Small country, big mistake?

Eco mayhem. A while ago we had Tanzania proposing to build a major highway straight through the Serengeti. That idea was quashed. Then we had Egypt proposing to build a hotel in a pristine wilderness. That might still happen.

Now, up steps Jordan – a poor country with few natural resources and a faltering economy. 85% of it is arid. Its once-thick forests were nearly all chopped down a hundred years ago to build the Hejaz Railway – which is now, itself, defunct. Today only 1% of Jordan’s land remains forested, mostly in the north around the highland market town of Ajloun (pictured here).

Ajloun is one of Jordan’s poorest regions, and has been the focus of rural development efforts for a decade. There are signs of success. A nature reserve, established on a remote hilltop, has proved popular, and has sparked the growth of village handicraft projects and community-led rural tourism. Nearby, campaigns by the environmental lobby managed to alter plans for a sprawling hotel complex in the midst of the forest.

Now, the government has announced plans to uproot hundreds of trees across a 300-acre site in the middle of Bergesh Forest in order to build a military academy. This represents a climb-down after the outcry at their initial plans to uproot thousands.

But the policy nonetheless appears to be illegal – and the nature lobby (no hippies: these are respected scientists and sober policy-makers with the ear of ministers) have consequently withdrawn their participation in an environmental assessment, which seems set to be a whitewash before it begins.

What’s going on? With vast expanses of empty land on which to build, why is Jordan so keen to fell its tiny acreage of surviving trees? Without wishing to be simplistic – and presuming, of course, that there is no element of corruption involved – could it be because the directors of planning are city people, who feel a bit lost when confronted by blank space on a map?

Jordan has a history of this. In 1985, when a new highway was being built east out of Amman, the planners were faced by virtually limitless open desert. Yet they plotted a dot-to-dot route which linked two ancient sites – just about the only two ancient sites out there. Why? Presumably because, well, there was nothing else on the map. And maybe because they were following ancient pre-existing tracks between desert wells. But lorries don’t need to stop for water every 50km.

The result is that these two magnificent 8th-century ‘desert castles’ – Qasr Harraneh and Qasr Amra, the latter a UNESCO World Heritage Site – now have a major highway rumbling directly past their walls, along with lines of pylons and other service infrastructure, effectively eliminating any sense of history or traditional heritage. Calls to rebuild the highway a mile or two away, with feeder roads to the ancient sites, have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Now we have the same kind of thinking again. If you’re Russia, Germany, Nicaragua or Thailand, perhaps chopping down a small forest to build a military base could be justified. If you’re Jordan, and you’re proposing to chop down virtually the only forest you’ve got left in the entire country simply because, well, there it is, it makes no sense whatsoever. Not economically, not militarily, not socially, and certainly not environmentally.

Who is advising the government – that is, His Majesty the King – to go ahead with this?

Is Jordan’s terrible blight – short-term expedience causing long-term degradation – about to recur at Bergesh?