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Terres désertes et peuplées: les Bédouins de Syrie, entre «développement» et «État»

La façon dont les relations entre l'homme et son environnement ont été décrites dans les articles sur le développement est fondée sur des hypothèses spécifiques concernant l'existence d'une nature humaine universelle. Dans cet article, l'auteur étudie tout d'abord des hypothèses allant au-delà de «la tragédie des terrains communaux», du «paradigme de la conservation» et de la notion, plus récente, «d'approche axée sur la communauté» en matière de gestion des ressources naturelles. L'auteur analyse ensuite les images utilisées pour décrire les relations entre les Bédouins de Syrie et la Badia (steppe syrienne) et leurs répercussions sur les pratiques en matière de politiques dans le cas spécifique de la conservation des espèces sauvages et des programmes de remise en état. En restituant le projet dans son contexte historique et politique, l'auteur montre comment les images produites sont construites par rapport à ce cadre, et présente un avis critique sur les techniques participatives utilisées, soulignant comment celles-ci peuvent se solder par une centralisation des pouvoirs au nom du transfert des responsabilités.

Paisajes despoblados y poblados: los beduinos de la República Árabe Siria entre «desarrollo» y «Estado»

La manera en que se ha descrito la relación entre las personas y su entorno en la bibliografía sobre el desarrollo se basa en supuestos específicos relativos a la existencia de una naturaleza humana universalmente compartida. El presente artículo examina en primer lugar los supuestos en que se fundamenta la «tragedia de los bienes comunes», el «paradigma de la conservación» y el más reciente «enfoque basado en la comunidad» para la ordenación de los recursos naturales. En segundo lugar, estudia las imágenes utilizadas para describir la relación entre los beduinos de la República Árabe Siria y la badia (estepa siria), y su repercusión sobre las políticas aplicadas en el caso específico de un plan de conservación y rehabilitación de la fauna y flora silvestres. Al integrar el proyecto en el contexto de su marco histórico y político, este artículo esboza el modo en que se construyen las imágenes producidas en relación con él. Por último, se adopta una posición crítica respecto de las técnicas participativas utilizadas para destacar la forma en que pueden producir el efecto de centralizar el poder en nombre de la transferencia de competencias.

Empty and populated landscapes: the Bedouin of the Syrian Arab Republic between "development" and "State"

L. Triulzi

This article is based on a dissertation written for an MA in Social Anthropology of Development recently obtained
at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The author is now an independent consultant.

The way in which the relationship between people and their environment has been portrayed in development literature is based on specific assumptions regarding the existence of a shared universal human nature. This article first examines the assumptions behind the "tragedy of the commons", the "conservation paradigm" and the more recent "community-based approach" to natural resource management. Secondly, it explores the images used to describe the relationship between the Bedouin of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Badia (Syrian steppe) and their effects on policy practice in the specific case of a wildlife conservation and rehabilitation scheme. By placing the project in the context of its historical and political framework, this article outlines how the images produced are constructed in relation to it. Finally, it takes a critical view of the participatory techniques used, to highlight the way in which they can produce the effect of centralizing power in the name of devolution.


This article stems from an interest in researching the representation of landscapes elaborated by the development discourse. The way in which the relationship between people and their environment has been portrayed in development literature has produced specific effects in development practice.

The analysis carried out in this article is based on current tendencies in anthropology of development and on Michel Foucault's (1980) contribution to understanding the relationships between power and knowledge and between discursive and non-discursive practices. His influence produced a widespread academic interest in these themes, and anthropologists in particular became concerned with the discourses made by Western countries about the Third World and their implications as a means of domination during colonial and post-colonial times (Said, 1978).

Following these trends, some critics denounced a continuity between these representations and those elaborated by the development discourse. According to them, these representations acted as a powerful mechanism for the construction of the "other" as underdeveloped and in need of foreign aid, and as a justification of political and economic intervention (Escobar, 1991; Hobart, 1993). At the same time, anthropologists became more conscious of the political effects that "representations of others" can have, and of the risks and responsibilities that these entail (Clifford and Marcus, 1986).

A more recent anthropological understanding of "development" as a process in which power is multicentred (Mosse, 2000) enables us today to shift out of a perception that has seen development as an encounter between the "all-powerful" aid industry on one side and a "powerless" indigenous reality on the other. Development programmes can rather be seen as a site of encounter and struggle between multiple and unequal voices.

The first part of this article outlines two closely interlinked debates that have informed natural resource development programmes over the past 40 years. The policy advice derived from the "conservation paradigm" and the "tragedy of the commons" has been to centralize the control and regulation of rangelands and of intervention programmes. While identifying specific images of indigenous populations found in this literature and their effects "in practice", the interest will be in observing to what extent the underlying assumptions that inform them are radically different from the more recent "community-based" ones. As we will see, the way in which the relationship between people and their environment has been portrayed is based on identifiable assumptions regarding the existence of a shared universal human nature.

The second part of this article will attempt a reading of specific "project literature" based on the theoretical insights referred to above. Documentation produced around a project is here understood on the one hand as a space devoted to the production of development discourse, and on the other as a site where cues of conflicting discourses can surface. To this end, we will first concentrate on highlighting the persistent use of images associated with the "tragedy of the commons" in a context of participatory development. We will explain the peculiar combination of formulas such as "open access" in a "community development" approach by analysing the project from a historical perspective.

Further on, we will attempt to take the project reports as an entry point to observe not only the realities they choose to describe, but also more hidden or silent ones that can be discerned. Cues of a divergent use made of the project by the different stakeholders involved shed light on the nature of development programmes as a process. It will also be underlined how the use of an extensive participatory framework, while enabling divergent voices to be recorded, can often produce the effect of centralizing control in the name of devolution if it is not coupled with an effective shift of power (Nelson and Wright, 1995).


