A path forward to end a conflict in the desert

Today’s guest blog is by Vighnesh Subramanyan, the liason from Sense & Sustainability to ConsilienceThe Journal of Sustainable Development. Vighnesh is a senior at Columbia University, studying Economics and Applied Mathematics. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Consilience, an interdisciplinary, online, student-run journal of sustainable development. He has previously worked at The Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, The Centre for Social Impact, in Sydney, Australia, and Societe Generale Corporate and Investment Bank.

Petra, Jordan, a city of caves carved into the rose-red rockface of the Jordanian desert, is considered one of the most beautiful and striking places in the world.  It is a World Heritage Site, and the main tourist attraction in Jordan.  Yet until 1985 this city was also the home of the Bedoul Bedouin community, who claim cultural and historical ties with the Nabateans, who founded the city in the 6th century BC.  Though the Bedouin are a semi-nomadic people, they appeared to have a particular affinity for Petra.  This was disregarded in 1985 when, following the receipt of World Heritage Site status, the Bedouins were forcibly resettled from the city, and were made to live a sedentary lifestyle, ostensibly as part of a government program to improve service provision to their communities.  This policy has not been of benefit to the Bedouin community. They face declining standards of nutrition, as their traditional food sources are cut off, and they are not able to afford fresh food in the urban economy, due to their economic marginalization. Furthermore, they are forced to earn a living by selling the ‘Bedouin experience’ to tourists who visit Petra, essentially being treated as archeological exhibits.  Indeed, this wrong-headed policy appears to derive mostly from the antipathy of urban mainstream Jordanians to those who appear to detract from the ‘developed’ image that Jordan aims to cultivate.  They are particularly sensitive to this in Petra, the most famous tourist site in the country.  This is a story of an urban mainstream who are forcing the Bedouin to give up their nomadic way of life to suit their own ends.

The challenge is to convince the urban mainstream that the nomadic Bedouin don’t have to be seen as anti-development – as something to be stamped out or hidden. This challenge is taken on by Layan Fuleihan in “Urban Nomads of Petra: An Alternative Interpretation of the Bedoul Bedouin’s Relationship with History and Space”, in Issue 6 of Consilience: The Journal of Sustainable Development. She aims to discuss the relationship of the Bedouin to Petra, to demonstrate their connection to the city, and explain how they may both maintain their traditional lifestyle and integrate into the global economy. She does so by considering Petra as a ‘global city’, a node in an international network, a nexus of regional and international flows of goods and people. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that Petra was a centre of mobile pastoralism, and sustained international flows of people, which enriched it as an urban centre.  The flow of nomadic tribes and their goods through the city were essential to the city’s flowering. Thus development and nomadism need not be two mutually exclusive states, and the Bedouin of Petra may be considered as ‘urban nomads’, wanderers with a special connection to the city, who ultimately enrich the city and the wider country. Thus, removing the Bedouin from Petra is not only a violation of their connection to their ancestral land, but is not necessarily a policy in line with development goals, and must be reversed.

This theory may be more widely applied, with great impact. Across Jordan (but not necessarily in Petra) Bedouin are forcefully resettled as they are seen as contributing to desertification. Yet, mobile agriculture is very viable in a dryland climate such as Jordan’s.  Instead of using the Bedouin as scapegoats, the government can reduce desertification through revitalizing the Bedouin’s traditional lifestyle, facilitating grazing rotation and revegetation. Indeed, grazing is beneficial for the local environment, and the Bedouin’s agricultural practices have proved sustainable for thousands of years. Ultimately, Fuleihan argues, a change in the current repressive policies in Jordan, will lead to a more inclusive development, that will benefit both the Bedouin and the mainstream population, economically, environmentally and culturally.