A Dead Sea Valley family home with their typical front ‘lawn’
(Photo © Craig Mackintosh)
Looking at the state of the Islamic World these days, it seems like Muslims don’t really care much about the environment. Canals which carry Nile water to irrigate farmlands in Egypt are so full of rubbish they frequently get blocked up, stagnate and spread disease. The once-mighty river Jordan has been so diminished in these dark days it is down to a muddy trickle you could probably jump over if you wouldn’t be shot before you landed on the other side. Saudi Arabia has pumped its aquifers dry to such depths that they may take thousands of years to replenish.
Ironically, Saudi was hit with flooding in November, with deforestation stripping the land of the capacity to regulate the water cycle. In Pakistan this problem has been far worse in recent years, with wide-scale deforestation magnifying the effect of the Himalayan snow-melt to devastating proportions. In Indonesia, meanwhile, rampant deforestation has made way for oil palm plantations, which grow and burn off an oil palm mono-crop on a 20-year cycle. Carelessness with this technique, which is destructive anyway, has lead to the spread of massive forest fires, wiping out much of the remaining rainforests and causing severe air pollution in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the Muslim world, in West Africa, deforestation in the Sahel of West Africa pushes the encroachment of desertification south year on year, causing repeated famines through Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Deforestation, desertification, droughts, floods, pollution, mass consumption, obesity, poverty and hunger, are all ailments which affect (though not by any means uniquely) the Muslim world in these times.
Centre pivot farming in Saudi Arabia (Photo © Craig Mackintosh)
Of course Permaculture presents a tool-kit to deal with all these issues, and the PRI, lead by Geoff Lawton, have been working hard on addressing them from Jordan, to Morocco, to Afghanistan. The Al-Bayda project in Saudi Arabia is a great example of a wide-scale, community-based effort to tackle land degradation and reverse deforestation. It takes inspiration from the FMNR project which also had great success in the Sahel of Niger in the previous decade. However, we need to keep pushing forwards, train more people, create more projects and raise awareness amongst the locals. When I say locals, I don’t just mean local farmers. I mean the local educated middle class who form the investors, bureaucrats, NGO staff and policymakers of the region. If these people ‘get’ the picture it will be passed on to the farmers in the dialect of the area in ways they can understand — which westerners are not well equipped to do.
Now, as a Muslim myself, I just want to highlight some of the things that the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had to say about sustainability. I know we are not supposed to mix Permaculture knowledge with “metaphysical” concepts, however, using important cultural principles which are relevant to a large part of the world to emphasize the need for a sustainable and ethical lifestyle is not conflating science with mystical notions, enlightenment or magic. Mollison actually refers to Islam, albeit in passing, in the Designers’ Manual as one of “the religions of dogma” and implicitly blames the religion for land degradation in Pakistan and Iran. We’ve since seen, through Geoff’s consultancy report the massive positive strides the Iranian government has taken to address land degradation in recent decades. It’s lucky they didn’t take Bill’s comment to heart, but continued reading the whole book. But not-withstanding this, all of the previously mentioned problems are still going on in the Muslim world. But is this really because of Islam as a religion, or because Muslims are not actually following what the Prophet of Islam taught?:
“If a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him.” — Bukhari
“There is none amongst the believers who plants a tree, or sows a seed and then a bird, or a person, or an animal eats thereof, but it is regarded as having a charitable gift (for which there is great recompense).” — Al-Bukhari: 513
“Whoever plants a tree and diligently looks after it until it matures and bears fruit, Allah will count as charity for him anything for which its fruits are used.” — Ahmad
“One day, Abu Darda, one of the reputed companions, was planting trees in Damascus. A man who was passing by thought this was strange and asked: “O Abu Darda, you are a Companion of the Prophet, why are you planting trees?” Abu Darda replied: “I heard the Prophet say, ‘If a person plants a tree, the fruits eaten by any human or any of God’s creatures will be recorded as charity for the one who planted it.” — Tajrid-i Sarih
In terms of sustainable land management, The Prophet Mohammed (SAWS) established the institutions of the Haram and the Hima:
“A Haram is a ‘sacred territory, inviolable zone [or] a sanctuary’ used to promote the welfare of all inhabitants. They are similar to a green-belt surrounding each Islamic settlement and natural and developed water sources. Harim (plural) around settlements were used for forage and firewood but could also be used to preserve species intentionally, cleanse air, and provide green space for recreation or asthetic purposes. Harim around water also prevent water pollution, facilitate the maintenance of the water sources, and, by prohibiting new wells within their boundaries, preserve the water supply of the existing wells.” — Sarah E. Fredericks: Measuring and Evaluating Sustainability: Ethics in Sustainability Indexes
“A himā (to be pronounced ħimā) is a reserved pasture, where trees and grazing lands are protected from indiscriminate harvest on a temporary or permanent basis… The system sets aside an area as a grazing reserve for restricted use by a village community, clan or tribe as a part of a grazing management strategy.