In this section the representations of indigenous populations and the related representations of the environment found in the "conservation paradigm" and the "tragedy of the commons" theories will be outlined.

The "conservation paradigm"

During the late nineteenth century and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, wildlife conservation schemes meant the exclusion of the local population from a chosen area in order to "preserve" the environment. Significant areas of land were set aside as "wilderness", to be preserved "untouched by humans". Problems such as soil erosion, degradation of rangelands and desertification were viewed as principally due to local, indigenous, misuse of resources. State and international conservation policies consequently aimed to exclude the local population in order to preserve flora and fauna and to create wildlife parks or "natural" reserves.

The images of indigenous groups and populations developed in this context were those of "backward" and "primitive" locals, viewed as an impediment to the State's conservation policies and its general desire to modernize (Chatty, 1996b; Agrawal, 1997). Programmes went ahead on the assumption that the range was previously unoccupied. The pastoral population was often forced off its grazing land by the attempts of colonial and early independent governments to assert some form of State control over land. The negative consideration of indigenous knowledge and of indigenous social/political structures justified the need to exclude local groups from development efforts.

The "conservation paradigm" that views the relationship between the local population and the environment as a negative one, when applied to pastoralism and rangeland management, focused its concerns on livestock and animal production. According to this view, the major concern of pastoral regions of the developing world was overstocking and its negative consequences on the environment: the problem (too many livestock) had a technical solution (de-stocking).

The basic assumptions underlying this tradition of range management - that pastoral ecosystems are potentially stable and balanced - have recently been challenged. Behnke, Scoones and Kerven (1993) have shown how pastoral environments are often "non-equilibrium environments", continuously adapting to changeable conditions. These are generally found in arid and semi-arid areas with unpredictable rainfall. In these areas, annual rainfall and other external events such as drought or disease are the most important factors, rather than grazing density and time spent on a given pasture, in determining the production potential of livestock and annual pasture grass. In non-equilibrium environments permanent land degradation through overgrazing is not a major risk (Hesse and Trench, 2000: 9).

In addition to this, recent studies have produced evidence from many parts of the world that local people do value, utilize and efficiently manage their environment. The new perspectives declare how nearly every part of the world has been inhabited and modified by people in the past and underlines how the mythical pristine environment exists only in our imagination (Chatty, 1996). The conventional assumption that human interference caused depletion of biological diversity justified in the past the removal of people from national parks and reserves.1

The "tragedy of the commons"

The "conservation paradigm" outlined above finds a close correspondence in another body of developmental knowledge. The "tragedy of the commons" image and its effects on development policy took shape at the end of the 1960s when Hardin's phrase (1968) came to symbolize the expected degradation of the environment when individuals use a scarce resource in common. The model that illustrates this logic is the image of an "open access" pasture. In this model, individual herders receive a direct benefit from their own animals although they also suffer delayed costs in the deterioration of common resources when their own and other cattle overgraze. Since they bear only a share of the costs resulting from overgrazing, each herder is motivated, from the perspective of a rational individual, to add more animals so as to reap more short-term benefits.

The image of the "tragedy of the commons" found an echo in M. Olsen's (1971) "logic of collective action". Olsen's theory postulated that a rational self-interested individual would act as an individual utility-seeker and would not exercise restraint in the use of common resources unless coerced by an external agent. According to this position, individuals have an incentive to ignore the social cost of their behaviour for fear that others will exploit resources before they do.

The "conservation paradigm" and the "tragedy of the commons" approaches coincided in the idea that the relationship between people and the environment was one of "open access". Conservation, therefore, required the protection of threatened resources that could easily be overused because they were open to all. Both the "tragedy of the commons" and the logic of collective action imagined landscapes empty of any form of communal organization (an absence of community), justifying external intervention in these open spaces. These images dominated the natural resource development discourse coinciding with highly centralized State development channelled through highly interventionist programmes. A deeply rooted pessimism about the possibility of preserving natural resources other than through centralized State control lay behind policy recommendations.

By the mid-1980s, the critiques of the modernizing development strategies of the centralized State and the dominance of Western technical knowledge over indigenous community perspectives emerging from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and environmentalist circles produced a policy shift (Mosse, 1997: 468). At the same time, anthropological evidence on the widespread existence of successful indigenous community management systems supported the development of community management programmes.

The World Bank's 1989 discussion paper (Bromley and Cernea, 1989) on the management of common property natural resources can be considered as having institutionalized this policy shift. Landscapes previously imagined (or made to be) empty of any positive form of indigenous social life became populated by communities.

Intending finally to invalidate the Olsen-Hardin stereotype of authority, Bromley and Cernea's paper established an interpretation that sees a phased progression: from efficient "traditional" common property regimes - then eroded by the intervention of national and regional government - to open access and resource degradation. The paper called for the need to restore common property regimes. "Resource degradation in the developing countries while incorrectly attributed to `common property systems' intrinsically actually originates in the dissolution of local level institutional arrangements whose very purpose was to give rise to resource patterns that were sustainable" (Bromley and Cernea, 1989: iii, my emphasis).

According to this view, local-level institutional arrangements were undermined and destroyed by the intervention of national governments that "in most developing countries [has] not adequately substituted for these former resource management regimes". Since "the notion that national (or even regional) governments in the developing countries can effectively manage local natural resources is largely without empirical support", then "common property regimes must be restored by establishing and strengthening institutional arrangements ... thus protecting the effectiveness of development interventions and their stream of benefits" (Bromley and Cernea, 1989: iii, 3).

