Solutions
06.11.2024

A Protected Place

Faced with overgrazing and desertification, communities in the Middle East are reviving the concept of the hima, an ancient land-management practice that bridges tradition, culture, conservation—and faith.

When I finally reached the crest of the windswept hilltop and took in the rocky terrain around me, my first thought was that it looked dead. This was the Badia, an arid landscape covering 80 percent of the country of Jordan, and I’d driven here, about 35 kilometers northeast of the capital of Amman, to understand what makes it worth preserving. Besides a few irrigated fields of olive trees in the valley far below, the place appeared to be a vast expanse of shriveled grasses rustling in the wind.

I looked closer. It was June, long past the height of the rainy season, and though the ground was dry, it was also carpeted in a bevy of thistles (Onopordum jordanicolum), spiny zillas (Zilla spinosa), and yellowed shellflowers (Molucella laevis), hibernating through the summer heat as they awaited the fall rains. A sand fox (Vulpes rueppellii), blending in with the dun-colored earth, watched me warily before darting behind some rocks. Every few feet sprouted a spindly bush with pale green tufts of needle-thin leaves—al-retam or white broom (Retama raetam), long used by Bedouin nomads to heal burns and fractured bones.

This was the version of the Badia that Emad al-Alimat, a Bedouin shepherd from the nearby village of Douqara, wanted me to see. Ten years ago, he told me, this area was overgrazed; every time young shoots came up, hungry domestic sheep would nibble them back to the root, leaving the land in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Shepherds suffered, too; once the native forage ran out, they had to buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of feed for their animals, a heavy burden in an impoverished area. Older people remembered the medicinal plants they once gathered here—wormwood (Artemisia sieberi), yarrow (Achillea fragrantissima), and mugwort (Artemisia judaica), known in Arabic as shieh, gaisoom, and ibeithran. They hadn’t been able to find them for a long time.

Things were different when I arrived, though, because the area had become part of a hima, or “protected place,” in Arabic. Himas are set aside for rotational grazing or protected from hunting, logging, or other extractive uses. The concept dates back more than 1,400 years, predating the spread of Islam, but is imbued with religious significance for many members of Jordan’s Bedouin community. “Our religion tells us that whoever plants a tree—and an animal, a bird, or a person eats from it, or takes shade in it, or lives in it—then he has good deeds, and his reward is with God,” al-Alimat told me.

Over the past century, as formerly nomadic Bedouin were encouraged to settle and traditional pasturelands became government property, himas disappeared, and Jordan’s Badia deteriorated. With overgrazing and climate change threatening to turn more of this fragile environment into a true desert, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) made a suggestion—why not bring back the concept of the hima to protect the Badia in a way that would also benefit the herders who rely on it?

In 2010, Jordan’s Ministry of Agriculture dedicated 100 hectares of government land in the Zarqa River Basin to test out the proposal. For two years, the entire area was protected from grazing; then, working with local tribes, the IUCN and other NGOs divided the area into four quadrants, one of which was left open for animals to graze as much as they needed. The other three were fenced off, allowing plants to regrow. The next year, another unit was opened for grazing, and the original grazed unit returned to rest. The rotation continued yearly, each unit resting three years for each year it was grazed.

The results astounded both environmentalists and shepherds. After the first two years of protection, plant biomass in the hima nearly tripled; medicinal plants like shieh and retam began to grow back. The area became a place where members of the community enjoyed coming to rest and relax in the cool breeze, hundreds of feet above the stifling summer heat of the valley.

Now, international conservation organizations like the IUCN are hoping to scale up this solution throughout the Middle East. At a time when top-down approaches to conservation draw criticism for not engaging with communities that depend on the land or tapping their expertise, himas are a culturally integrated, localized way to restore degraded habitats while also benefiting the people who need them to survive.

“We ask them about solutions, because we believe that they know better than us,” said Hany El Shaer, director of the IUCN’s Regional Office for West Asia, based in Amman. “Because they are the ones who are living there, and they are dealing with these issues for a long time.”

But efforts to bring back the hima face plenty of challenges, from climate change and water scarcity to poverty, conflict, and population growth that drive people to keep unsustainable numbers of livestock. Is faith—and the environmental ethos it encourages—strong enough to restore a system older than the Qur’an?

