Soil, Dirt, Earth: Deserts, Rural Communities, and Power in Jordan

Taraf Abu Hamdan, Central European University

“The wonder of the desert is that is barren, and lacks vegetation, and it could die for several years, but it never kills its people.” -Ibrahim Alkoni

The Middle East and North Africa region has an ever-looming threat of environmental ruin and increasing instability hanging heavily over it. Jordan is not immune to these threats. Its rural areas, in particular, have experienced upheavals, protests, and local mobilizations of discontent, largely centered around issues of corruption and economic grievances. For these communities, access to and control of increasingly scarce natural resources are a matter of survival and subsistence. Agricultural support programs have increased over the past few years, based on a recognition that the country, while water-poor and largely arid, still has untapped economic potential for commercial agriculture with the introduction of technological interventions and strategies. Soil[1] is often missing from these discussions and its role in land use underestimated.Yet soil has a semi-ubiquitous presence in different domains of life, especially in rural areas, making it harder to disentangle its role within different social, political, and economic issues. Where as land has macro and long term socio-economic and political power implications, soil is a day-to-day issue for livelihoods. Access and control of soil resources, as well as interventions and policies related to the mitigation of its degradation and loss, are as important as water issues within natural resource governance.

The MENA region has been especially defined by its environment. What Davis (2020) calls environmental imaginaries have been continually constructed (see Benghezi in this collection), and have often been used to institute political and social decisions that impacted indigenous nomadic communities and their livelihood negatively.  Here I explore how imaginaries about the environment and nomadism influence approaches to resource and livelihood governance in rural Jordanian Bedouin spaces. By considering the dynamics related to state, development, and community, I aim to investigate what soil management can reveal about the tensions and power struggles that underlie the development and control of Badia[2] resources and livelihoods. This paper is part of a larger project which centers the role of institutions (formal and informal) in rural community livelihoods and natural resource governance.

These expert narratives see desert and arid landscapes as fragile with little inherent value and are used as precautionary landscapes, to be avoided, controlled, and rehabilitated. Soil degradation and its remedies are a matter of expert judgment (Blaikie 2016). This judgement is often rooted in these narratives, as are possible solutions which involve matters of access to resources as well as the availability of alternative livelihoods to allow time for soil recovery. To that end, the various domains of soil management can highlight the different political, social, and economic power dynamics, both historically and presently at play in rural areas. This relates both to the reasons and processes behind its degradation as well as necessary remedies.

Imaginaries of Arid Environments, Nomadic Lifestyles, and Sedentarization

Environmental and ecological features of a landscape are important in how it is used and governed, yet these features are not the only determinants of how nature or resources are managed. In addition to ecological and economic considerations, social and political understandings of nature are also crucial.  Given the meanings and values we attribute to it, nature is socially constructed differently over time and by different groups (Pretty 2002). Visions and imaginaries of the environment and their changes over time influence ideas related to social identities (Davis and Burke 2011). The description of the region as being at high risk of desertification and environmental ruin is accompanied by narratives that implicate indigenous populations in the ruin of their surroundings often constructed by colonial powers. However, narratives and imaginaries around the environment are dynamic and changing since the power relations that underlie them are also changing (Davis 2020).

Those who construct the narratives around environmental changes and what they mean for current and future conditions also determine the winners and losers when such imaginaries are operationalized in programs and policies (Davis 2020).  They can be part of efforts to control specific landscapes, creating or maintaining unequal power structures as a means to protect limited resources. This attitude can often extend to those who inhabit these spaces and their role in these changes. These external expert narratives ignore the dwelling perspective, which considers how the landscape is constructed as a record and testimony of those who have dwelt within it (Ingold 1993), and discounts how communities which have been historically able to survive within these landscapes have amassed a wealth of knowledge and strategies for subsistence.

