Dana, Jordan -At dawn, blue and pink rays of light began to shoot from the ridge of Dana. The song of birds and the rustling of leaves are the only sounds in the valley.
Covering an area of 300 square kilometers (116 square miles), the Dana Biosphere Reserve, from towering sandstone cliffs to desert plains, is Jordan’s largest and most diverse protected area, but its days of tranquility and natural beauty may be numbered.
The Jordanian government claimed that Dana has an estimated 45 million tons of copper and said it would mine in the area.
The prospect of seeing his beloved hills blown up to extract copper and the valley turned into a pile of waste rock frightened Abdulrahman Ammarin.
“Excavation will destroy the area we have been protecting for many years,” he told Al Jazeera.
For the past 20 years, he has been working as a forest ranger for the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), an NGO that manages protected areas in Jordan. But his Bedouin tribe has guarded this rugged land for centuries.
Ammarin, who lives near the reserve, is not only worried that mining may cause irreversible damage to his area, but also worried about the impact it may have on his family and community. “Pollution affects all of us,” he said.
Jibril Ammarin points to the nearby desert acacia, who is also a forest ranger in the area, and begins to list the various trees and vegetation that can be found in the reserve. “We have juniper, oak and pistachio trees, and date palms,” he said.
Established in 1989, the reserve has more than 800 different types of plants and 215 species of birds, accounting for about one-third of Jordan’s plant species and half of all bird species. Some are considered threatened, and some of them can only be found in Dana.
Rangers say that mining projects will destroy land, drive away animals, and may pollute water and soil.
In August, the government instructed the Ministry of Environment to set aside a portion of the reserve for copper exploration and mining, and set up a committee to find new land to replace the area to be mined.
The exact area expropriated is said to be between 60 and 106 square kilometers. Negotiations are still ongoing, but the plan has sparked outrage and has been severely criticized by environmentalists and activists.
RSCN condemned the government’s decision, refused to make any changes to the boundaries of the protected area, and stated that it would take all legal measures to protect it.
“This is a very diverse area, with four different biogeographic regions, and it also has important archaeological sites. Its biodiversity and heritage need to be protected,” said Jordan Birdwatch, professor of animal biology and an NGO. Co-founder Fares Khoury said.
He told Al Jazeera that several threatened birds, such as Syrian serine and black falcon, depend on protected areas to survive. “The area is very sensitive. If [mining] If the project continues, it will only leave damage. “
Muna Hindiyeh, professor of environmental engineering and water resource management expert, said that mining requires a lot of water resources and poses a serious threat to the extremely scarce water resources in the region.
“Heavy metals are likely to enter groundwater and contaminate it,” she said. According to Hindiyeh, mining will also increase soil erosion and lead to biodiversity loss, so she said the negative impact of the project needs to be carefully assessed.
But so far, no environmental impact studies have been published.
“We need to conduct a comprehensive study of the exact cost of copper mining and its environmental impact in the area,” RSCN Chairman Khalid Ilani told Al Jazeera.
Environmentalists say that the figures provided by the government are only estimates and no serious independent research has been conducted. “There is no transparency in this process,” Khoury said.
The Ministry of Environment, Energy and Mineral Resources of Jordan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for an interview.
In addition to worrying about the irreparable environmental damage caused by mining, many people also worry about how it will affect archaeological sites in the area from the Paleolithic to the Roman and Islamic periods.
The protected area is being considered for inclusion in UNESCO’s World Heritage status, and experts worry that this status will be threatened by mining projects. The Jordanian International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) stated that “the decision to open protected areas for invasive and destructive mining investments was short-sighted, unwise, and set a dangerous precedent”.
Worried Jordanians also launched an online petition, and social media is flooded with #Save_Dana hashtags.
Economic development and sustainability
Despite the public outcry, the government defended the mining project, saying that the project will create 1,000 jobs and bring investment to the region, especially as the demand for copper is growing exponentially.
In 2016, the government granted the Jordan Integrated Mining and Exploration Company a license to mine copper in reserves. The company is owned by the Manaseer Group, which invests in the oil, gas and mining industries, and the Jordanian military.
According to Manaseer, the mining project will “support the national economy” and create jobs in countries where the unemployment rate has reached a staggering 25%. The southern province of Tafila, where Dana is located, has been severely hit by poverty and unemployment.
At a government-organized press conference for some protected areas, Manaseer spokesperson Samer Makharmeh said that the mine will not affect the environment.
“What environment? No animals, no trees, nothing here,” he said, pointing to the rocky part of the reserve, where there are also archaeological sites.
“Sadly, they [Manaseer officials] You can’t see it,” said Mohamed Asfor, an environmental activist and green economy expert. “They can’t see the beauty or wild animals. They only see short-term profits. “
The mine will be open for approximately 20 years, but will leave a scarred landscape that may take centuries to recover.
“It is more important to focus on sustainable solutions, rather than large projects that benefit only a few people,” Asfour said. Since most of the mining jobs provided are low-paying and short-lived, Asfour believes that tourism will be a better investment, and the economic benefits of mining will be offset by its negative impact.
Known as a model of sustainable development and conservation, and receiving international ecotourism awards — including Time magazine’s selection of the world’s 100 greatest places — Dana attracted 80,000 visitors the year before the pandemic.
The reserve is staffed and managed by personnel from the area. According to RSCN, it provides local communities with approximately US$3 million in funding each year and employs 85 local employees in different sustainable tourism projects across Dana.
Ghazia al-Khasaba is one of a dozen women employed by RSCN to produce jams, herbal infusions, candles and handmade crafts in Dana.
“I have worked here for 24 years to support my husband and daughter who are sick,” she said, adding that her work in the reserve is the only source of income for her family.
“If the mining project continues, it will affect the tourism industry here and therefore my source of income,” she added.
However, outside the reserve and the main tourist attractions in the area, residents have different opinions on the copper mine. Although many people say that the risk of environmental damage is too great, others welcome the job opportunities offered by the mining industry.
Musa al-Saedeen, from the nearby town of al-Qraiqreh and working in the public sector, acknowledged the value of the protected area and the benefits it brings to the local community, but said that job opportunities in the area are still limited.
“For those who have not benefited from the tourism industry, it is their right to demand jobs and better opportunities,” he said.
But for al-Khasaba, it is not just her work that is at stake. Her house and farmland are close to the planned mining area, and she is worried about noise, dust and pollution. In addition, she is also worried about the next generation.
“[The mine] It will affect our future and the future of our children,” she said.