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Executive Director Delivers Keynote in Jordan

Friday, May 11, 2018  
Posted by: Rebecca Shoer
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Bethanie Walder
Executive Director

ESP MENA2018 attendees (Photo by ESP)

In April 2018 I had the honor to participate as a keynote speaker in the Ecosystem Services Partnership’s first Middle East & North Africa (MENA) regional meeting in Dead Sea, Jordan. It was eye opening and incredibly inspiring to learn about both the challenges and opportunities of restoration efforts in Jordan and across the Middle East. Prior to the conference I spent three days visiting restoration sites and partners across Jordan. The field sites we visited all had common themes – restoring degraded grasslands in dry or extremely dry climates; engaging the community proactively in the projects; and identifying and delivering specific ecosystem services. We went to an internationally funded native seed nursery and community development project, a privately funded community restoration project, and to the Royal Botanical Garden of Jordan (RBGJ). Special thanks to the RBGJ, especially founder HRH Princess Basma bint Ali, Executive Director Dr. Tariq Abu Taleb, and Dr. Sabah Saifan for their generosity and hospitality hosting my pre-conference visit! During the conference I had the opportunity to visit a conservation and ecotourism site that is helping protect crop wild relatives (CWR) while also creating economic opportunities for local community members.

Participating in a conference at the edge of the Fertile Crescent and the “cradle of civilization” raised some pretty interesting questions about cumulative human impacts on the environment and restoration – especially about what kinds of restoration might be possible, and how to identify reference areas in such a severely degraded landscape. While there are no simple answers to such questions, they formed the backdrop of my thinking during my field trips and throughout the conference.

The challenges for restoration at the field sites we visited echoed those raised in a recent survey we sent to our members in the MENA region. They included:

  • Limited funding
  • Lack of skills, knowledge, and training
  • Lack of plant materials and nurseries
  • Difficulties implementing restoration in arid ecosystems (e.g. how to succeed without irrigation)
  • Political challenges


Native plant nursery at SEED project.

It was promising to see that the projects we visited are directly addressing many of these challenges. The USAID and US Forest Service funded SEED project we visited near Sabha, Jordan is training local women to collect and propagate native seeds, manage a local nursery, develop effective planting mediums, and manage all aspects of the nursery process. They grew and sold 94,000 seedlings their first year! This project is one of numerous local nursery programs designed to create a supply of native seedlings for restoration and conservation while also generating local economic opportunities by employing and training local people.

At the RBGJ, we learned about the comprehensive vision for the Garden as a scientific, community, and tourist resource, including restoring different areas of the garden to create on-site demonstration areas of each of the native habitats of Jordan. The RBGJ has set up a seed bank and completed an annotated register of all of the native plants of Jordan. They have also created a virtual herbarium where people from throughout the region can learn about native plants. These programs follow international protocols and are critical to preserving CWRs while also helping reintroduce plants that are disappearing from the landscape.

In addition to the technical work at the RBG related to plant and seed conservation, they have been restoring the land within the boundaries of the garden, which had been significantly degraded by overgrazing. After stopping grazing (via fences) for several years to allow the land to rest and recover, the RBGJ began working with local herders to bring managed grazing back on site as a restoration tool. Over the past 10 years they’ve increased the program to serve 52 families (they started with 5); the number of native species and related biodiversity has increase from 422 to 632 species; biomass on site has increased from 40 to 150 tons per year; and the number of days when animals are allowed to graze (and the overall number of animals) has increased as well. While unmanaged grazing caused much of the degradation, well-managed grazing is an imperative part of the solution. 


Dr. Sabah Saifan (left) explains the structure of a native seed and how that structure helps it succeed in nature during a visit to a community restoration project in Irbid province. A local family is funding this restoration project to help improve environmental conditions for the community.

The combination of field trips, thought-provoking conference presentations, and opportunities to engage with conference participants from across the region provided an eye-opening introduction to ecological restoration and ecosystem services issues throughout the MENA region. While restoration in arid lands is difficult, it’s even more difficult when you add in the political instability that plagues so much of the region. Restorationists working in arid lands face profound challenges, but their ingenuity, passion, commitment and effectiveness, combined, are bringing back grasslands, forests, water, and livelihoods. 


You can view slides from Bethanie's presentation here.