Planning for Conversation: The Management of Vernacular Landscape in Asir Region, Southwestern Saudi Arabia

Article excerpt

For centuries, local inhabitants of the southwestern highlands of Saudi Arabia appear to have managed successfully to balance population growth with natural resources under a local tribal self-government. The land management system came under centralized authority after the establishment of the Saudi state in 1932. The state witnessed the integration of various tribes and geographic regions into one unified government. Since 1932, Saudi Arabia has undergone tremendous population and economic growth following the implementation of six development plans. The changes affected the local institutions established by the tribes, which had once governed natural resources use. The breakdown of the old methods of land management now prevents indigenous residents of the area from protecting the forests of the region, and from exploiting them in sound ways as they have done traditionally. In this article, I propose that the current government approach to land management can be modified to return legal title to indigenous residents for the co-management of forests and local resources with pertinent governmental agencies. A new stewardship program could combine scientific knowledge and practice with traditional expertise.

Key words: conservation planning, land management; Saudi Arabia, Asir

Today there is considerable global concern over the environment both man-made and natural, a concern by no means limited to ardent conservationists (Nassauer 1995). In recent years, this issue has begun to receive serious attention in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Figure 1). For centuries, local inhabitants successfully balanced population growth with natural resources. This was especially evident in the Asir Region of southwest Saudi Arabia, where conditions were conducive to settlements instead of the harsh nomadic way of life (Figure 2). Asir, compared with the extremely arid desert of central Arabia, is a highly productive region of extraordinary landscape with distinctive agronomic techniques. This presents an ecologically-oriented field of investigation with a considerable challenge (Eben Saleh 1996). This unusual region reveals a strategy carefully attuned to the climate and culture of the diverse tribes. It featured a participatory approach to land management, where certain members of the tribe were designated to oversee specific elements of the landscape, such as water, forests or grazing resources. The result was an efficient, but flexible, land management system.

After the unification of the Kingdom in 1932, land management came under the control of the central government. The breakdown of the traditional methods of land management left indigenous residents of Asir neither able to protect the resources of the region nor to exploit them in productive ways, as they did in the past. Following the implementation of six development plans, the Kingdom has witnessed tremendous population and economic growth in recent decades, which exacerbates the problem.

The development and restoration of the natural environment and its resources should be included in the multiple objectives of national development plans. However, the inclusion of environmental conservation measures in development and natural resource management is still far from the concerns of planners and related agencies (Hagvar 1994). Although Saudi government programs launched initial environmental conservation in 1975 to remedy alarming rates of natural resource encroachment and to help restore the natural resources at a national level, local residents were minimally involved in the planning and implementation of such programs. In spite of government preservationist policies, the pressures on the indigenous population of this region for economic survival led to disputes over the use of environmentally sensitive areas. Government officials now realize that their hard-won goals and standards may be abandoned in the places where the battle began. Kim (1997) notes that the rationalization of local expenditure on management is very important to establish incentives for local authorities to behave as entrepreneurs rather than as bureaucratic units. …