States have also utilized such imaginaries and assumptions in their attempts to bring nomadic communities into the fold, especially since these traditionally autonomous transnational communities threatened the integrity of modern borders and the extent to which these regimes can manage and govern them. Implicating locals (especially nomads) in deforestation, overgrazing and overirrigation, facilitated state-building goals under the guise of efforts for environmental improvement or protection (Davis and Burke 2011). Beyond controlling resources and the environment, states have often forcibly sedentarized nomadic populations, under the guise of development and modernization.  Sedentarization is assumed, in the eyes of the state, as better and more desirable than mobile forms of subsistence (Scott 2017). Such policies were advocated by development agencies, conservation groups, and national governments (Fan et al. 2014) which are driven by the view that pastoralism is economically and environmentally inefficient and damaging while, sedentarization helps integrate former pastoralists with the national economy (Fratkin et al. 2006).

The introduction of modern political borders and limits on Bedouin movement meant that already fragile soil resources were not given the time necessary to recover between grazing and planting seasons. This led to their increasing degradation, while placing the burden and blame of degradation on the Bedouin and their rural livelihoods and practices. Soil degradation, to a certain extent, is a feature of modernization and is a symptom of forced sedentarization and (re)settlement signaling the failure of these schemes to consider the socio-ecological contexts as well as existing knowledge and expertise of communities in these environments. In Jordan, the state criminalized Bedouin livelihood and lifestyles, confiscated their cattle, and forced the sedentarization of nomadic Bedouins (Massad 2001). Moreover, tribal lands became nationalized and placed under government control (Gari, 2006). These programs focused on limiting movement and resettlement of nomadic people and encouraging sedentary activities such as fodder crop growing and animal husbandry (Bocco 2006). The soil degradation which followed can be understood as a feature of modernization and as a symptom of forced sedentarization and (re)settlement, signaling the failure of these schemes to consider the socio-ecological contexts of traditional community knowledge and governance mechanisms. While many of these programs were touted as progress under the guise of modernization, they often served to reinforce neopatrimonialism and royal patronage, bolstered by the allegiance of the pro-monarchy tribes and their coopted leaderships (Abu-Hamdi 2016).

Development, Modernization, and Greening the Desert

Attempts at transforming deserts into cultivation have been a feature of nation-building in different countries, including the United States, Australia, India, Pakistan, China, Central Asia, and the former Soviet Union (Davis and Burke 2011). Both colonial and nationalist regimes have tried to “green the desert” as part of a multitude of political, economic, and social goals (Sowers 2011).  Such projects are common in the region and require massive investments, with technical and material inputs often brought in from the west/ donor countries, further entrenching the idea that desert and arid lands are unused/usable.

The question of economic development in MENA is often posited as geography vs. demography (see Mitchell 2002. Jordan’s approach to rural development can be understood in similar terms. Alongside the country’s neoliberal turn in the last 30 years, there has been an increase in technocratic solutions that view the environment and rural development as adaptation spaces that require technical or economic solutions while disregarding the impact on societies within these spaces (Mitchell 2002; Abu-Hamdi 2016). These technical solutions can become powerful tools to destabilize the existing community bonds and organizational setups (Abu-Hamdi 2016). Furthermore, these solutions shift knowledge bases from local and traditional sources (tribal elders, community leaders) to technocrats or experts appointed by the government or development agencies. Thus, the community is made reliant on the state/ development agencies as opposed to its traditional grassroots mechanisms. The existing favoritism in terms of access to state resources in turn causes certain communities to become further marginalized, increasing their vulnerability and impacting their livelihoods. This further deepened uneven power relations, community vulnerability and undermined historical and traditional community-based livelihood, solidarity, and resilience strategies.

With the increase in foreign aid relevant to rural development since the early 2000s, there has been a renewed interest in rural areas, their resources, and economic potential, as well as competition over access and dissemination of such aid. This is compounded by mega-project projects, including those related to green energy and climate mitigation, as well as tourism development. This has resulted in a renewed tension surrounding access and ownership of land and the management of resources.

