Covering 292 square kilometers (113 sq. miles) in the Tafileh Governorate of southern Jordan, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is one of the most important nature reserves in the country. Currently, the sanctuary is under consideration by UNESCO for inclusion into the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, as it encompasses four different biogeographic zones: Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo Arabian, and Sudanian Penetration. These unique features allow the preserve to be home to several endangered species such as the Syrian wolf, the Afghan fox, and the sand cat, as well as about 800 varieties of plants and 449 species of animals.
However, a new governmental project involves the expropriation of 106 square kilometers (41 sq. miles or one-third of the reserve) for copper production. According to unpublished studies done by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the Dana Biosphere Reserve contains copper deposits estimated at around 45 million tons. This project could generate an estimated $5 billion in revenue and 3,500 jobs. The operation is entrusted to the Jordanian Integrated Mining and Exploration Company, owned by Al Manaseer Group and the Jordanian military.
Environmental activists and associations have been quick to condemn the project, which they consider disastrous for the protection of biodiversity in Jordan. The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which manages the reserve, “rejected the project and any other projects that require cutting off part of the reserve,” calling it a “black day” for the Kingdom. On Twitter, the hashtags “#انقذوا_ضانا ,محمية_ضانا#” (#Save_Dana and #Dana_Reserve) were widely used in Jordan to denounce this project.
Despite the opposition, 20,000 trees were already cut down and over 2,000 acres were destroyed in the Dana Reserve.
A Unique Ecosystem in the Middle East, Now in Jeopardy
The Dana Biosphere Reserve was officially established in 1989 and has since been an important sanctuary for rare plant and animal species in the region. Time magazine named the Dana Reserve one of the “world’s greatest places” in its third annual list of 100 unique and extraordinary travel destinations.
According to Ehab Eid, an expert in terrestrial and marine biodiversity conservation and former head of research at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the Dana reserve is crucial for the survival of many endangered species. “We are losing more and more species in Jordan, a lot of these animals are on the verge of extinction. The Dana Reserve has allowed us to protect a lot of those species,” Eid told Inside Arabia, adding that the nature sanctuary contains over 40 percent of the known plant species and 50 percent of the country’s birds, representing an ecosystem “unique in Jordan and also in the Middle East.”
The Dana Reserve is listed on the Tentative List for future consideration for World Heritage classification. The site is also of fundamental archaeological importance, as described by Mohamad Najjar, spokesperson for the International Council on Monuments and Sites in Jordan.
In a phone interview with Inside Arabia, Najjar said that “Important historical discoveries have been made in the Dana reserve, with traces of human presence dating back to the Neolithic period.” He asserts that the site is also “intimately related to the history of Early Christianity in the area.” Indeed, the reserve contains no less than 100 archaeological sites.
Najjar also reveals that the preliminary studies in the Dana Reserve carried out by the mining company have already damaged some of the archeological sites during the investigation, showing a total lack of respect for cultural heritage and biodiversity.
Furthermore, Najjar explains how history proves that copper production in the region leads to mass destruction and permanent pollution of soil and water, as “the area has been historically a center for the production of copper and ended up polluted with heavy metals several times.”
He adds that archeologists have identified cycles of copper production in the reserve: “There are 400 to 600 hundred years between these cycles, and heavy pollution was the cause for these breaks in the production.” Starting copper production at an industrial scale would be tantamount to opening Pandora’s box, since it would unleash mass heavy metals such as manganese and lead, which would negatively impact the entire southern half of the country.
Eid predicts that such a venture might entail the definitive pollution of precious groundwater: “Copper production requires mass water pumping. Polluted water from the [pumping] will spread all over the region, causing environmental degradation and groundwater pollution.” This would be detrimental to Jordan, especially considering that the kingdom is the second most water-scarce country in the world.
A Project Marked by Opacity
The Jordanian government claims that the project will generate massive investment and job creation in the region. In a country suffering from an acute financial crisis, the economic argument has convinced many Jordanians of the relevance of such a project.
However, its development was marked by total opacity, particularly from the Ministry of Energy, which affirmed that “it has studies on copper reserves in the region, but refused to make them public,” confirms Eid. Furthermore, many scientists have challenged the government’s claims that copper production could generate billions of dollars, including former economic minister and environmentalist Yusuf Mansour. He asserts that there is an exaggeration in the government’s figures, as the annual return would be around $30 million over 20 years.
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) is the official manager of the reserve recognized by the Ministry of the Environment, yet the project was never submitted to the society prior to its public disclosure. The president of the RSCN, Khalid Irani, stated that the government did not consult with them before making the decision, and had the society’s lawyer block the project, declaring copper mining in the reserve “unfeasible”.
The organization has repeatedly denied the mining company’s access to the site, to prevent it from going ahead on the exploration studies in the northern region of the Dana Reserve. As for the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the RSCN confirmed to Inside Arabia that it has not been consulted by the government on the project.
This development is part of a general lack of interest from Jordanian authorities in the conservation of the country’s biodiversity and heritage. In 2020, two government projects had already sparked controversy: the mass uprooting of trees in the Fifa Reserve for “security purposes,” as well as the removal of 165 trees in the Na’our region to install solar panels. In December 2020, the Amman municipality discovered Roman baths in Amman but covered the site with tarmac, despite objections from the Antiquities Department.
These destructive projects are in total contradiction with the recent discourse of the Jordanian government. The country’s “Vision 2025” aims to place sustainable development at the heart of the country’s “new growth model.” According to Eid, “a new strategy, called Jordan environment 2030, is currently being discussed by the authorities and provides specific targets and goals to conserve and extend the current natural reserves.”
Eid highlights that Jordan has also signed several conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which compels Jordan to protect natural reserves and their biodiversity: “We can use protected areas as tools to conserve ecosystems and fight against climate change through these conventions, which Jordan needs to abide by,” Eid told Inside Arabia.
An Economic Asset for Jordan
During a public discussion, Princess Dana Firas explained that the government’s decision to mine copper in the Dana Biosphere Reserve is “very concerning on many levels.” Addressing the audience, she asked, “Do we want to bring long term, sustainable, viable jobs or [do] we want short-term profit?”
Copper mining in the Dana Biosphere Reserve is an issue of environmental, political, and economic concern, raising the question of the role of the citizen in the development of public policies, but also the need for a new model of production.
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Abdel Rahman-Sultan, president of the Jordan-based EcoPeace Middle East organization, said that such a governmental project underlines how “little respect is shown to the environment and the natural reserves in Jordan,” adding that “in a few years, the government could say that the other half of the reserve contains gold or uranium and completely annihilate it.”
The biggest challenge is to persuade Jordan’s government to recognize the social, cultural, and economic importance of nature reserves to make them untouchable in the future. Indeed, the reserve currently employs 85 Jordanians, indirectly supporting 200 families, and providing almost $3 million annually to the local community.
According to Rahman-Sultan, an alternative to the copper mine for developing the region could be the promotion of eco-tourism, a sector in which Jordan is “an international pioneer.” He explained that “Ecotourism leaves no trace, employs locals, and allows stability, as well as shared values with visitors while protecting our heritage.” In contrast, mining production leads to “a negative impact, such as the mass departure of locals and contamination of soils and water.”
Contrary to the arguments put forward by the government, such a project, therefore, constitutes an economic loss for Jordan, a country that would have everything to gain from protecting its rich natural and archeological heritage.