Dana, Jordan – At dawn, blue and pink rays begin to break over Dana’s mountain ridges. The chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves are the only sounds in the valley.
Spanning 300 square kilometers (116 square miles) from towering sandstone cliffs to desert plains, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest and most diverse sanctuary, but its days of tranquility and natural beauty may be numbered.
The Jordanian government claims that there is an estimated 45 million tons of copper in Dana and says it will mine in the area.
The prospect of seeing his beloved mounds blown up to extract copper and the valleys turned into a mound of debris fills Abdulrahman Ammarin with dread.
“The excavations will ruin the area we have protected for so many years,” he told Al Jazeera.
For the past 20 years he has worked as a ranger with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a non-governmental organization that manages Jordan’s reserves. But its Bedouin tribe has guarded this rugged landscape for centuries.
Ammarin, who lives near the reserve, is concerned not only about the irreversible damage mining could do to his area, but also about the impact it could have on his family and community. “Pollution will affect us all,” he says.
Jibril Ammarin, also a ranger from the region, points to a nearby desert acacia and begins by listing the different tree species and vegetation that can be found in the reserve. “We have junipers, oak and pistachio trees, date palms,” he says.
The reserve, founded in 1989, is home to more than 800 different plant species and 215 bird species, which make up about a third of the Jordanian plant species and half of all bird species. Some are considered threatened and some of them can only be found in Dana.
The rangers say a mining project will destroy the land, displace animals, and contaminate the water and soil.
In August, the government commissioned the Ministry of the Environment to cut off part of the reserve to allow copper prospecting and extraction – and to set up a committee to search for new land to replace the areas being mined.
The exact area of expropriation, which is said to be between 60 and 106 square kilometers, is still being negotiated, but the plan has sparked outrage and has been heavily criticized by conservationists and environmental activists.
RSCN condemned the government’s decision, opposed any change to the reserve’s borders, and said it would take all legal steps to protect it.
“It’s a very diverse area with four different biogeographic zones and there are also important archaeological sites. Its biodiversity and heritage must be protected, ”says Fares Khoury, professor of animal biology and co-founder of the NGO Jordan Birdwatch.
He told Al Jazeera that several threatened birds, such as the Syrian serine and the sooty hawk, depend on the reserve to survive. “The area is very sensitive. If the [mining] The project is moving forward, it will only leave destruction. “
Muna Hindiyeh, professor of environmental engineering and an expert in water management, says mining is a water-intensive affair and poses a serious threat to the region’s extremely scarce water resources.
“There is a great chance heavy metals will get into the groundwater and pollute it,” she says. According to Hindiyeh, mining would also increase soil erosion and lead to a loss of biodiversity. Therefore, the negative impact of the project would have to be carefully assessed.
However, no environmental impact studies have been published to date.
“We need full studies of the exact cost of copper extraction and the environmental impact it would have on the region,” RSCN chairman Khaled al-Irani told Al Jazeera.
Conservationists say the government figures are estimates and no serious independent studies have been conducted. “The process is not transparent,” says Khoury.
Jordan’s Ministries of Environment, Energy and Natural Resources did not respond to Al Jazeera’s interview requests.
Aside from concerns that mining will cause irreparable environmental damage, many are also concerned about how it could affect the area’s archaeological sites, which range from the Paleolithic to Roman and Islamic times.
The reserve is being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status, a position experts fear will be threatened by the mining project. Jordan’s International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) said the decision to open the reserve to intrusive and destructive mining investments was short-sighted, ill-advised and set a dangerous precedent.
Concerned Jordanians have also started online petitions and flooded social media with the hashtag #Save_Dana.
Economic development vs. sustainability
Despite the public outcry, the government has defended the mining project, arguing that it would create 1,000 jobs and attract investment to the region, especially as the demand for copper is growing exponentially.
In 2016, the government granted the Jordanian Integrated Mining and Exploration Company a license to mine copper in the reserve. The company is owned by Manaseer, a group with investments in oil, gas and mining, as well as the Jordanian military.
According to Manaseer, the mining project would “support the economy” and create jobs in a country where the unemployment rate has reached an alarming 25 percent. Tafila, the southern governorate where Dana is located, is particularly hard hit by poverty and unemployment.
During a government-organized press tour of parts of the reserve, Manaseer spokesman Samer Makharmeh said the mine would not harm the environment.
“What environment? There are no animals, no trees, nothing at all, ”he said, pointing to a rocky part of the reserve that also contains archaeological ruins.
“The sad thing is that she [Manaseer officials] can’t see, ”says Mohammad Asfour, environmentalist and expert on green economy. “You can’t see the beauty, you can’t see the wildlife. They see nothing but short-term gain. “
The mine would be open for about 20 years but would leave a scarred landscape that could take centuries to recover.
“It is more important to focus on sustainable solutions, not on mega-projects that only a few benefit from,” says Asfour. Since most mining jobs on offer would be poorly paid and short-lived, Asfour argues that tourism would be a better investment and the economic benefits of mining would be outweighed by its negative effects.
Hailed as an example of sustainable development and conservation, and internationally recognized with ecotourism awards – including being included in Time Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Places in the World – Dana drew 80,000 visitors a year before the pandemic.
The reserve is occupied and managed by people from the region. It provides approximately $ 3 million annually to the local community, according to RSCN, and employs 85 local staff on various sustainable tourism projects across Dana.
Ghazia al-Khasaba is one of more than a dozen women employed at RSCN in Dana’s production of jams, herbal teas, candles and handcrafted crafts.
“I’ve been working here for 24 years to support my sick husband and daughter,” she says, adding that her work on the reservation is her family’s only source of income.
“If the mining project goes ahead, it will affect tourism here, so it will affect my source of income,” she adds.
Outside of the reserve and the region’s main tourist attractions, however, residents are divided over the copper mine. While many say the environmental damage is too great a risk, others welcome the job opportunities the mining industry could offer them.
Musa al-Saedeen, who is from the nearby town of al-Qraiqreh and works in the public sector, recognizes the value of the reserve and the benefits it has brought to local communities, but says job opportunities in the area remain before are limited.
“The people who do not benefit from tourism have the right to demand jobs and better opportunities,” he says.
But for al-Khasaba, what’s at stake is beyond her job. Her home and farm land are so close to the proposed mining site that she is worried about the noise, dust and pollution. And what’s more, she worries about the next generations.
“[The mine] will affect our future and the future of our children, ”she says.