Forests in the desert
This article was first published on the website of The Guardian on March 9, 2023.
Jordan is one of the driest nations on the planet, but Deema Assaf believes that with time, patience and new conservation techniques she can turn it green again.
Deema Assaf walked slowly through Birgish, one of only a few forests in Jordan, careful not to step on one of the delicate wild orchids. "We once had dense forests," she said. "There were elephants, rhinos and the Asiatic lion, animals which used to co-exist with people here." She gazed up at the top of an old oak tree and said, "Discovering that made me see the landscape from a different perspective. It is fascinating to see the potential if human intervention were not affecting it negatively."
Seeing the landscape from a different perspective
Deema is an architect and urban forester. Petite and blue-eyed, she is an avid collector of information about native plants and the natural world. She is the founder and director of "Tayyun", an Amman-based research studio exploring urban rewilding and the regeneration of urban ecosystems through native forest creation and cross-species architecture.
After working as a full-time architect for more than ten years, Deema left her job to look for something more meaningful. She became deeply involved in regenerative landscaping and native forest creation, often referred to as permaculture. She was inspired by a video about a 2,000-year-old forest in Morocco made by Geoff Lawton, an expert in permaculture.
In the film, she saw a man-made forest in a dry country, with a high ceiling of foliage, sleek pillars of palm trees and walls of fruit trees surrounding a series of cool dark glades where filtered light seeped in. The forest floor was carpeted with shrubs and grass. Inspired, she decided that this was what she wanted to do in her native Jordan.
Small ecosystems are fundamental
Her research led her to the Miyawaki method, which creates ultra-dense, highly biodiverse, multi-layered native forests ten times faster than nature itself does. The method initiates the restoration of lost indigenous forests, a process that would normally take hundreds of years. "Moving from architecture to urban rewilding and native forest creation simply felt like the right thing to do," she said. Her approach goes beyond planting individual trees. It is about establishing a complex and dynamic plant "community" in a "living" soil, reconnecting native species that co-evolved together for thousands of years.
Currently, Jordan's land is mostly arid; much of it is desert. Rainfall is scarce. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), forests in Jordan cover only about 86,000 hectares or 1% of the country's surface. Despite the challenge, Assaf believes it is crucial to act, now more than ever. "It is not drought that causes bare ground; it is bare ground that causes drought." She says the more we work on greening, the more water we will get and that nature has the ability to restore itself, even in the driest places. "Working with nature is a gentle yet firm call for patience, determination and faith to trust the process."
Assaf started small. Her first site, in 2018, was only 107 square meters on private property. She has gradually built a database for native forest creation in Jordan. "We are constantly testing techniques, always learning, refining, and fine-tuning". So far, Tayyun has planted four forests with more than 2,700 native plant seedlings. The organisation also collects seeds for others, including those of endangered species in Jordan.
"It's in the land's DNA"
She organises workshops and offers volunteer opportunities where people from all walks of life can join tree planting, seed harvesting and seed processing. Today, Assaf is preparing a fifth forest with 1,100 native plant seedlings. When asked how she chooses a site, she replied, "It is pretty simple. If it was once a forest, it could be a forest again. It is in the land’s DNA."