The story of the hima begins in the Arabian Peninsula, an extremely arid region that for thousands of years was populated mainly by nomadic herders. According to Othman Abd-ar-Rahman Llewellyn, a scholar of Islamic environmental ethics, a version of the hima existed in pre-Islamic times as a way for local rulers to claim areas of land for their exclusive use. One story goes that a tribal chieftain leading his people into a new area would climb to the top of a hill and make his dog bark; the land as far as the sound reached would be preserved as his hima.

With the advent of Islam, though, the hima was democratized. The religion’s founding prophet, Muhammad, proclaimed that himas could be established only for public welfare. He then designated a protected area around the holy city of Medina, declaring that “its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted.” Later, as tribes began establishing their own himas, they followed guidelines set down by scholars of Islamic law, who stipulated that these areas should not cause “undue hardship” to local people, and should provide more benefits than drawbacks to the society implementing them. 

At the same time, managed grazing and intentional conservation weren’t strictly necessary in many parts of the Middle East because people’s nomadic lifestyles and low population densities naturally kept rangelands healthier, said Walid Saleh, chief technological advisor for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Yemen. (Rangelands are defined as any area unsuitable for agriculture because of scarce rainfall.) Shepherds would lead their herds from winter range in the Arabian Peninsula to summer pastures in Jordan and Syria, Saleh told me, keeping any one area from becoming overgrazed.

This lifestyle began to disappear in the second half of the 20th century with the advent of nation-states and the imposition of borders across the Middle East. After Jordan gained independence from Britain in 1946, the government began requiring Bedouins—the country’s largest Indigenous minority—to graze their animals within the kingdom, instead of moving back and forth to neighboring Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. “That really disrupted the principles of the hima, which talks about the whole area as one ecosystem,” Saleh said.

Still, tribes were able to manage their own pastures through the hima system, keeping people from outside the local community from grazing livestock there. But in 1973, as King Hussein sought to further consolidate his power over the Bedouin, the country nationalized its rangelands, dealing a death blow to the hima system. A few areas were designated as “rangeland reserves” for shepherds who could afford to pay fees to graze livestock there, but most rangelands became free for anyone to access, with no restrictions on use. At the same time, a population boom led to increased demand for meat and dairy, while new economic policies encouraged larger herds. Thanks to these changes, sheep and goats made short work of the country’s remaining rangelands, most of which are located in the Badia. By 1991, the Badia was producing less than 10 percent of the forage it could potentially support, the Food and Agriculture Organization determined. Unsurprisingly, its biodiversity also plummeted.

The Badia historically served as more of a cultural designation than an ecological one, describing any place where Bedouin lived and herded sheep. Today, it’s generally differentiated from the country’s three other regions—the Jordan Rift Valley and Wadi Araba, Highlands, and Plains—by its dryness, receiving less than 200 millimeters of rain per year. It encompasses a range of ecosystems, from a “true desert” that receives less than 35 millimeters of annual rainfall, to a steppe-like environment that harbors three species of endangered lizards, threatened raptors, and almost half of the country’s mammals.

In the Azraq Oasis, in the northern Badia, threatened bird species including the imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) stop over on their annual migration. The surrounding basalt flows, remnants of ancient volcanic eruptions, shelter the basalt desert agama (Pseudotrapelus sinaitus), an endemic lizard. Native plants like the endemic, endangered black iris (Iris nigricans) thrive in the Badia’s harsh environment. It is also home to threatened species of carnivores, including striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena), sand cats (Felis margarita), and the critically endangered caracal (Caracal caracal). But with more and more of their habitat lost to herds of hungry sheep, along with creeping urbanization, at least 10 plant species and seven large mammals—including cheetahs and several species of deer—have become locally extinct in Jordan.

Overgrazing also plays into a toxic feedback loop driven by an increasingly hotter and drier climate. Average temperatures in Jordan have risen by nearly two degrees Celsius since 1950, and annual precipitation has fallen between 5 and 20 percent in most parts of the country. More consecutive dry days and longer heat waves have made it harder for endemic species to survive. Climate models indicate that average temperatures could climb by as much as 4 degrees Celsius over the course of this century, with precipitation decreasing by up to 21 percent. At the same time, lands that have been stripped of their natural vegetation are more vulnerable to erosion from wind and dust storms and retain less water, speeding up desertification. Forty-one percent of Jordan is now considered degraded.

Recognizing the dangers this poses, Jordan’s government pledged to slow and eventually reverse desertification. The country joined the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in 1996, and soon began expanding its system of rangeland reserves by planting native shrubs, which help keep the soil in place, and restricting herd sizes. At first, the country didn’t involve local communities, and enforcing protections proved difficult. Eventually, the government began working with international partners like IUCN, donors like the World Bank, and local nonprofits like the Royal Botanical Garden to test out the hima concept. They started with the initial 100 hectares near Douqara before expanding to 500 in the same area in 2020.