From Shepherd to Security Guard: development strategies in the Badia

The development schemes of parts of the Jordanian Badia[3] offer a representation of these dynamics. In much of the Badia, the land is considered unusable or of limited use and value. Many of these lands belong to specific tribes, known as Al-wajhat al-asha’eria or tribal lands. These often-large swaths of arid lands are used for grazing and pasture. Much of the Badia has limited available infrastructure, access to roads, electrification, or telecommunication. While much of these lands became arid / desert only recently through the process of state building, as discussed above, there is an entrenched narrative that they are desertified and degraded and that this degradation is due to misuse by the Bedouins, pastoralists, and local communities misuse.

During fieldwork in Amman, Jordan and through conversations with agricultural experts and bureaucrats conducted between 2019 and 2022, I explored how imaginaries of Badia and local livelihood practices, often results in development, rehabilitation, or conservation approaches that focus on technocratic and market-based solutions, which in turn further the marginalization of local communities entrenching existing inequalities and power dynamics. Several programs are attempting either to rehabilitate or find a way to take advantage of these “unused/unusable” lands through different schemes.

Restoration and rehabilitation

One example of these projects is the Badia Restoration Program through which lands are rehabilitated and planted with pasture crops that are then redistributed to the surrounding community that makes their livelihoods through pastoralism. The Badia Rangeland Rehabilitation Fund was set up as a compensation scheme due to pasture destruction after the Gulf War.[4] Lands to be rehabilitated were chosen based on technical specifications that are set and assessed by a committee of experts from the ministry of agriculture. Once the land is chosen, a request for proposals is sent out for the planting, and the seedlings for salt brush (qatf Maleh)[5] are planted, the land is secured, and harvest is distributed. The land, which often is owned by tribal members, then becomes part of what is called state land (“Khazenat al dawleh”). This process is not reversible or time-bound. In turn, the landowner can hire or employ their relatives as security guards or other related positions for taking care of the land; they also reportedly receive other benefits related to employment and the potential to get paid to plant the land. Because the land is seen as valueless or unusable for any other projects, due to its distance from infrastructure and the land cover/ soil type, this is often seen as the best way for pastoralists, especially since the crops used are saline and drought tolerant but provide enough feed for animals. Khazenat al dawleh lands have been contested in the past, especially once commercial investment returns are higher than the initial promised benefits to the tribal members, or when employment opportunities end. Other rural areas[6] show that shifting autonomous subsistence livelihoods to wage labor through has been unsustainable and can result in conflict, especially since government employmemt is being actively rolled back and development funds have a time limit.

Sustainable Agricultural Investment

Another set of programs encourages commercial agricultural investment in lands in Badia and other lands that are considered second or third-tier agricultural land (in terms of suitability and soil conditions) and finding the lands that fit the technical requirements for planting (water availability, soil, and topography that can be rehabilitated, and access to infrastructure). These state lands can then be rented by agricultural companies or investors to use for their commercial activities. However, there are restrictions on which crops can be planted: 1- they must have commercial value, 2- they must be water smart / do not require much water, 3- must be a crop that the country has a shortage in/ necessary for food security or one that would not compete with existing crops in the market (such as tomatoes). Land can be rented from the government for “competitive prices,” with infrastructure being provided (roads, water, electrification), however, it is not clear yet if it will be provided by the government or the investor or if the cost is embedded in the rental price. The idea behind this newly introduced project, which is backed up by the royal court and the king (shown by the king’s personal visits to some of the locations), is that by supporting agricultural investments, the country will be closer to food security, while these projects will provide economic and employment opportunities to locals in the selected areas. It is worth noting that many of these areas are home to communities that are well below the poverty line. Similar agricultural investments in the late 1980s Badia have not been successful with most contracts being revoked due to water shortages. Given the rampant inequalities within the agricultural sector and in the rural space, such investments in marginalized areas do not hold the promise of remedying inequalities, rather they threaten to exacerbate them. Furthermore, the readiness to allow investments onto contested and supposedly degraded and remote lands without a clear resource governance structure underscores the lack of coherent strategies related to rural development and natural resources.