To the unharnessed individualism of the "tragedy of the commons", this perspective opposes a vision of what Agrawal (1997: vii) defines as the "mythical community": small homogenous groups using locally evolved norms to live with nature harmoniously, managing their resources sustainably and equitably.

Images and representations of communities in policy are directly linked to prescriptions for intervention. The "way ahead" in natural resource management sustained itself on an interpretation of the past. According to the World Bank paper, "traditional" systems of common resource use existed in the past and had been eroded by State (or market) intervention.2 A phased progression that went from efficient common property regime to open access and resource degradation by hand of State intervention was hence established (Bromley and Cernea, 1989: iii).

A closely related outcome of the reoriented focus on communities is the production of another body of development knowledge that also originated in the critical reaction to the Hardin-Olsen paradigm. It focuses on cooperative mechanisms and aims to demonstrate the possibility of cooperative outcomes from competitive games. Drawing on an "institutional-economic analysis" of local forms of common management it aims to prove the economic rationality of cooperative mechanisms. It argues, using models derived from "theory of repeated games" such as the "prisoner's dilemma", that cooperative behaviour can grow out of the long-run interests of foresighted self-interested individuals (Bardhan, 1993; Ostrom, 1990; Seabright, 1993).

Despite a reoriented focus on community management in development policy, the shift attempted by the first critics of the Hardin-Olsen paradigm does not seem to have occurred at a deeper level. The assumptions about human nature underlying the old visions of local communities remain fundamentally unchallenged. The criteria for comprehension of the "other" is the idea that all individuals share a common and universal nature.

The modernist perception of indigenous people viewed individuals on an evolutionist scale of progress from "primitive" to "modern". The underlying idea was that human beings all over the world share the same nature but are distributed on a scale that goes from "backwardness" to "modernity" and "progress". The "tragedy of the commons" and the "conservation paradigm" - as we have seen - share these assumptions, which are expressed in the opposition between indigenous realities and State/private control of resources and in the pessimistic view of indigenous peoples' capacity to organize themselves.

In a similar fashion, the "mythical communities", although acknowledged in the policy debate as endorsing the local community with authority, are thought of as being regulated by norms, tradition and values devised by universal human mechanisms. These are seen as functions of society that can be modelled and understood as general mechanisms. At the same time, the institutions viewed as "equilibrium outcomes of a structure of individual incentives" that institutional economics searches to understand and model also rely fundamentally on a universalistic perception of humanity, applicable worldwide.

The humanitarian assumptions on which the representation produced in development discourse is based do not enable the effective shift of power required by participatory development. A shift of power would entail the development process being understood by all stakeholders involved as an encounter between equal diversities.


This section begins by highlighting the use made throughout a specific project literature (FAO/Government of the Syrian Arab Republic: "Rangeland Rehabilitation and Establishment of a Wildlife Reserve in the Syrian Steppe") of the image of open access to describe the relationship between the Bedouin of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Badia. In common with the narrative established in the 1989 World Bank discussion paper, in this programme open access comes with its corollary of State intervention, erosion of a precedent traditional system and land degradation.

We will then follow the construction of a "project genealogy" elaborated by the use of the above rhetoric. An interpretation of the past supports specific intervention in the present. References to the "traditional Bedouin hema system", its erosion and the need for it to be restored are a call for action. The intervention proposed by the project in the present is in fact the formation of a "new civil society" portrayed as if in continuity with the past. We will therefore look at the current development programme in the light of a history of development interventions in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Finally, the historical perspective adopted will enable us to highlight how a fictitious genealogy renders silent effective continuities with the precedent internationally funded development programmes in the country. Two aims seem to be reached by the project's rhetorical history: to support intervention and the form it assumes in the present, and to depoliticize intervention by portraying the changes it intends to produce as if in continuity with the past.

Open access in the Badia

Defining the Syrian Badia as being in a situation similar to that of open access seems to be common in the context of the Rangeland Development Project. In project documents the Badia is - as defined by Syrian law - State-owned and therefore accessible to and open to use by all. According to this perspective, resource management under public ownership invariably results in resource degradation. An issue that needs urgently to be addressed, therefore, is that of free access to land for all - defined as a quasi open access regime.

According to Syrian law the Badia is indeed defined as "open to all Syrian nationals" (Agrarian Reform Law No. 161, 1958). This normative and juridical definition of the Badia can be read as declaring State ownership equivalent to open access. Placing the Land Reform Law in its historical context will, on the contrary, reveal how no system of open access existed before it and no open access was inaugurated by it.

The wider political environment in which this law is set is the process of nationalization and redistribution of land that took place in the Syrian Arab Republic during the 1950s and 1960s (Rae et al., 1997). Ownership of land in the steppe had been defined in part during the 1930s by the French Mandate's policy, whereby extensions of "tribal" land were assigned to a few tribal sheikhs - those who could demonstrate claims to it. Tribal settlement was also an important part of the independent national government's programme, and the land previously assigned to the sheikhs was confiscated and redistributed by the State to tribespeople. The assimilation of the Bedouin was envisioned by means of settlement, redistribution of land and extension of cultivation into the steppe.

The Land Reform policy was established immediately after an indirect recognition of the political reality of the tribes. At the 1956 Tribal Conference of Damascus, the Syrian Government assumed a mediating role and worked for the solutions of dira (territorial disputes on rights of access to pasture) between the Hadidiyin, the Sba'a, the Mawali and the Gayyar tribes.3 The government's interest as mediator was to redistribute land so as to facilitate the settlement of all tribal members and to expand agriculture. The Ba'ath Socialist Revolution Party, which implemented the law after its rise to power in 1963, intended thereby to weaken the power of the great landlords by confiscating their land, to build a base of peasant support by redistributing it and to shape a new, productive, rural social order. Land in the Badia was therefore redistributed to tribespeople who generally continued to perceive it as tribal property, to make annual contributions to their sheikh, and to rely on him for the resolution of internal disputes and land allocation (Chatty, 1986: 68-75).

