Oak Forests and Olive Trees: Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods with Jordan Valley Links

A Roman Olive stands guard over the wild oak in the village of Wadi Al Tawaheen, Kufranjeh in Ajloun, Jordan

Now that we have captured your attention we would like to bring you on a road trip through Northern Jordan. The journey starts in Jordan’s capital, Amman, and brings you through the Jordan Valley and into the Ajloun mountains where you discover the connection between Jordan’s wild oak forest, a biscuit house and a precious 500-year-old Roman Olive grove.
Our travels give us the chance to see the work MEDA’s Jordan Valley Links (JVL) project is doing to support 25,000 women and youth to become successful entrepreneurs and drivers of Jordan’s economic growth. MEDA is doing this by creating opportunities for women and youth to improve their entrepreneurial and business acumen through capacity building and market linkages. MEDA is also working with communities, families, and market actors to reduce entry for enterprise development for women and youth.

Anwar El Halah, JVL Environment and Clean Tech Specialist, receives a plant as a gift from Randa Al Sarairah, JOHUDS Al Kafrain Community Development Center Manager

We leave the JVL office and the busy streets of Amman and drive North into the Jordan Valley where we learn about JVLs first area of support: food processing. The Jordan Valley produces almost 40% of Jordan’s crops and this is possible because of a combination of climate that is warmer and soil that is fertile, creating the perfect growing conditions for crops to be grown year-round. In fact, the Jordan Valley has been cultivated for more than 10,000 years and its crops have been exported for around 3,000 years. We make our first stop at JOHUD community development center. JOHUD stands for the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development, the largest and oldest development NGO in Jordan. JOHUD is a JVL partner working to support women and youth in developing their food processing enterprises. Herbs and pickles are processed, packaged and sold in local markets. JVL is working to build market linkages to support entrepreneurs to sell to larger markets in Amman. The city centre is busy with trainings, but the manager takes the time to offer us a cup of tea, a short tour and a plant to take back to Amman.

We continue our journey climbing out of the Jordan Valley and up into the Ajloun highlands where we find the Ajloun Forest Reserve and JVL’s second area of support: community-based tourism. Established in 1987, the Forest Reserve covers an area of 13 km2 and is filled with Evergreen Oak, wild pistachio and strawberry trees. Throughout the years, these trees have been important to local people for their wood and quite often for their medicinal and nutritional value or simply as a food source. These woodlands also support a wide range of plant and animal biodiversity, including herds of wild boar, the golden Jackal, as well as the Red Fox and striped Hyena. A wide variety of wild flowers thrive in Ajloun forest, including the Black Iris, several orchids and wild tulips. In 2000, Ajloun Forest Reserve was announced by BirdLife International and Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), as an important Bird Area in Jordan.

Looking out over the Ajloun Forest Reserve from the terrace of the RSCN tourist lodge

According to RSCN, who manages the Ajloun Forest Reserve, the area faces several threats, particularly from its borders where it continues to be negatively affected by the presence of private lands around it. Presently, this has led to several problems due to the existence of many unofficial access points into the reserve, allowing people to enter the reserve for the illegal purpose of woodcutting, grazing or hunting.

Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, built in 2015 from the very stones mined in the quarry it stands atop

MEDA is working with RSCN to resolve these challenges through community-based tourism creating economic opportunities in the five villages of Orjan, Rasoon, Tiara, Mehna and Um El Yanabi’a surrounding the reserve. This includes engaging these communities to provide alternative job and income opportunities to reduce pressures on the forest and to build popular support for forest protection.

Freshly baked olive biscuits at the Biscuit House

This work is front and centre at the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation, which is a short drive from the forest reserve. It was established in 2015 as the first center in the Arab world “specialized in offering training courses on nature conservation and ecotourism.” We find “Biscuit House” in the heart of the Royal Academy – a bakery very well known for its different variety of delicious homemade biscuits and serving as an example of how food processing can be coupled with community tourism and forest conservation. While visiting the forest reserve, tourists can learn about biscuit making, soap making and calligraphy.

We leave the academy and drive down the narrow roads bordering the northern edge of the forest reserve towards the village of Wadi Al Tawaheen, Kufranjeh. Wadi means valley, and a mix of rock outcrops and olive trees resonates the history of the land. We arrive at a small house and are greeted by Mr. Jameel Dweikat, a farmer and community-based tourism operator. He offers us chairs and tea made of local herbs and spices. He explains to us how he is an olive and vegetable farmer but also hosts tourists in his house offering local food and a village lifestyle experience to his guests. Mr. Dweikat tells us how community-based tourism has taught him to respect and protect the forest reserve.

Scattered across Mr. Dweikat’s property are large olive trees. We ask him about the trees and he tells us that they are Roman olives. Olive trees are among the oldest known trees in Jordan. They go back in history to the Roman times, as is evident through the ancient olive pressers scattered in the different parts of the country. He explains that the trees are around 400-500 years old, but his family has only been there for 200 years, so he isn’t sure exactly how old they are.

The 500-year-old Roman Olive tree in Mr. Dweikat’s yard

Mr. Dweikat disappears into the house and comes back with a sample of local honey for us to taste. He continues to speak as we eat the honey, “the trees are the most precious thing on this property. They are more valuable than the buildings or anything else I own. They were planted by our ancestors and are a part of who we are and they will produce olives for future generations.”

The drive back to Amman gives us the time to process everything that we managed to see in one day. We managed to see women and youth being trained on food processing and business management skills, and an indigenous oak forest supported through community-based tourism. The whole day was spent talking to people trying to derive a livelihood from their environment and trying to protect it at the same time. Despite the challenges, it seems like they are succeeding.

*This blog was written by Dennis Tessier (MEDA Senior Program Manager, Environment and Climate Change) with co-writing assistance from Anwar El Halah (JVL Environment and Clean Technology Specialist) and Alaa Mujahed (JVL Tourism Value Chain Specialist).

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  • Dennis Tessier is the Technical Director, Environment and Climate Change (ECC) at MEDA. In this role Dennis has organization-wide responsibility to build capacity, develop strategic approaches, document best practices, mentor staff and oversee the provision of technical support to all of MEDA’s programming to ensure ECC is championed broadly.