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Dana’s Soil Is More Precious than Gold, Not Just Copper

Dana’s Soil Is More Precious than Gold, Not Just Copper

Sunday, 29 August, 2021 - 05:00
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Fear of failure is part of human nature. But what’s surprising is that some people act as if they fear success, or fail to even recognize success. It is even more surprising when it comes to exceptional environmental successes, which deserve to be scaled up rather than down.

A few weeks ago, TIME magazine chose Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan among the 100 greatest world sites worth visiting in 2021. The United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) had included Dana in its Man and Biosphere (MAB) program, which includes the most significant protected areas around the world. Thus, Dana Reserve, which is characterized by a rare natural and biological diversity, gained wide fame and became an important destination for eco-tourism.

Less than a month after placing Dana among the 100 greatest global destinations to visit, the Jordanian government decided to modify the reserve’s boundaries, cutting parts of it for mining operations to extract copper. Even though there is no realistic evidence of the availability of copper in commercial quantities in Dana area, there is no justification to batter such an important site for purely commercial reasons.

This shocking news took us back to 2019, when news of renewable energy in Jordan became the talk of global energy forums – as a brilliant success story. Adequate policies adopted by the government in 2012 led to rapid progress in the renewable energy sector, whose contribution to electricity production reached about 20 percent and was expected to surpass 25 percent in 2020 and up to 50 percent in 2030. The modern policies encouraged foreign and domestic investments to produce electricity from solar and wind energy, and an influx of investments from the private sector, development funds and international financing institutions ensued.

Sun and wind are the only cheap local source of energy in Jordan, which lacks resources of oil, gas and coal. It had earlier been proven that there were no commercial reserves of uranium suitable for enrichment, as advocates of adopting nuclear energy for electricity production were promoting.

Besides domestic consumption, the expansion of renewable energy projects could allow Jordan to export electricity to neighboring countries that lack it, especially Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It should be noted that today, electricity production from the sun and wind is cheaper than any other energy source.

At that time, when Jordan’s renewable energy was on fast track to the top, the government suddenly decided to stop granting new licenses for solar and wind electricity projects. While the acknowledged reason was the inability of the distribution network to absorb the increasing amount of production, the increase in electricity production has continued since then from stations operating on imported gas.

One year earlier, in 2018, the share of electric cars of the total number of new cars sold in Jordan surpassed 50 percent, to become among the highest in the world. That was driven by a wide range of measures, including tax exemptions. The Jordanian success story encouraged other countries in the region to adopt similar measures to expand the share of electric cars, led by the United Arab Emirates, which does not lack oil but concluded that the use of electric cars contributes to reducing air pollution.

At the peak of the electrical cars’ success, Jordan decided in 2018 to cancel most tax exemptions and facilities. While the argument was the government’s need for greater income, others saw that the switch to electric cars, apart from its environmental benefits, leads to the use of the surplus of cheap locally produced electricity from renewable sources, whilst reducing imported oil.

It might be possible to reverse decisions to suspend licenses for new renewable energy projects and cancel tax exemptions on electric cars and eventually control the damage, but this does not apply to the Dana Reserve. Critical natural systems cannot be restored after being annihilated. This means that preserving the nature of Dana requires a quick reversal of the unjust decision to dismember it.

Dana is the largest of nine reserves managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) in Jordan. Nature reserves occupy 4 percent of Jordan’s area, compared to a global ratio of 10 percent. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls for the expansion of protected areas to 30 percent of global land area by 2030. Therefore, expanding the nature reserves is what’s required, not decreasing them. This is what many countries in the world and the region are doing, including Saudi Arabia, which has committed to increasing the area of protected areas from about 10 percent today to 30 percent in 2030.

This reversal of policy comes at a time when Jordan has reached advanced stages in the efficient management of its reserves under the auspices of RSCN, which succeeded in integrating local communities, launching social and economic programs, and developing various forms of activities that attract national and international tourism.

Dana Reserve in particular occupies an area of 300 square kilometers and is characterized by a special nature, extending from the valleys and low desert plains of Wadi Araba, to mountains 1,500 meters above sea level. It is one of the most diverse areas in Jordan in terms of ecosystems, and is unique in plant diversity around the world, as it includes more than 830 plant species, some of which are exclusive to its range. In addition, it is home to a large number of birds and mammals that are globally in danger of extinction. With its richness, it should be considered a national heritage that cannot be tampered with, as it cannot be restored after the damage is done.

A ministerial statement, meant to reassure environmentalists who opposed the plan, promised that any area taken from Dana Reserve will be compensated with an alternative piece of land of the same size somewhere else. This echoes another comment by a senior Arab official 25 years ago, who, when asked to conduct an environmental impact assessment before backfilling the sea for real estate development, replied: “Where is the problem? We backfill here and the water moves a few hundred meters there.” But luckily, we were able to convince him to change his mind, once we explained that living nature has its own ways, and that filling up the sea in a specific spot may lead to the extermination of rare and irreplaceable natural systems.

A property for commercial investment is not what’s at stake here, but rather an irreplaceable and invaluable natural heritage. Mutilating Dana should not be allowed, even if the reward was all the gold of the world, rather than just copper.

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