It becomes clear that no situation of open access existed before the Land Reform Law and no open access was inaugurated by it. The tribes the State was called upon to mediate between were clearly organized in the Badia in tribal diras (territories) according to customary law ('urf). "Opening to all nationals" in practice had meant an expansion of agriculture into the steppe, the inception of a programme of State cooperatives over the whole territory, the varied adjustment of the Bedouin to the changing landscape and to the new possibilities of improving income through cultivation and livestock production.

The specific definition used in the Land Reform Law ("opening the steppe to all national Syrians") probably intended to include and encompass within it the Bedouin tribes of the Badia. By doing so, the Bedouin of the Badia were nominally "transformed" into Syrian citizens and, at the same time, national authority was declared over the entire steppe. It is also an expression of Arab socialism that looked to strengthening its authority with respect to the entire population. It did so by expressing its intention to exercise control over the Badia in terms by which, in Islam, power detained is legitimated: common lands had always been considered in Islamic terms "of the umma" (Muslim community). More precisely, the ownership of natural resources remains ultimately with Allah, and the resource use is common to the umma.4 By "opening the steppe to all national Syrians" the government simply made itself guarantor of a pre-existing right in Islamic terms. The specific umma in this case is that of "all national Syrians", although it is also always, by extension, that of all Muslims.


Open access is therefore a metaphor, used in the project literature in a similar way to that used in the narrative we saw institutionalized by the 1989 World Bank discussion paper: erosion of traditional systems of resource management by hand of State intervention followed by the need to restore them by establishing new institutional arrangements. Project documents refer to a traditional system of resource management, the "traditional hema system", being replaced by the introduction of a system of State cooperatives. As a result, according to this view, the forms of communal grazing practised in the rangelands today are based on traditional systems of migration and correspond to a "quasi" open access regime. Serious range-management practices must therefore be revived and this must be done by setting up new local organizations in a participatory way.

Let us take a step back to understand what the hema system is. The hema system referred to in the documents is a concept, well known in Arab culture, of communal property. Hema is given authority by the Kuran, is supported by the Shari'ah (Islamic law), by the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet). It is therefore accepted and legitimated by the whole body of Islamic law. The historical origin of hema is unknown, but pastoral nomads in the Arabian Peninsula practised it in pre-Islamic times. The concept probably developed as a means of conserving and protecting limited and valuable natural resources of pasture and water in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula, and extended to non-pastoralists as well (Shoup, 1990: 195). Hema (from the Arabic word for "reserve" or "preserve") seems to have been a system by which lands were held in reserve and protected by customary law ('urf).

According to the project documents, this traditional system was abolished by State intervention and by the establishment throughout the steppe of a network of cooperatives for the regulation and productive organization of the land. Historically contextualizing the concept of hema as used here will show that, rather than being eroded by the State cooperatives, the hema system was "reinvented" in the process of establishing them.

In 1966 in the Syrian Arab Republic the young rural members of the Ba'ath Party took power in the so-called Neo-Ba'ath Revolution.

In 1967, 'Omar Draz, who had conducted a study on the tribal hema in Saudi Arabia between 1961 and 1967, was asked to study the pastoral sector in the Syrian Arab Republic. The poor results of the large State-planned Asyra Project implemented with FAO assistance since 19635 and the entry to power of a new group had stimulated the search for a new direction for development programmes.

The purpose of the Asyra Project was to revitalize the pastoral sector of the Syrian economy, which had been hit particularly hard by the 1958-61 droughts in which the country's sheep population was halved (Leybourne, Jaubert and Tutwiler, 1993: 1). A system of supplementary feeding for livestock was introduced; efforts were made to regulate the rangelands by instituting controlled grazing areas; and forage shrub plantation was inaugurated. The programme invested strongly in technology import and development (especially shrub seeding) and its philosophy was founded on the modernist approach of the emergent nation state's elite (Rae et al., 1997).

The Asyra Project's attempt to control and regulate access to and use of rangelands failed. The project area was in fact home to the three largest tribes in the Syrian Arab Republic: the Sba'a of the Aneza Confederation, the Hadidiyin and the Mawali. Although the project's approach was to downplay tribal affiliation, the 1975 termination report was compelled to recognize its lack of control over the Bedouin movements in the area.

The activities and technology introduced by the Asyra Project into the Syrian landscape (shrub plantations, supplementary feeding of livestock, mixed farming/livestock) have remained as features of the landscape in the Badia. Where the project was unsuccessful was in establishing a centralized system of regulating the rangelands that would control and monitor tribal migration and use of the steppe. Following this, in 1967 'Omar Draz launched a campaign to convince the agencies concerned with rangelands of the importance of studying the human factor (Chatty, 1986: 21).

Draz argued that the best way to improve the Bedouin economy and protect the rangelands would be to "return" the control of range management and conservation back to the Bedouin and "revive" the Bedouin tradition of hema. The recommendation for a return to a system of communal ownership appealed to the government's orientation and was an example of Arab socialism. The Arab character of hema overshadowed its tribal connection.6 By reviving the hema, the government by no means intended to strengthen the tribal structures in which hema was embedded.

