Jabal "Herzog"

by David Warburton

Yemen Update 30/31(1992):29,37

The lush green vegetation spilled out of the deep gorge below us, completely covering the lower slopes of the wadi, slowly giving way to tones of brown, grey and black, and vanishing completely as the slopes gave way to steep granite cliffs. Listening carefully, one could discern the chattering of baboons and bird calls. Sadly, Martin waved his hand in the other direction where the forest likewise diminished, but due to the deliberate encroachments of man rather than the irrevocable dictates of topography. Here, to the east, women were gathering wood and cows grazed on mini-terraces, far beneath the inhospitable mountains at the end of the wadi. But as one's eyes became accustomed to the sight, one could distinguish herds of goats led by young herdsmen, even in the thickest parts of the wood.

The slowly diminishing 300 ha of forest on Jabal Bura' in the Wadi Rijaf is the last trace of the tropical forests which once covered the slopes of the mountains stretching down to the Tihama, before they surrendered to the geometric terracing which impresses every visitor today.

Ursula Dreibholz and I were enjoying ourselves immensely, as we leapt across mountain streams and slept beneath the stars in villages where there was no electricity, but our pleasure was slightly reduced by the consciousness that we might be among the last to enjoy the sights. Martin Herzog, a Swiss forestry expert with the FAO in Sanaa, has developed a fatalistic attitude to the elimination of this forest which has been one of his central concerns since arriving in Yemen several years ago, an attitude influenced by some of the local population's lack of appreciation. Unfortunately a growing number regard the forest as a resource which can be exploited until Yemen's oil wealth eliminates their dependence on firewood for fuel and livestock as a store of wealth.

Martin showed us around and introduced us to friend and foe of the forest alike. There are no clear and easy ways of preventing damage to the forest: as the government can do very little for the local population, the value of the government writ is limited. The local Mudir al-Nahiya does put people in jail for cutting down trees, but he can hardly forbid them from taking their herds into good grazing land, or prevent them from collecting fire wood, or even from building terraces. As the population is expanding at the same time that financial means are contracting (due to the forced exodus from Saudi Arabia), the people are obliged to catch as catch can, and the forest is a good catchment.

The only way to preserve the forest is by persuading the local population that it is their own interest to preserve it. The concept of resource conservation is a difficult matter even in the West, where people are rarely confronted with environmental choices in their own daily life, and thus can afford to be slightly more generous in their support of environmental causes; even there it is not a prevalent attitude. Persuading people to make short term daily sacrifices to protect a forest which is virtually the only resource available is understandably difficult in the best of circumstances. Here, the women are already obliged to go down several hundred meters to gather wood, and then carry their loads back up the mountainside. The shepherds guide their herds over even greater distances. Introducing bottled gas would increase the financial strain, and reducing the herds would reduce their capital.

Jabal Bura' will probably not be there much longer unless the forest can be protected by a method which assures that the population has its own needs taken care of, with alternative fuels, and alternative grazing land. As the population of the Tihama is expanding up into the western reaches of the forest and urban sprawl from the highlands threatening it from the East, it is truly a race with time.

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