Concluding thoughts

The current development approaches and agendas revolving around the Badia aimed at the rehabilitation of the land, ensuring food security and economic opportunity underscores the power struggles at play around land and soil use classification. Many of these tensions that underscore rural development strategies are not unique to Jordan, but feature in many post-colonial state formation and development narratives. Yet, when it comes to the MENA region, there is a clear lack of discussion of the issues related to land and agrarian politics (Ajl 2021). Rural inequalities are rife in the region well beyond Jordan (Ajl 2021).

Jordan has seen several protests of tribes demanding to reclaim their lands now that they have been used for commercial purposes. On the surface, the protests seem to center on economic and unemployment grievances; these are often a result of legacies or marginalization in rural areas.[7] According to activists, community organizers, and experts underlying tensions resulting from accusations of land and resource theft of tribal lands under government control that is claimed to be rented or sold for commercial or investment purposes (Personal communication Nov 2019 and Jan 2022).

Temporality plays a relevant role in the classification of arid lands. While the land would have been unusable over the past few decades from a commercial exploitation standpoint, this is a changing condition due to technological advancement, the discovery of historical sites, or tourism attraction.[8] While communities might be willing to give up access or ownership to the lands at the time due to lack of any use, the question remains on how to address the issue of justice when the land becomes valuable from a market perspective due to advances or discoveries.

Soil has a symbolic meaning for grassroots resistance and subsistence, it is part of the everyday livelihood of rural communities.  The continued encroachment on these spaces and the livelihoods of those who dwell in them is driven by contradictory narratives about the landscape and livelihoods, that are both damaging of productive lands, and backwards on unusable landscapes, with modernization, technology, and market forces offering the solutions either way. The attempts at commercializing Badia lands through agricultural investments has been attempted and scrapped in Jordan before[9] due to water scarcity concerns. While the supply of water is even more strained and land more degraded today, the return to such projects underscores contradictions in how the state views its own resources and communities which can be traced back to these long-established narratives about Bedouin responsibility for its degradation and the need to modernize and commodity rural livelihoods.


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[1] In most policy and development circles, issues with soil and its management are embedded within land issues, whereby both are often conflated. For purposes of this discussion, land than could be thought of as space where livelihood activities may take place, and soil as one of the ingredients for these activities. Soil is one of the components that determine land use.

[2] Refers to the Jordanian steppe lands that are arid/ semi-arid and constitute 80% of Jordan’s land area. The definition of the exact term is controversial, it is sometimes taken to relate to the term Bedaya (start).

[3] Badia is not considered to be the same as desert since there is extensive plant and animal life, and is characterized by arid and semi-arid areas

[4] The project is funded by the United Nations Compensation Committee – more information can be found on the project site:

[5] This plant is drought and salinity tolerant and can be used as fodder, it also helps rehabilitate the land by reducing salinity

[6] One prime example is Thiban, See Jarrar, S., & Melhem, Y. (2019, April 9). Society undermined: A Jordanian district’s road to poverty and unemployment. 7iber. Retrieved March 19, 2022, from

[7] Protests span rural and urban spaces focusing on economic issues but differ (at least on the surface) in terms of demands, demographics, and approach.

[8] Examples of this are the community tensions and changes in livelihoods in areas like Petra and Wadi Rum which are active and popular tourism sites. Currently, there have been archeological discoveries in parts of the south eastern parts of Badia which might spur tourism investment.

[9] Contracts to Agricultural companies to operate in Wadi Rum (southern Badia) starting in the 1980s for 25 years, that were not renewed after the decision to divert ground water from agriculture to the urban areas for drinking use.