October 2011 saw Jordan hosting the World Economic Forum‘s regional summit at the Dead Sea. Taking advantage of this, a group of Young Global Leaders (YGLs) – one of the WEF’s leading communities – partnered with FoEME in organising a ‘Learning Journey’ for YGLs to learn more about regional environmental peacebuilding efforts. Such ‘Learning Journeys’ have become a regular feature of the WEF’s regional summits as an opportunity to expose YGLs to interesting local initiatives.
On this occasion, FoEME was identified as a the local partner and a visit organised from 23-24 October to the Shahabil bin Hassan Eco-park and the proposed Jordan River Peace Park in the Bakuora region of northern Jordan. The group spent time exploring the terrain of the Eco-park and learning about its ecology, flora and fauna. The fact that this relatively small parcel of land was home to more than 250 species of flowers and attracted many species of migratory birds was real eye-opener. All the more surprising when one considers that just a few years ago this was an unloved and degraded patch of land fit only for goat grazing.
Along with this story of the revival of the area’s rich biodiversity was the story of the relationship with the local community. We learnt that all local staff at the Eco-park come from the neighbouring village, Sheikh Hussein, and a core objective of the initiative is to bring economic benefits, develop skills and attract public services to the neglected communities of this under-developed part of the country. A bonus for us foreign guests was the authentic local cooking and warm hospitality that we experienced from our local hosts.
The visit to the Eco-park was complemented by a visit to FoEME‘s proposed Jordan River Peace Park in the Bakoura region on the Israel-Jordan border. This is currently on land controlled by the military, and we were given a no-holds barred personal tour by the post commander. Here we were able to see first-hand the tragic state of the once-mighty Jordan River, which constitutes the border between Israel and Jordan according to the 1994 Peace Treaty. Looking over the border, we could see the manicured olive groves, roads and communities in Israel, barely a few metres away. Our FoEME guides explained the significance of the terrain, its unique history not only in terms of the recent history of Jordan and Israel, but dating back centuries to the times of the Crusades and Romans.
We were able to visit the bombed-out remains of the hydro-power plant which once stood on this site. Designed by the legendary Jewish engineer and businessman, Pinchas Rotenberg, this was the result of a masterful bilateral effort involving the British Mandate and leadership by King Abdullah I. The power plant is a magnificent art-deco structure that was once powered by the waters of the Yarmouk and Jordan Rivers and supplied energy to local towns and kibbutzim on both sides of the border. Now it echoed with unfulfilled promise of restoration – perhaps as magnificent as the Tate Modern museum in London which was once a disused power plant and now sits proudly as one of the most visited tourist sites on the banks of the River Thames.
As we were about to leave, we spied the director of the well-developed visitor’s centre on the Israeli side of the border coming towards us. While visitors from Jordan are not able to cross over into Israel from this crossing, Israeli tourists are allowed limited access to the Jordanian side. What a different world it would be if this piece of land could see visitors from both countries exchanging places. If people could walk across the border and enjoy the natural beauty and from one of the truly special crossing points in human history.
For now, we had to be content with a shake of hands with our Israeli friend across the border. A photo opportunity today, but perhaps a reality tomorrow. What is clear is that while political realities may delay that day, initiatives at informal diplomacy, peacebuilding and sustainable development such as this effort by FoEME represent a clear vision of the future and an alternative to the present impasse. It is a vision that few can fail to be stirred by – and the world needs more such idealists. Thanks to FoEME for leading this vision and working to implement it.
This entry was contributed by Malini Mehra FRSA, Founder & Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Markets, Bangalore/ Delhi/ London