“The studies about himā show that the following types existed since earlier times in Arabia:
1. Grazing is prohibited, cutting is permitted during specific periods. This is when plants reach to a certain height of growth, after they flower and bear fruit. The cut branches are taken outside the himā to feed the livestock. The tribe council specifies the number of people from each family allowed to do the cutting. Certain trails are specified for the workers, to prevent destruction of soil fertility. Certain days are allocated for men; others for women.
2. Grazing and cutting is allowed only after flowers and fruits are produced. This allows natural seeding of the soil for the next year or season.
3. Grazing is allowed all year, the number and type of animals are specified. No restriction on grass-cutting.
4. Reserve for bee-keeping. Grazing is allowed only after the flowering season. These reserves are closed for five months of the year, including the Spring months.
5. Reserve for forest trees, e.g. Juniperus procera, Acacias spp., Haloxlon persicum. Cutting is only allowed for great emergencies or acute needs.
6. Reserving a woodland to stop desertification of an area or sand dune encroachment.”
— Lutfallah Gari: Ecology in Muslim Heritage — A History of the Hima Conservation System
So The Prophet (PBUH) set a great precedent in terms of demonstrating sustainable management of natural capital. And his example was well followed in his land even up until recent times:
“The system enjoyed a long life throughout the Middle Ages… some traditional himā were the best managed rangelands in the Arabian Peninsula; they have been grazed correctly since early Islamic times and are among the most long-standing examples of rangeland conservation known. As mentioned by Llewellyn ‘few established systems of protected areas are known that have a history comparable in length with traditional himā’
But today, the Muslim nation-states, even those which claim to “uphold Islam”, have, like with so many other things, let the institution slip into distant memory:
“In Saudi Arabia the government wanted the tribes to be unified under one umbrella; hence it took the responsibility of management and security of the rural lands through governmental agencies. In 1954 a decree was issued designating the Ministry of Agriculture and Water as the custodian of the rural lands in this country. This created a new statute for the himā-s that became public lands. There was no immediate alternative conservation system. The first national park in the country (i.e. Asīr National Park) was established in 1980. The National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development (NCWCD) was established in 1986. The period between the banning of the himī system and the start of constructing national parks and protected areas was a period characterized by severe destruction of the plant cover through overgrazing and felling of trees as well as over-hunting of wild animals.
An estimated three thousand himā-s existed in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s… But a report issued by the NCWCD in 2003 mentions only four that are called “old himā-s” that are managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, in addition to a few dozen himā-s that are still managed by local communities in “isolated” rural areas.”
Anybody with knowledge of Permaculture can see the similarities in these institutions to the concepts of the zone system, holistic land management and water resource management that we use in Permaculture. Quite clearly it is not Islam, rather the modern nation state and the post colonial systems with its corrupt co-opted elites lining their pockets, shoring up their power bases and doing the bidding of their western pay-masters in their misguided attempts to enforce “modernity” to the detriment of the “backwards” traditional (Islamic) systems of regulation which have really cost the environment. It seems beyond co-incidental that Iran, the supposed nemesis of the west, is ironically one of the very few contemporary governments to have actually taken some significant positive action to redress the environmental situation, and they don’t harp on about it — they just got on with it!
Anyway, what can we little people do about all this? Well the answer is obvious — learn about and begin implementing Permaculture at the personal and social level. The more people get trained, the greater the effect. Myself and Sidi Salah Hammad are running a PDC in Jordan in April 2014 with full Arabic translation. If you can’t make that, I will also be running another PDC in Morocco in May 2014 (in English only). If you can’t make it, but would still like to help, there is a man from Somalia raising funds to help him attend the PDC in Jordan — maybe you could chip in. Of course there are PDCs going on all the time with trainers like Rhamis Kent and Mustafa Bakir who have also been running PDCs in Malaysia recently, hosted by Marujan, an organization established by Giovanni Galluzo to promote PC in the region. As people are working, awareness is slowly growing. Do your part and get involved (and may you be rewarded for it).