“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.”
An enduring problem
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.
Inspiring change: youth leaders’ training programme
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, 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 told us.
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.”