MUSCAT, Oman – With more than 900 plant species, including more than 50 endemic ones not available anywhere else on Earth, the mountains of the Dhofar region in Southern Oman are a biodiversity hotspot of unique value.
Every summer, while the rest of the Arabian Peninsula is scorched by the heat, the slopes around Salalah turn green due to moisture from the Indian Ocean monsoon, locally known as Khareef.
The unique cloud forests, sustained by the monsoon, have supported generations of traditional herders in Dhofar. But over the past four decades a rapid increase in population has driven up the pressure with the forests now increasingly turning into grasslands. Overgrazing by camels and other domestic animals, as well as the rapid development of infrastructure, are the main causes for the disappearance of trees, said Dr. Mehdi Ahmed Jaaffar, vice president, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), which is working to protect the forests.
“People tell us that, less than 20 years ago, they could have easily hidden their herds of camels in the woodlands,” he said.
At present, in comparison, the hills are “barren” in many places, he said.
With the help of the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants and other donors, ESO is working to educate people about the value of the forests and the ways to protect them.
In 2012, ESO became one of nine recipients of funding under the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental grants scheme. Altogether US $100,000 were given to environmental projects in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, the UAE and Oman, with ESO receiving US $27,500 in funding. The Ford grants scheme, which has given out a total of US $1.3 million since 2000 to environmental organisations in the region, is open to participants from the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The programme is accepting applications for funding via Ford Middle East’s Facebook page until July 1.
“The grants made us feel confident that we were on the right track,” said Jaaffar.
It also provided the funding to cover the logistics and the cost of printing educational materials for the “Let’s Plant One” tree-planting campaign, which ESO recently concluded in Dhofar.
“The campaign aims at developing awareness of the importance of indigenous trees and the role they have played throughout history,” he said. “The idea is to leave behind education and awareness of the need for different parties to take this issue as seriously as we would like them to.”
Over five days starting from March 31, ESO planted native trees, such as Boswellia sacra, commonly known as the frankincense tree, at several locations, including Dhofar University, the Jebel Samhan's Nature Reserve Visitors' Centre, the Deputy Wali's Office as well as schools in Rakhyut, Dhalkut and Rabkoot. Educational talks and competitions were also held.
Future plans include selecting a suitable area where the forest cover could be rehabilitated. Jaaffar said the chosen area will have to be fenced to ensure protection from domestic animals.
But saving Dhofar’s forests will require more than planting trees and running awareness campaigns, said Jaaffar. For the problem to be solved, its causes need to be addressed.
“All the different entities are doing their best, but if you are in crisis, new tools need to be employed and new avenues pursued,” he said.
A key issue will be reducing grazing pressure by ensuring that the number of camels and other animals corresponds to the carrying capacity of the area.
“You need to strike a balance between what it is you do in order to help communities in Dhofar and what it is you do to safeguard the environment around them,” he said.
Better planning of new infrastructure and development projects is also needed. Protecting the rare forests will require updating the current legislation, as well as spending more effort to ensure rules are implemented, said Jaaffar.
“You need to couple legislation with education, bylaws and a roadmap where you refrain from developments that are too harmful to the environment,” he said.
The Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants are part of the company’s efforts to support grass-roots level initiatives that protect and preserve the environment and natural resources in the GCC and Levant countries, and have awarded a total of US $1.3 million to more than 150 projects since the programme’s inception in 2000.
Individuals, community and non-profit groups that have projects currently running in the areas of preservation of the natural environment, environmental education and conservation engineering can apply.
The GCC and Levant chapter of the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants has seen support from various governmental and nongovernmental environmental authorities including the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Emirates Wildlife Society, the Arab Forum for Environment and Development and UNESCO Doha.
For more information about the Ford Motor Company Conservation and Environmental Grants, please visit www.facebook.com/fordmiddleeast or www.me.ford.com.