Bringing the Syrian steppes back to life

Sustainable land use draws on the traditions and knowledge of the local people

Limited grazing allows the regeneration of flora

A herd of oryx from Saudi Arabia has been introduced into the Syrian wildlife reserve

Overgrazing and cutting of shrubs for fuelwood are destroying thousands of hectares of natural rangelands in the steppes of Syria, and threatening the food security of the Bedouin who call these lands home. A project focusing on the severely degraded ecosystems of the Al Badia steppe, is demonstrating that by temporarily excluding grazing sheep and other livestock from these areas and reseeding severely degraded pastureland, land can be rehabilitated and the fight against desertification can be won.

Overgrazing by a sheep population estimated to have quadrupled to 15 million head in the last 20 years has stripped away much of the vegetation in the area. Intensive barley cultivation in some areas and the uprooting and cutting of fodder shrubs for fuelwood have also contributed to the loss of natural vegetation. As the plant cover has declined, wind and water erosion have accelerated the process of desertification. Increased use of off-road vehicles has also had a destructive impact on both vegetation and soils. Their use to move sheep, supplementary feed and water has meant that few range areas have any rest period in which vegetation can recover and regenerate.

Efforts to rehabilitate the degraded rangeland under the FAO project, "Range Rehabiliation and Establishment of a Wildlife Reserve in the Syrian Steppe," have included soil analysis and reseeding with native plants and bushes. Alternative energy sources, such as solar energy and improved heating sources, are also being promoted in order to reduce high levels of plant cover destruction.

Now, after the second year of good rainfall, the striking difference between the protected areas and the overgrazed rangelands is evident to the area's Bedouin herders. Mohamad Mirreh, the project's Chief Technical Adviser, said, "Now that the Bedouin herders can see the dramatic effects of 'set-aside' on rangeland regeneration, we will redouble our efforts to work with them to devise practical and sustainable management plans."

The project, initiated in February 1996 through an agreement between Syria, Italy and FAO, also supports the establishment of a wildlife reserve of some 22 000 hectares and the development of ecotourism in Syria. The project is the subject of a photographic exhibition at FAO Headquarters in Rome from 26 May to 5 June.

Land degradation threatens traditional Bedouin ways in Syria

4 June 1998

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