Dana, Jordan – At sunrise, blue and pink rays begin to break over Dana’s ridges. Birdsong and rustling leaves are the only sounds in the valley.
Spanning 300 square kilometers (116 square miles) from towering sandstone cliffs to desert plains, the Dana Biosphere Reserve is Jordan’s largest and most diverse protected area, but its days of tranquility and natural beauty may be numbered.
The Jordanian government, which claims there is an estimated 45 million tons of copper in Dana, says it will mine in the area.
The prospect of seeing his beloved hills blow up to extract copper and the valleys turning into a mountain of waste rock fills Abdulrahman Ammarin with dread.
“The excavations will devastate the area we have protected for so many years,” he told Al Jazeera.
For the past 20 years, he has worked as a forest ranger for the Royal Society for Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a non-governmental organization that manages Jordan’s reserves. But his Bedouin tribe has guarded this rugged landscape for centuries.
Ammarin, who lives near the reserve, is concerned not only about the irreversible damage mining could cause in his region, but also the impact it could have on his family and community. “The pollution will affect us all,” he says.
Jibril Ammarin, also a forest ranger from the region, points to a nearby desert acacia and begins to list the different types of trees and vegetation found in the reserve. “We have junipers, oak and pistachio trees, date palms,” he says.
Established in 1989, the reserve is home to more than 800 different species of plants and 215 species of birds, representing about a third of Jordan’s plant species and half of all bird species. Some are considered endangered and a few can only be found in Dana.
The rangers say a mining project would destroy the land, drive out animals and pollute the water and soil.
In August, the government ordered the Environment Ministry to excavate part of the reserve to allow for copper prospecting and mining — and form a committee to seek new land to replace the areas to be mined.
The exact area to be expropriated, reportedly between 60 and 106 square kilometers, is still under negotiation, but the plan has sparked outrage and has been heavily criticized by conservationists and environmentalists.
RSCN condemned the government’s decision, rejecting any changes to the reserve’s boundaries and saying it would take all legal steps to protect it.
“It is a very diverse area with four different biogeographical zones, and it also has important archaeological sites. Biodiversity and heritage must be protected,” said Fares Khoury, professor of animal biology and co-founder of the Jordan Birdwatch NGO.
He told Al Jazeera that several endangered birds, such as the Syrian canary and the sooty falcon, depend on the reserve for survival. “The area is very vulnerable. As the [mining] project continues, it will only leave destruction behind.”
Muna Hindiyeh, a professor of environmental engineering and an expert on water management, says mining is water-demanding and poses a serious threat to the region’s extremely scarce water resources.
“There is a good chance that heavy metals will end up in groundwater and contaminate it,” she says. According to Hindiyeh, mining would also increase soil erosion and lead to biodiversity loss, so she says the negative impact of the project should be carefully assessed.
But so far, no environmental impact studies have been made public.
“We need full studies on the exact cost of copper mining and the environmental impact it would have on the region,” RSCN chairman Khaled al-Irani told Al Jazeera.
Conservationists say the figures presented by the government are only estimates and no serious independent studies have been conducted. “There is no transparency in the process,” Khoury says.
Jordan’s ministries of environment and energy and mineral resources have not responded to Al Jazeera’s interview requests.
In addition to concerns that mining will cause irreparable damage to the environment, many are also concerned about the impact it could have on the area’s archaeological sites stretching from the Upper Paleolithic to the Roman and Islamic periods.
The reserve is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage status, a position experts fear will be threatened by the mining project. Jordan’s International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) said the decision to open the reserve “to intrusive and destructive mining investments is shortsighted, unwise and sets a dangerous precedent”.
Concerned Jordanians have also launched online petitions and flooded social media with the hashtag #Save_Dana.
Economic development versus sustainability
Despite the public outcry, the government has defended the mining project, arguing that it would create 1,000 jobs and bring investment to the region, especially as demand for copper is increasing exponentially.
In 2016, the government licensed the Jordanian Integrated Mining and Exploration Company to mine copper in the reserve. The company is owned by Manaseer, an oil, gas and mining investment group, and the Jordanian military.
According to Manaseer, the mining project would “support the national economy” and create jobs in a country where unemployment rates have reached an alarming 25 percent. Tafila, the southern governorate where Dana is located, has been particularly hard hit by poverty and unemployment.
During a government-organized press trip to parts of the reserve, Manaseer spokesman Samer Makharmeh said the mine would not harm the environment.
“Which environment? There are no animals, there are no trees, nothing here at all,” he said, pointing to a rocky part of the reserve, which also contains archaeological ruins.
“The sad thing is that they [Manaseer officials] can’t see,” said Mohammad Asfour, an environmental advocate and expert on the green economy. “They can’t see the beauty, they can’t see the wildlife. They see nothing but short-term gains.”
The mine would be open for about 20 years, but would leave a scarred landscape that could take centuries to restore.
“It’s more important to focus on sustainable solutions, not mega-projects that benefit only a few,” says Asfour. Given that most of the mining jobs on offer would be low-paid and short-lived, Asfour argues that tourism would be a better investment and that the economic benefits of mining do not outweigh its negative impact.
Hailed as an example of sustainable development and conservation, and recognized internationally with ecotourism awards – including being in Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 best places – Dana attracted 80,000 visitors a year before the pandemic.
The reserve is staffed and managed by people from the region. According to RSCN, it provides approximately $3 million annually to the local community and employs 85 local people in various sustainable tourism projects in Dana.
Ghazia al-Khasaba is one of more than a dozen women employed by RSCN in Dana’s production of jams, herbal teas, candles and handmade crafts.
“I’ve been working here for 24 years to support my ailing husband and daughter,” she says, adding that her job on the reservation is her family’s only source of income.
“If the mining project goes ahead, it will affect tourism here, so it will affect my source of income,” she adds.
Outside of the reserve and the region’s main tourist attractions, however, residents are divided over the copper mine. While many say the environmental damage is too much of a risk, others welcome the job opportunities the mining industry can offer them.
Musa al-Saedeen, who is from the nearby town of al-Qraiqreh and works in the public sector, recognizes the value of the reserve and the benefits it has brought to local communities, but says employment opportunities in the region remain limited.
“For the people who don’t benefit from tourism, it is their right to demand jobs and better opportunities,” he says.
But for al-Khasaba, it goes beyond her work. Her home and farmland are so close to the planned mine site that she is concerned about the noise, dust and pollution. And she is also concerned about the next generations.
“[The mine] will affect our future and the future of our children,” she says.