As Shoup (1990) makes clear, traditional hema was closely tied to the tribal structure and to the concept of 'asabiyah (group solidarity). It was part of a larger system of rangeland allocation and use. Hema areas seemed to be set aside by a khamsah group within a tribe. A khamsah group was the smallest political unit within a tribe and claimed a territorial area, a wajahat. The wajahat of a khamsah consisted of land and resources used by the group during the course of the year to the general exclusion of other khamsah of the same tribe. Specific pastures were open to use by any member of the tribe: they were mudarib. The khamsah group took first responsibility for protecting its wajahat, mudarib and hema. If members of other tribes tried to use their areas without proper permission, each khamsah could rely on the assistance of all other khamsah of the same tribe.

Traditional hema land was, therefore, protected by the 'asabiyah of the tribe. Individuals from other tribes were allowed to graze their flocks on tribal rangeland with permission from the majlis (tribal council) administered by 'urf (customary law). Customary law regulated the usufructuary rights to hema lands. The majlis also discussed punishments of infractions on hema restrictions. The strength of group solidarity was demonstrated in times of crisis and the hema system was upheld by the group's willingness to defend hema areas and the constraints that 'urf placed on their use. The respect for the constraints put on the individual by 'asabiyah was the fundamental aspect of the institutionalization of the hema system among the Bedouin tribes.

It was clearly therefore not the traditional tribal structure but rather a generalized "idea of hema" that appealed to the government. Following FAO recommendations, a system of so-called "hema cooperatives" was put in place. This is the form in which the "traditional hema" was revived.

A shadow of doubt is cast by Rae et al.'s study on whether the practice of hema ever existed in the project area. The examples cited by Draz of hema that had survived the nationalization of the steppe in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Syrian Arab Republic were all located in the precipitation band with 300-500 mm average annual rainfall. In the Syrian steppe under the 200 mm isohyets (where the project was planned to be implemented), his study documents the existence of "controlled grazing", either through a permit system or less formally through tribal membership (Draz, 1969: 1-5, cited in J. Rae et al., 1997: 11).

In 1969, the "Syrian National Programme for Rangeland and Steppe Development" was implemented and the Wadi al 'Azib centre for consultation was selected as the programme's centre of operation.7 Cooperatives were spread over most of the Syrian Badia, especially in the areas that were the traditional pasture lands of the most powerful Bedouin tribes (Ruwalla, Sbaa', Mawali, Hadidiyin). A devolved system based on the existence of tribal areas couched within the cooperative framework was established. A "traditional" system, the hema system, was therefore "invented" for the introduction of the "cooperative hema system".

Ruptures and continuities in discourse

The devolved system of the cooperative programme presented itself as a rupture with the centralizing approach of the Asyra Project, but in practice it developed in continuity with it.

According to the definition proposed by the 1969 "Programme for Rangeland and Steppe Development", each cooperative was to be formed voluntarily by means of a petition from tribal subgroups. The government would not impose the organization on the cooperatives. To form a hema cooperative, a detailed description of the area's boundaries, the main vegetative cover, available water sources, grazing capacity (determined by a government livestock expert), season of use and a proposed grazing system were required, along with the identification of present and possible future members who would claim traditional grazing rights on the area.

The cooperatives thus formed were to be managed by a board of directors elected by the members. The board would be responsible for the operations of the cooperative: they would regulate the use of the land, license and monitor the numbers of livestock owned by each member, tax excess numbers and punish transgressors. Members would have exclusive use of the water resources within the boundaries of the cooperative hema lands, and individual herd owners would retain ownership of their livestock (Shoup, 1990: 200-201; Chatty, 1986: 21).

Encouraged by the government, throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s the cooperatives spread over the majority of the steppe. Interest-free revolving funds were established; extension services were fielded and supplementary fodder was distributed.

The network of cooperatives on the territory changed the landscape of the Badia, and the Bedouin moulded their rapidly changing livelihoods through and around the cooperative system. All the cooperatives were closely tied to the national livestock marketing system through connections with sheep-fattening cooperatives (tasmin). The cooperative system encouraged a quicker off-take of animals from the rangeland annually, which was instrumental in intensifying production. The "Cooperative Project" therefore shared the aim with the precedent Asyra Project of stabilizing livestock production. It attempted to do so by linking the area to the markets and establishing an extensive network of cooperatives over the steppe.

The institution of the hema cooperatives can also be seen in a wider political context. For the government, it also represented a method of spreading Arab socialism throughout the steppe, creating a base of rural support, and a renewed attempt to expand centralized control over the Badia. For the "development experts", it satisfied the attempt to push in the direction of a "people-oriented approach". For the herders, it was perhaps seen as yet another element in their diverse economy - a source of funds and subsidized feed. Thus, each party with an interest in the cooperatives had their own objectives and these objectives were divergent.

By exclosing areas, creating reserves, systemizing the distribution of subsidized feed and supporting shrub production the hema cooperative programme developed in continuity with the precedent government/FAO interventions in the area. Its innovative aspect, expressed by Draz's (1969) "participatory approach", was the recognition of tribal society and the need to work in harmony with it. Nonetheless, a previous existence of a hema system has not been documented but rather a "hema cooperative system" was rhetorically constructed as if it were identical to the traditional hema concept.

The ongoing development programme in the Badia does recognize that traditional migration practices are alive in the steppe, although to a certain extent overlaid by the current cooperative system. Clear evidence from the field shows that the cooperatives do not enjoy exclusive management and user rights on the lands allocated to them.8 Project surveys indicate that only a small percentage of range users during the winter season seem to be cooperative members. Non-cooperative members, in fact, claim seasonal rights and use of areas of "cooperative lands" that traditionally belong to their tribes. As part of this system of migration patterns, mobile herders who belong to the cooperatives involved in the project move to other areas during both winter and summer seasons, paying fees for stubble grazing.