Along with implementing rotational grazing, Jordan has also revegetated these pilot himas with medicinal plants to speed up restoration. They invited local women to harvest and process these plants to sell as teas, generating additional income for the nearby villages. Local leaders such as Musa Al Qalab, the president of the Bani Hashem Hima Society in the town of Zarqa, saw a tangible economic benefit in their communities.

“The hima brought us back to our old customs and traditions,” Al Qalab told the IUCN in a video promoting the concept, “with the belief that it is necessary to protect this land from which all people will benefit.”

To develop its hima system, Jordan has looked to nearby Lebanon, where himas have been part of the conservation landscape for nearly two decades. The protection offered by a hima can take many different forms, depending on the needs of the community; while some succeed through rotational grazing, others restrict hunting, protect water resources, or impose limits on cutting trees or plants. Many of Lebanon’s himas safeguard habitat for rare species of migratory birds while offering income from ecotourism for local communities. That model was pioneered by Assad Serhal, who established the country’s first modern hima through his nonprofit, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, or SPNL.

In 1982, having just received his degree in wildlife ecology management from Oklahoma State University, Serhal pushed for Lebanon to establish a system of national parks similar to what he saw in the United States. Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war and had no environment ministry, but after peace was restored in 1990, Serhal helped set up the Al-Shouf Biosphere Reserve to protect the country’s famous cedar trees. He saw a problem, though, in the lack of participation from communities living in and around the forest.

“You have a dilemma here,” he told me during a Zoom call from his home in Beirut. “How do you work with the people and nature? How do you deal with the stakeholders—the farmers, the shepherds, the fishermen, the hunters?”

He found the answer in a hima. Looking at mid-20th century maps of the country, he saw that each village used to have its own hima, and wondered if the concept could be revived. Seeing the similarities to other traditional conservation systems—from the agdal, a type of traditional forest management in Morocco, to satoyama landscapes in Japan, where agriculture is practiced in harmony with forest conservation—he also wanted to expand the idea beyond a strictly Islamic definition.

The first community he approached was a village called Ebel El-Saqi, made up mainly of Christians and Druze, followers of a minority religion in Lebanon. He hosted a meeting at the local church to build trust and answer questions as well as recruit local people to work as guides or managers. Hundreds of people showed up. Before, residents had used the woods of the hima for hunting and grazing their animals, but Serhal suggested that the forest might be more valuable as an ecotourism site. Today, Ebel El-Saqi boasts a visitor center, hiking trails, and a research area. Each fall and spring, birdwatchers visit, hoping to glimpse migratory birds that stop over between Africa and Europe. Limited grazing in the hima continues, but only as much as is needed to help prevent wildfires by keeping the forest from becoming too overgrown. 

Efforts like these have had tangible impacts on biodiversity. In 2008, SPNL worked with local residents to establish a hima in Anjar, a town in Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley near the border with Syria where a threatened species of finch known as the Syrian serin (Serinus syriacus) lives. Between 2012 and 2016, the bird’s population rose from 30 breeding pairs to 140, a gain that Serhal credits to local support, once people saw that they could earn more income from leading tours within the hima than they did from hunting there.

“Here you are recognizing the fact that they are the owners of the land … and they should have a say in how it should be managed,” Serhal said. “And from the start, that really saves lots of conflicts and misunderstanding. You are removing the fence that used to be put between people and nature.”

This kind of strategy, which involves local communities at all stages of the decision-making process, is called a “participatory approach,” and it’s one that more government agencies and environmental organizations are taking as the drawbacks of traditional conservation become clear. Around the world, land and biodiversity protections have typically been imposed from the top down; the parks and reserves created by this strategy, known as “fortress conservation,” focused on keeping local people out and often blamed them for degrading the land.

Aside from the violence and dispossession associated with it, conservation without input from the people that live closest to the land often just doesn’t work. If a community’s land ownership is not acknowledged, Serhal said, residents start to wonder, “why should I use it in a sustainable way? Why don’t I go and use it now and make all the money in the world? Destroy the forests to sell the wood, or drain the wetland and make agricultural land?”

