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Landscape Conversion and its Impacts on Biodiversity Conservation in the Middle East

In July 2019, seven Columbia University graduate students traveled to Jordan and Israel to conduct fieldwork and explore the complex issues surrounding cooperation on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. The course is a collaboration between Columbia University and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. This is one in a series of posts about the trip.

By Anna Shulman

Separation wall. Photo: Anna Shulman

As human population increases exponentially, more and more land is allocated for the needs of this burgeoning number of Earthlings for purposes of dwelling and food production. As cities grow larger and suburban sprawl engulfs small towns turning everything into enormous homogeneous megalopolises, more lands undergo a change in their purpose. This process, known as landscape conversion, encroaches upon territories that belong to other inhabitants of our planet — the flora and the fauna. Humans impact their natural environment and ecosystem services, which make life possible on Earth, by altering the natural landscape and purpose of a given plot of land.

The Anthropocene epoch, the geological time during which the human race emerged, has been characterized by unprecedented land cover conversion practices. Land cover conversion is a process of changing any piece of land from one type of use to another. Cutting down a forest to build a town, planting trees and farms in the desert, diverting rivers, digging canals, and erecting fences are all types of landscape conversion processes.

The Middle East, as one of the longest inhabited regions in the world, is also one of the most densely populated areas, and it has been undergoing continuous land cover conversion and subsequent biodiversity loss for hundreds of years. However, due to increased population in recent decades, this conversion process is particularly fast-paced and this could have far-reaching economic, political, and social impacts.

Landscape conversion could potentially undermine peace processes in the Middle East. Having a larger population vying for limited natural resources such as water and arable land could make the allocation of these resources very complex, forcing more people to go without and face poverty.

The main causes of land cover conversion are urbanization and suburban sprawl, overgrazing, and, of course, climate change. In the Middle East, another contributing factor is the issue of water scarcity and ongoing religious, political, and military conflicts.

Photo: Anna Shulman

The area that encompasses Jordan, Israel, and Palestinian Territories is characterized by deserts and hot climate, and aside from the fertile river valleys is quite devoid of productive lands. The areas that are fertile, such as the Jordan River Valley, have the highest concentration of population and agricultural lands. River valleys, such as the one that Jordan river flows through, have been the breadbaskets since the ancient times, first for the vast Roman Empire, which was later replaced by the Ottoman empire, and later still came under the auspices of the British Empire. Since the discovery of oil in the region in 1908, it became even more politically contested among the local and international players.

The Middle East, particularly the area of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan to a lesser extent, is a hotbed of nearly continuous political and military tension since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. This political instability further exacerbates biodiversity loss and land cover conversion. Conflict contributes to land cover conversion in a number of ways. First, a military conflict involving physical combat requires installation of infrastructure such as military bases, mine fields, security fences and border structures. Second, tragedy of the commons forces each conflicting party to tap into existing resources before the opposing side does the same. Lastly, building settlements further accelerates land cover conversion leading to ecosystem shrinkage and resulting in loss of biodiversity.

Landscape conversion is related to fluctuations in biodiversity, since conversion of landscapes from one use to another completely changes its structure and inhabitants. Why is biodiversity so important? Biodiversity, defined as the variability of life on Earth, is vital to the ecosystem productivity. In other words, biodiversity helps the ecosystem to continuously produce food, water, shelter, medicine and future resources; absorb pollution; contribute to climate stability; ensure diversity in genes, species, ecosystems; and provide social benefits such as recreation, tourism, tribal homesteads. All of these functions help humans live on this planet.

A strained ecosystem may reach a state where it deteriorates to the point of irreversible damage and eventually breaks down completely. In order to safeguard the species and our own successful existence on the planet, it is important to conserve land — the more, the better. According to noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, the most effective conservation method would entail setting aside at least 50 percent of the terrestrial Earth for conservation parks and only this would ensure 85 percent survival rate of the species. While this, perhaps, is an unattainable goal under the current political regimes in the world and, more specifically, in the region, with the Arab-Israeli conflict as the backdrop, strides in conservation efforts are nonetheless being taken and this provides a glimmer of hope.

Conservation initiatives in the region can only be successful when they transcend boundaries, much the same way nature itself transcends boundaries. Bilateral and trilateral actions are not only more effective, they also act as foundational steps for the peace process that is long overdue in the region. Historically, the region was divided quite arbitrarily under the Sykes-Picot Agreement into the British and French spheres of influence, and no consideration was given to the traditional boundaries. This border creation separated families, dissected villages, and created resentment for the inhabitants who were confined in different countries after the division. However, currently a number of successful initiatives are working across borders in agriculture, environmental conservation, education, and even sports, all helping to bridge the road to peace.

Photo: Anna Shulman 2019

Amman Center for Peace and Development is one such organization that helps promote cross border projects. Currently, they are working with Jordanian and Israeli farmers to use barn owls and kestrels as natural pest control. This was an interesting project particularly because it was important to overcome superstitions about owls in Muslim culture. The project has become very successful and it helped eliminate chemical pest controls which had positive effects on the surrounding flora. There is now a similar project which involves bats to help combat flies. EcoPeace Middle East, another tripartite nonprofit organization, founded the Sharhabil bin Hassneh EcoPark in Jordan in order to establish a model for preserving ecologically important biodiversity habitats in the Jordan Valley. The EcoPark is designed to educate communities and all those who reside in the Jordan Valley to bring them together in such a way that natural environment and cultural heritage of the area are respected and preserved.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel works to increase the number of urban parks and they are on mission to prevent marinas from being built along the Mediterranean Sea. The Israel Defense for Nature uses a trilateral approach to biodiversity conservation through education and establishment of eco-community centers “to raise awareness among children and youth about sustainable living, and environmental protection.” Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael / Jewish National Fund, an organization that focused on land acquisition in the Palestine Territories in the 1940s, and then moved onto planting trees, including in the northern Negev desert. The organization has achieved great success in tree planting but its efforts in converting the natural desert ecosystem into a blooming garden were just another type of land cover conversion. The trees in the desert require water, much like trees anywhere else, but unlike like anywhere else — water is hard to come by in the desert. Thus, other changes in the landscape had to be undertaken, including diverting water from the Jordan River and its tributaries, tapping into aquifers, and building desalination plants on the coast of Mediterranean.

Village of Battir. Photo: Anna Shulman

The Palestinian village of Battir near Bethlehem makes its own strides towards conservation. Thanks to its efforts to preserve a millennia-old Roman-era terraced agriculture system, the citizens of the village have been able to avoid further landscape conversion. The site almost became divided by the border fence because it is a trans-boundary area, but after much deliberation and many court cases, the site remained intact and has been under the protection of UNESCO since 2014.

All these efforts show that human resiliency, curiosity, and ingenuity can truly transcend borders, both physical and cultural. The non-governmental organizations and regular people inhabiting the region can find ways to live and work together but governments, with their political agendas and anti-normalization rhetoric, have the ability to spoil the pot. Local-level conservation seems to be the most effective and efficient option for environmental management. Biodiversity conservation in the face of land cover conversion processes does not have to be a zero-sum game — everyone residing in the region can derive their own benefits from conservation efforts. Continued conservation initiatives involving cross border cooperation, education (starting on the elementary school level and continued throughout middle and high school), plus sustainable urban planning can all help everyone coexist in the Middle East.

Anna Shulman is a graduate with a master’s degree in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. Anna participated in the ‘Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East’ course in Jordan and Israel in July 2019. The course is a collaborative effort of Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of Professional Studies, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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