Having said this, there is a concurrent insistence in the project literature that: a) there was once a hema system that has now disappeared; b) no clear land tenure arrangement exists; and c) there is now an organizational gap that must be filled. The mechanisms of resource use that are in use today are not a focus of attention and therefore become invisible or are perceived as "unclear". If equal dignity were to be given to the mechanisms used by the Bedouin today as is given to the traditional hema system of the past, an already existing organizational system might appear.

In the previous development programme we saw how the introduction of a cooperative system to manage the Badia became the (cooperative) hema system. It could be said that the hema system was in someway "reinvented" in this context. Draz's innovative attempt to make the cooperatives and the traditional hema coincide, in practice translated into establishing a governmental system of resource management in the Badia parallel to an existing one. The "organizational gap" identified by the project narrative today supposes a dissolution of tradition, and prepares empty spaces for intervention. According to this view, the open land, no longer empty of people, is still empty of well functioning rules.

At the same time, there is a twofold use of "tradition" in the project literature: the term is always positive when it is placed in the past, as in the case of the hema tradition of the past, but it becomes "negative tradition" when referring to the ongoing system. The project narrative entangles two discourses within each other: one in which tradition is positive (i.e. "absence of tradition is responsible for land degradation") and another in which tradition is negative (i.e. "indigenous tradition is responsible for land degradation"). There seems to be a reluctance to recognize the existing reality of tribes and what this entails in terms of land ownership, resource use and access mechanisms, and customary law. The lack of an in-depth analysis and recognition of local-level mechanisms and systems establishes a continuity between this "participatory" approach and Draz's people-oriented one, and carries similar risks.

While in the past, landscapes were imagined to be empty of any positive form of indigenous social life, they have today become populated by communities but seem to remain empty of well-functioning ways of management of the environment they depend upon and are part of. Project planning seems to need "closed" systems of range management for them to become visible and useful in a project context. For local institutions to be viewed as being effective and accountable they must be defined as discrete and clearly bound units - systems governed by equilibrium and fixed rules.

Finally, the project literature actively proposes a "project genealogy" using the "mythical community narrative". At the same time, it seems unaware of the risk of continuity with the previous programmes and the attempts to centralize control over natural resource management, while using the language of participation. As we have seen, the practical effects of past programmes have been to institutionalize a system that runs parallel to an existing one, where each is scarcely accountable to the other. As we will see, the use of decontextualized images has the effect of depoliticizing interventions that are highly political.


In the next section, we will pick up from the project literature those cues that hint of alternative representations of Bedouin life in the Badia. We will briefly refer to remarks made during the project's participatory assessments that indicate how, throughout the project and in relation to it, competition has arisen over access to resources. These are the cues of divergent discourses spoken throughout the project process that indicate how the language of participation is "as much co-opted from below as imposed from above" (Mosse, 2000).

The Bedouin of the Badia in a regional perspective

Over the past 40 years of development intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic a more complex understanding of the local population involved in projects has been gained. From the Asyra Project to today's, the most innovative change has been the "official" recognition of a communal grazing system based on migration patterns that follow tribal affiliation. At the same time, however, the existence of tribes in the Badia has been increasingly downplayed as the project progresses.

While the project advances in terms of the Bedouin groups that are members of the local cooperatives, the "tribes" slowly disappear from project documents. A first survey carried out in January 1997 targeted all the herders found to be grazing the areas at that time of the year: 73 percent were not members of the three cooperatives of the area. The majority of Bedouins using Arak and Al-Abbasiya's cooperative areas declared themselves to be of the Mawali tribe, while in Munbath they were Al-Unaza and Hadidiyin.

Indeed, the assessments carried out from then on have exclusively taken "cooperative membership" as the departure point from which to identify range users, and have no longer targeted the effective users of the area. Mawali, Hadidiyin, Al-Unaza transform themselves throughout the documents into "neighbouring communities", "user households", "mobile, settled and semi-settled communities" and are in general grouped together in the concept of "Bedouins".

In this way, the possibility of following common tribal affiliation among cooperative members and other Bedouin groups using the range is lost. Dawn Chatty shows how the hema system established over the 1970s was seized as an opportunity for some tribes to re-establish distinctions with others. Once sheep-raising became widespread at the expense of camel-raising, the distinction between the "noble-patron" tribes (traditionally the camel-raisers) and the "common-client" tribes (the sheep-raisers) became blurred and could no long be upheld on this basis. To re-establish this distinction, members of the "patron" tribes (such as the Al-Ruwalla and Sbaa' in the project areas) did not join the cooperatives; thus the government-sponsored hema cooperatives were composed mainly of "client" tribal groups such as the Mawali, Hadidiyin and some Al-Hassanna (Chatty, 1986: 146-147). Tribal affiliation among the cooperative members and the users of the range today could shed light on migration patterns and range-use regulation systems.

The extensive use in project assessments of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) and different socio-economic surveys document the composite reality of Bedouin activities in the Badia, but the information obtained seems to have been left unread, scattered. The information provided could shed light on the relationship within the same group, for example, between land use for cultivation of barley and land use for livestock herding. The cultivation of barley, use of supplementary feed for animals, migration patterns, and relationship with the cooperatives all form part of the wider system of production and resources management inscribed in the social environment of the Badia today.

