In the heart of the Middle East, against a backdrop of violence and sectarianism, the complex challenge of sustainable water management and conservation is one that Dalia Al Jawhary, a young passionate environmentalist with the Lebanese Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNL), has embraced courageously.
“My country might be known for war and violence but for me, its natural beauty and the spirit of its people, who never give up no matter what, are its essence.”
Participation and empowerment
Championing the ancient practice of ‘hima’ – an ancient system of sustainable land and water management – her unerring engagement with farmers, women and youth in the Anjar and Kfar Zabad Himas in the Bekaa valley has been transformational. In this rich wetland area that suffers from water scarcity, competition and misuse, a painstaking participatory approach to hima – which means ‘protected place’ in Arabic – has re-awakened connection to the land. Once disaffected groups have developed a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, becoming ambassadors for better stewardship.
“We’ve reached a lot of disempowered people and given them a voice. Initial hesitancy has become belief, and women and youth are now at the heart of building consensus and understanding around the true value of our natural resources.”
Childhood dreamland, shared responsibility
As a twelve-year old growing up in a village on the outskirts of Beirut surrounded by fields of walnut and olive, Dalia was deeply affected by the experience of an old woman who tended an olive grove where she used to play.
“Nature was her joy and her remedy – until her son sold the land for development. Her dreamland was taken from her and she was broken – and I lost part of my childhood. I think it shaped what I do today as a woman and environmentalist.”
Working in a country riven with power struggles and in conservative communities where men make the decisions is not easy but with hope, science and youth on her side, Dalia embodies the professionalism and resilience so critical for the future of the region.
“My duty is to awaken a sense of responsibility in each Lebanese for nature and for livelihood, and for the dreams of all our children.”
Houssine Nibani, biology teacher and founding president of AGIR, is a true conservation pioneer. Securing his teaching diploma in 1987, he moved to the Mediterranean coastal city of Al Hoceima in northern Morocco and began volunteering with the American Peace Corps. Working on osprey conservation in the now celebrated Al Hoceima National Park, he was way ahead of his time.
“When I started with the Peace Corps, the Rio Conference hadn’t happened. No one in Morocco understood conservation. Now it’s a different story. I’m no longer alone!”
Houssine spent his childhood holidays fascinated by the sea at Bouznika Bay near Casablanca, but his deep relationship with nature originated with his grandmother, whose knowledge of Morocco’s endemic plants was absolute!
“My grandmother never went to school but knew more than most university professors! She understood nature, and taught me to see that everything I did had a consequence.”
Dedication and a golden opportunity
In 2008, Houssine founded AGIR in support of Mediterranean coastal conservation in Morocco. Through participatory workshops with fishermen, women’s co-operatives, direct action and refinement of protection zoning, he has helped the artisanal fishing community become a conservation force – and all as a volunteer while teaching biology!
Today, the Al Hoceima National Park, once plagued by illegal fishing and trawler encroachment, is on a new path. Ospreys flourish, dynamite fishing has ended, and fishermen make a better living. And the Ministry of Fisheries has a golden opportunity to replicate AGIR’s approach along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast.
Recipe for success
In 2014, Houssine’s ability to catalyse change was internationally recognised when AGIR won the UN Equator Prize for marine and coastal resource management. More significant for Houssine was the vindication brought by the 2005 Hassan II Prize for the Environment, marking national acceptance of his work.
“AGIR is small. You don’t need big projects and lots of money if you involve the right people. Fishermen understand nature and we find conservation solutions together.”