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Farmers in Jordan rally against desertification and poor pay

'The problems are endless': Farmers in Jordan mobilise against desertification and poor pay
19 March, 2024
Agriculture in Jordan is suffering from neoliberal policies and Israel's water capture, forcing activists to mobilise against desertification and poor pay.

On the road along the Jordan Valley, every car that passes stirs up a cloud of sand and dust. Greenhouses and fields lie alongside wastelands of cracked, parched earth. It is hard to believe that this stretch of land is the most fertile in all of Jordan.

Jordan is one of the driest countries in the world and desertification is progressing rapidly: nine-tenths of agricultural land is being abandoned and turning into a desert landscape. Small farmers are struggling to survive.

"The most difficult thing is really the lack of water. I have a basin with 2,000 cubic meters, but in summer I would need twice that," says 26-year-old Soleiman, who has taken over his father's land in Dayr'Allah, in the central part of the valley.

The air is heavy from dust and humidity as Soleiman ploughs his fields. "In the summer, we only have running water for six hours — and that's only two days a week," explains the young man, who has a master’s degree in agricultural sciences.

His fruit and vegetable fields extend over 8.5 dunums (8,500 m2) and are located just a few hundred meters from Jordan’s border with Israel.

Soleiman, a 26-year-old farmer, suffers from a lack of water [photo credit: Philippe Pernot]

Today, Soleiman is not alone in his fight against the drought. Two members of the Arab Group for the Protection of Nature (APN) are helping him to plant 350 lemon, orange and other citrus saplings — trees that use less water and bring more income than most others.

"We are helping the farmers to diversify their crops and increase their meagre income so that they can send their children to university and no longer have to live from hand to mouth," explains Mohammad Qteishat, project manager of the Jordanian-Palestinian organisation.

"We sell them the trees for 25 piastres instead of 5 dinars on the market, so we are not dependent. After three years, 100 planted trees can bring in 500 dinars ($705) per month," he adds.

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The suffering Jordan Valley

The decision to plant citrus fruits is not only economic but also symbolic. "This region used to be extremely rich in biodiversity, very green, covered with lemon and orange trees. But they have been dead for years because the water we get is so polluted," criticises Qteishat.

"Now the trees have disappeared and only vegetables are growing. Even the birds and other animals here are no longer the same".

Many farmers blame Israel for their problems. In 1964, Israel built dams upstream on the Jordan River, diverted it to its own agricultural land in the north and then disposed of industrial and agricultural wastewater into the Jordan River. Syria responded with more dams on the Yarmouk River, which flows into the Jordan River in the north.

As a result, the holy river has lost up to 98% of its historical volume and is contaminated with heavy metals, the APN has criticised in several publications.

The holy river of the three monotheistic religions has shrunk to a muddy, polluted stream since the 1960s and its water has become unusable for agriculture. Now instead of the river, a canal irrigates the valley with recycled water from other sources - but only in dribs and drabs.

The water “is also salty and often polluted," criticises Soleiman.

After the Wadi Araba treaty of 1994, Israel is meant to provide Jordan with 50 million m3 of water every year. "But sometimes they send us wastewater. When that happens, the trees die within two days," says Qteishat.

Jordanian agriculture lives to the rhythm of Israel's occupation of Palestine

Despite the dusty air in the valley, the occupied West Bank is visible on the other side of the Jordan River. Jordanian agriculture is very sensitive to crises in the region, as the country quickly became dependent on international aid due to its alliance with the US and Israel.

An agreement that provided for the exchange of Israeli water for Jordanian solar power was finally cancelled by the Jordanian government under pressure from huge pro-Palestinian demonstrations in November. The reason: Israel's war on Gaza, which has claimed over 31,000 Palestinian lives.

A dried-up irrigation canal in the Jordan Valley [photo credit: Philippe Pernot]

The majority of Jordanians, being of Palestinian descent, are extremely critical of their menacing neighbour. "My mother is originally from Nablus, I could never accept water from Israel," says Soleiman.

Agriculture in Jordan has gone through a downward spiral, from an important economic sector accounting for 40% of GDP to almost insignificant at 6% of GDP.

In the 1960s Jordan still produced 70% of its barley and wheat requirements itself, today the country imports 90% of its grain and energy.

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Resisting agribusiness

In the face of this crisis, the APN launched the Green Caravan in 2001, an initiative to plant trees that had become rare in regions threatened by desertification and precarious conditions. To date, it has planted 166,000 fruit trees with 10,000 small farmers.

"After several trials, we quickly realised that we needed to plant trees that are useful to the farmers, drought-resistant and that restore biodiversity to the soil," explains Mariam Al Jaajaa, the organisation's managing director in Jordan.

"But we are not talking about artificial biodiversity, as is often portrayed in the projects of large international NGOs, which deny the social and political dimensions of agriculture," she says.

Like many farmers and activists, Al Jaajaa is critical of the country’s dependency on aid. Since the major neoliberal economic reforms of the 1990s and 2010s, agribusiness has attracted most foreign investment, diverting it from small farmers.

"Jordan has suffered from 50 years of neoliberal mismanagement that has made us dependent on aid and imports", she sighs.

By cutting subsidies and the social safety net, programs led by the IMF and the World Bank have pushed the unemployment rate among young people to over 45% and driven 25% of the population into poverty. "The worst thing is not global warming, but politics," she laments.

A herd of sheep and goats graze in the desert south of the Dead Sea, Dana Protected Reserve [photo credit: Philippe Pernot]

Catastrophic work conditions

In the fields along the highway in the Jordan Valley, thousands of keffiyeh-covered men and women struggle against the dust, their backs bent under the harsh sun. For the 210,000 agricultural workers in the kingdom - including many Syrian refugees and Egyptian migrants - working conditions are catastrophic.

"The problems of farmers and agricultural workers are endless," criticises Moqthal Zinat, secretary of the Jordanian Union of Agricultural Workers (UWA).

"Most of them are day labourers, they work for 1 to 2 dinars per hour ($1.41 to $2.82), without labour rights, without social security, without medical care in case of accidents at work, without protective equipment against pesticides and insects, often even without access to toilets — which is a big problem for female workers."

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The Jordanian kingdom does not legally recognise the union. But after two years of campaigning and sit-ins, the UWA has achieved labour law reform with some social progress.

"No one can help the farmers and workers better than themselves, especially when they join forces with students, doctors and other workers to demand their rights," Mr. Zinat claims. In the fields of the Jordan Valley, these successes plant hope that, one day, Jordanians might reclaim their food sovereignty and dignity.

Philippe Pernot is a French-German photojournalist living in Beirut. Covering anarchist, environmentalist, and queer social movements, he is now the Lebanon correspondent for Frankfurter Rundschau and an editor for various international media. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PhilippePernot7