The pastoral system of the Near East has, since its inception, and increasingly, been in close touch with the settled segment of the population.9 Over the past 50 years, there seem to have been constant changes in the pastoral means of livelihood, and Bedouin semi-nomadic pastoralism today comprises a variety of patterns. These depend on the transient equilibrium each group finds between available pasture, stubble-grazing on harvested crops and the increased dependence on supplementary hand-fed feed. The study by Leybourne, Jaubert and Tutwiler (1993), carried out in the northern Syrian steppe, describes Bedouin groups who are today either tending to settle in a mixed livestock/agriculture system or becoming increasingly migrant.

It can be said in general that land is sought for barley cultivation and/or to graze herds on standing crops between May and June or to graze them on cereal stubble between June and September. Herders may graze their animals on territory belonging to another tribe by paying a fee, but they may not cultivate the land. Grazing fees are also paid for the use of pasture land owned by a government cooperative and to graze stubble on farmer plots.

On tribal pasture land grazing fees are paid for access to water, which usually implies access to the pasture in the water-fed area. The increased mobility determined by the use of trucks to transport water, feed and sheep has led to a variety of solutions. The individual's own non-cultivated tribal land remains the preferential land and the most accessible grazing area. Patterns of migration develop according to these lines and following the agreements made from year to year for access to stubble and water points in cultivated areas, and pasture and water points in non-cultivated areas.

The possibility of "following these tribal lines" is opened by the words given in the project assessments. The documents, in different ways, tend to create dichotomies between, for example, settled and migrant herders. Contradictory voices that tell about complexity are often left silent in favour of proposing a generalized idea of "the Bedouins". In so doing, foreseeable problems in project implementation are attributed to "internal conflict" between Bedouin groups.

Throughout the project literature, the issue of land tenure is singled out as the major factor of insecurity that can affect project outcome, the one over which the project has no control. Portraying conflict and land issues as something "outside" the project actually conceals the fact that the project is fully involved in a political process. The project (FAO and the Steppe Directorate) in the field is working towards the creation of grazing committees that will manage clearly defined territory. Nationally, it is acting as a pressure group on government in this direction. As we will see, access to land (and water) is very much the issue at stake for the local Bedouins who are participating in the project.

Local systems of range management

As soon as migration patterns are recognized in the project literature they are described in the terms of the "open access" metaphor, incapable of seriously regulating rangeland use: this highlights the need for new institutions.

A different reading of project documents will highlight that indications on range use given by the Bedouin are - if underlined - numerous and quite detailed.

Settled groups of Bedouins claim traditional rights to specific land. In the perception of the Bedouins interviewed, rights to land are distinct from the existing cooperative system of range management and there is no conflict between the two regarding, for example, the subsidized feed distributed by the cooperatives.

Cooperative membership is not used as a criteria for exclusion from the benefits gained by their presence in the area, such as from the distribution of subsidized feed. On the contrary, membership is used as an officially accepted way to defend the members' prerogatives of access to the new resource: the renewed pasture land created in the area by project activities. At the same time, a mechanism to regulate "outsiders'" access is proposed by the Bedouins interviewed and seems to be accepted both by "insiders" and "outsiders": one specific group has priority of access and "right to land", and "users" external to the group can access the resource under payment of a fee.

Interestingly, some Bedouin groups today seem finally to be calling for a coincidence between tribal and cooperative areas: it would be the realization of Draz's dream! This coincidence needs to be understood and supported. Proposing grazing fees to access both one's "own" (tribal) land and land belonging to others is not a complete novelty, and similar mechanisms have been recently documented for other areas in the Syrian Arab Republic.

In the project area, PRA exercises certainly provide some indications of Bedouin views of acceptable mechanisms to regulate range use. It is also possible, however, that the call for the coincidence with the cooperative system of range management represents the interests of one specific group that is trying, through the project, to strengthen its claims to pasture and water to the detriment of others.

The project is establishing a grazing committee that it is hoped will manage successfully the relationship with the tribal element in the Al-Talila Wildlife Reserve. It is envisioned that, this "pilot grazing committee/cooperative system" will subsequently expand to the rest of the area and be legally and officially recognized by the government. For a coincidence between the two existing systems to be sustained today and to be sustainable over time, the mechanisms that enable such a coincidence must be more deeply understood.

The grazing committee formed for the Al-Talila Reserve is a newly established "Camel Cooperative". The formation of this new cooperative of camel-herders does suggest that a specific group indeed seems to be moving towards an exclusive right of access to the rehabilitated pasture land. The project literature also, in this case, tends to idealize the image of these herders: presenting the image of the "pure" camel-herder that is needed for integration into the wildlife reserve and the "eco-tourism" project activities. It must be underlined, however, that these camel-herders are, outside the reserve, sheep-herders as well. In stressing an opposition between camel-herders and sheep-herders the documents overlook the fact that the majority of camel-herders are in fact also sheep-herders.

What appears more clearly is that for the herders involved the issue at stake is land use, and that through the project they access more feed, water and rehabilitated pasture. While the FAO/Steppe Directorate project has "adopted" the Camel Cooperative to constitute the grazing committee in Al-Talila, it appears that these herders' interests also lie elsewhere. Through the project, some Bedouin groups have gained an exclusive access to the new resource, and the project has created its first "grazing committee".

The results of participatory assessments point to the way in which the new resources created by project intervention are being integrated into the existing system, and at the same time in someway are changing it. The herders of this new cooperative seem to be part of a group of four "tribes" (possibly sub-tribes of the same tribe). There appears to be two "core units" (Danah and Baggali) who own land and wells outside the project area and rarely come to Al-Talila, and two "peripheral" groups (Mlahid Abu Juma)who have been using al-Talila for pasture in spring, winter and autumn since the mid-1980s and migrating during the summer. A significant proportion also cultivate barley in the core group's area and feed their camels on subsidized feed. As observed previously, these camel- (and sheep-) herding tribes live the complex system of cultivation and migration.

