and uniting the community as a whole. We had renovated and rehabilitated a whole new forest, with a new immigration system added for the seedlings too. When you are successful, you want to repeat it in other areas too.”
And that is exactly what Roqaya did. Drawing on the example of ‘My Forest’, she sought to repeat the process with a project cleaning the east bank of the Jordan River. The same principles of environmentalism and economic empowerment apply, she says; young women who have dropped out of school are additionally taught handiwork skills. “I was inspired by Suleiman’s approach of networking, courting strategic partnerships and gaining support of the local community,” she says. “I hope Suleiman can join me in my new experience.”
Suleiman’s focus is expanding beyond Ajloun. He has been involved in the foundation of a new Social Democratic Party which aims to field candidates in upcoming parliamentary elections. He is running a campaign to improve the prospects of people with disabilities, based on his growing experience. And he is working to ensure the achievements of ‘My Forest’ are sustainable by implementing a follow-up plan with the local authorities. Ongoing prevention measures are being carried out in cooperation with a local civil society initiative called ‘Ajloun Neighbours’.
“I could have started the ‘My Forest’ initiative without Westminster Foundation for Democracy,” Suleiman says, “but not with a successful outcome or successful results. I used to be a regular guy, but after I went through the programme my personality was polished. It turned me from being a humble voter into a decision-maker.”
He hopes to persuade other people his age that they, too, can make a difference. “We are a very patriarchal society – but we need civil society organisations to work together to raise awareness that young people, and women, are capable of managing and being decision-makers.”
Roqaya agrees. “Thank you to Westminster Foundation for Democracy,” she says, “for supporting young people like Suleiman and creating a circle of people who are hearing these ideas.” Roqaya believes they help “reinforce the whole community” and says “such values only strengthen one’s loyalty to one’s town.” She adds: “The sustainability of the forests equals the sustainability of the people.”