Incorporating local cultural and spiritual attitudes toward the environment can be a more effective strategy to garner trust and support. Concepts such as the hima remind all Muslims, not just the Bedouin who rely most on the land, of fundamental ecological principles in the Qur’an, said Mark Bryant, the director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology & Environment Sciences/EcoIslam, an environmental nonprofit based in the U.K. The holy text tasked humans with khalifah, or stewardship, of the earth, Bryant said. Although many modern-day Muslims find it difficult to apply this ethos within the capitalist structures that dominate their societies, himas offer a clear way to do so.

Still, Bryant said, organizations promoting himas need to clearly demonstrate the benefits they will have for local people—especially the economic ones. Himas don’t prevent people from making money off of the land, but encourage them to do so in a way that preserves biodiversity, whether that means pivoting to ecotourism, implementing rotational grazing, or reducing hunting in favor of more sustainable activities like beekeeping. Himas can also provide a stable source of income during Lebanon’s current economic crisis, Serhal added, enticing people to move back to their villages from the cities, where work is difficult to find and inflation is rampant.

Other countries in the region are turning to this approach, too. Saudi Arabia, which had an estimated 3,000 himas before nationalizing its public lands in the 1950s, has been working to reinstate them for more than two decades. Its National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development found that by 2003, only a few dozen isolated himas remained in the country. The loss of these conservation systems had “markedly reduced the diversity of habitats,” the Commission wrote. To address the problem, it pledged to prioritize “traditional and local conservation initiatives,” like himas, and identified 75 sites around the country to designate as protected areas, many of which were historically home to himas. One of these, the Aja mountain range, is an important stop along the flyway for the African demoiselle crane (Grus virgo), as well as other migrating birds.

“People are starting to realize,” Serhal said, that “if it worked in Lebanon, it can work for the Middle East. Why not?”

Lebanon now has 31 himas, covering more than 6 percent of the country’s land. But maintaining himas’ momentum elsewhere, particularly in Jordan where the program is less developed, will require addressing myriad challenges. When I visited the hima near Douqara, for instance, the shepherd al-Alimat told me that people from outside the area often don’t respect the protected area’s boundaries, and graze their livestock there despite the hima’s rules. We shared chocolates in the shade of a concrete building on the hilltop, a former community center that al-Alimat said had been destroyed by desperate people, its glass shattered and pipes stripped. The villagers lacked the funding to restore it, he said. El Shaer, of IUCN, also said the hima projects were difficult to sustain once initial funding from the government and international donors ran out.

A major part of the problem, El Shaer explained, is poverty. About 5 percent of Jordan’s population relies on herding to make a living; across the Badia, these mainly Bedouin communities feel pressure to raise more and more animals, pushing the rangelands further past their carrying capacity. The civil war in Syria, which brought more than a million refugees into Jordan, exacerbated the situation. When El Shaer talks to communities about climate change and rangeland management, he says the most frequent response is, “don’t talk to me about conservation when I’m asking about food to live.”

More funding from international donors will be needed to scale up the hima approach, he added, especially to maintain protected areas after the first few years. Other proposed solutions include diversifying the economy to reduce dependence on livestock herding, and teaching students about the consequences of land degradation. Saleh, of the Food and Agriculture Organization, also believes the religious principles shared by the Middle East’s mainly Muslim population can serve as a guiding force to rally environmental action. “The Qur’an says clearly that this earth will give you all the resources to sustain your living,” he said. “If you manage it right, you will live comfortably, but if you don’t manage it, then you will lose everything. And that’s unfortunately what we are doing.”

At the same time, Saleh emphasized that the ideas behind the hima can transcend borders and religions, drawing in Jews, Christians, and many others by appealing to basic principles of environmental stewardship and connection with the land.

For al-Alimat, that connection is more important than the economic benefits of the hima. As we sat on the hilltop, enjoying the cool breeze and the views of the valley below, he named various small plants and shrubs carpeting the rocky ground, pointing out tiny clumps of leaves that I would have otherwise overlooked. His enthusiasm was infectious, and I began to see what he saw: here, the olive-green shoots of Artemisia sieberi, spiky in its dry phase but still fragrant, even from a distance. There, the yellow blossoms of late-blooming Achillea fragrantissima, contrasting with the dusty ground. I saw lizards darting underfoot and hawks circling overhead. In almost every seemingly barren patch of earth, there was life.

Diana Kruzman

Diana Kruzman

Diana Kruzman is a freelance journalist from the United States who writes about climate change, religion, urbanism, and human rights in Central Asia and the Middle East. Her award-winning work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Vice, Grist, Gizmodo and The New Humanitarian.

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