It is clear that the regulatory system that actually exists in the steppe today is a tribal system. A few indications of how this system might work in managing natural resources have been referred to above. Throughout the transformations that have taken place in the Syrian Arab Republic over the past 50 years, a corporate sense of identity and common interests seems firmly alive in tribal structures that have themselves undergone numerous transformations over time. It is important to underline again how, today, some Bedouin groups seem to be calling for a coincidence between a tribal system and the cooperative-user group system sponsored jointly by FAO and the Steppe Directorate.

Finally, the extensive use of participatory techniques, unlike earlier development efforts, has enabled the Bedouin (but more directly one specific group) to become active stakeholders of this development process. Groups that become part of the development programme "acquire and learn to manipulate the forms of planning knowledge" and to make their knowledge available in forms that are compatible with bureaucratic planning (Mosse, 2000).

In conclusion, the intention in proposing this reading of a specific project literature was to hint at the complex ways in which different voices find an encounter in development programmes. The representations of "indigenous people and environment" outlined above are rhetorical images of this encounter that satisfy the conceptual demands of donors and agencies. Proposing a critical stance towards the persistence of images such as "open access" in development discourse intends to shift the negative presuppositions on indigenous realities that lie behind them. Presenting a critical view of the use made of participatory tools intends to push in the direction of a more effective shift of power in a context of "community development" and to shed light on development as a multicentred process.


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1 While disequilibrium models have indeed enabled a new understanding of dryland ecosystems, the reoriented focus on degraded vegetation is to be seen also as a reaction to the shortcomings of the mid-1970s to late 1980s "people-oriented approach". In this sense, recent programmes that target pastoralists have gradually shifted again from people to the environment with the effect of ignoring the political issue of land rights and the discussion on the degree to which national governments and international agencies actually recognize local knowledge and social and political structures.

2 In this position State (and private) control and local institutions are in strong opposition to each other: it is in this sense in continuity with the Olsen-Hardin tradition it intends to react to. The Bromley and Cernea approach is today widespread and implies the existence of neatly ordered and well-functioning local institutions eroded and weakened by a monolithic bureaucratic State (see, for example, Bardhan, 1993: 87). More recent approaches underline how nation states have rarely in practice detained a monopoly of coercion and should not be viewed as monolithic and unitary compounds (Mosse, 1997).

3 Contrary to the opinions that view tribes and nation states as being in conflict and opposition, tribes in the Syrian Arab Republic have historically called upon government assistance in resolving resource disputes. Historic precedents of the 1956 conference are the 1927 "Assembly of Sheikhs", convened by the French authorities in Hama, and the 1930 Conference in Palmyra, aimed at resolving hostilities between the Shammar and the Aneza confederations (Chatty, 1986). J. Rae calls attention to the government role in tribal affairs today (Rae et al., 1997: 24). R. Tapper (1983) shows how tribes can also be "constructed" by government, as in the case of the Shahsevan of Iran. Tribes can also be allied to national governments as in the case of the Al-Murrah servicing as the Saudi National Guard, or be totally dominated by the state, as E. Marx shows for the Bedouin of the Negev and T. Asad (1970) for the Kabish of Northern Sudan.

4 Arab socialism is itself an indigenous political-economic system. The roots of Arab socialism are found in Islam and traditional Arab society rather than in European concepts and ideologies. Michael Aflaq, founder of the Ba`ath party, "does not wish to erase the state of tradition in Rousseau-like or communist fashion, instead he celebrates the Arab cultural heritage and calls for its renaissance (ba'ath)" (Shoup, 1990: 213).

5 FAO has in fact been present in the country since 1961, when a range specialist was positioned in Wadi al 'Azib, a site disputed between the two tribes of the Sba'a and the Hadidiyin, and appropriated by the new government for the establishment of a research centre (Rae et al., 1997). The Directorate of the Steppe, based in Palmyra, was also established in 1961 to administer the steppe lands.

6 The Shari'ah accords an ambiguous status to tribal hema lands. The Prophet Muhammad shows a diplomatic attitude towards the tightly structured tribes of his time and is known to have recognized pre-existing tribal hema areas and confirmed tribal ownership, thus establishing the legality of tribal hema in the Sunnah. But a Hadith could be interpreted as contradicting this. It is perhaps for this reason that Islamic law remains vague about the issue of tribal hema lands (Shoup, 1990: 198).

7 An FAO range specialist had been positioned at this centre since 1961.

8 Documents of the ongoing FAO project clearly reveal that the main reason for being part of a cooperative is to obtain supplementary feed at subsidized prices and for the "possibility to acquire land" (FAO, 1998a: 11; 1998b: 26). Interviews by J. Rae in the northwest of the Syrian Arab Republic also found that cooperative members and administrative staff had little or no knowledge of the rangeland regulatory role they were supposed to fulfil. Not once was it suggested by interviews that the cooperatives provided a mechanism for rangeland regulation. On the contrary, 96 percent said they had joined the cooperatives for the subsidized feed on offer, and 4 percent said they did so because their sheikh had asked them to (Rae et al., 1997: 12).

9 There is widespread agreement that pastoralism has never been a subsistence economy but has always interacted with agriculture and the settled population, adapting to ecological variations and reacting to the rise and fall of trade centres, to the development of new trade routes and to the political actions of urban-based states (Chatty, 1986; Rae et al., 1997). Whether this may be a characteristic specific to the Near East, where herders have for centuries shared land with urban and agricultural others, is a matter for debate. A. Agrawal's (1999) study on the migrant raika pastoralists of western Rajasthan also describes the ongoing changing relations with the settled agricultural population.

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