Mohammed Al-Tamiri: “When we decide to plant a particular area with trees, ownership claims start to pour in.” [Archives:1998/11/Interview]

March 16 1998

Mr. Ali Mohammed Al-Tamiri is the Director of the General Forestry Directorate and the head of the 1998 forestation committee. He has a Masters degree in forestry from Sudan and a B.Sc. in arid-region agriculture form the King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia.
Al-Tamiri previously held the posts of head of the Deforestation Combating Department and the counterpart of the forestation and deforestation expert at the General Forestry Directorate.
Mr. Al-Tamiri talked to Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor, about the problems of desertification and forestation in Yemen.
Q: Could you briefly inform the readers as to the function of the Forestry Directorate?
A: The Forestry Directorate was established in 1990 after it was a small department at the Ministry of Agriculture. It consists of two departments: forestation and combating desertification. The Forestation Department aims to retrieve the country’s deteriorating plant cover. This means making our towns and cities look greener and more civilized, whether in terms of public parks or green belts around the cities.
Desertification is a clear and present danger in Yemen. About 95% of country’s area is desert. The remaining 5% is also in danger of gradually turning into desolate land because of out-of-control logging and grazing. The Deforestation Combating Department simply aims to increase the greenery and reduce aridity.
Q: Does that mean your work is seasonal?
A: Our work is all year round. Seasonal activities involve tree-planting campaigns and reminding the general public of the importance of protecting the land’s green cover and environment.
The Forestation Department makes great efforts, throughout the year to re-plant arid areas in Tihama, Hadhramaut, Mareb, Shabwa, Lahaj, Abyan, and other regions that are threatened with the advancing desert dunes.
Q: In lay terms, how important are trees for the environment?
A: Some people tend to think of trees as mere accessories for making a place look nice, whereas, they have direct and indirect effects on the environment.
Trees on a mountain slope, for example, prevent the top soil from being eroded by torrential rains thereby exposing the rock and rendering the place unsuitable for agriculture. These trees also help to slow down flood waters, giving them more time to seep into the soil and replenish underground water reserves.
The long-term effect of soil erosion is making farmers abandon their lands, inflicting real damage on the national economy. When farm lands are abandoned, more soil erosion takes place due to lack of plants to hold the soil together. In addition to erosion by water, there is also wind erosion that usually takes place in the plains.
There are also indirect benefits from trees, which not many people know about. Tree roots are often home for a type of nodular bacteria, which live in symbiosis with these roots. The roots provide the bacteria with certain nutrients, while, the bacteria increase the nitrogen in the soil thereby increasing its fertility.
Trees planted at water sources can protect dams from damage. They slow down torrential water, which often carries with it all sorts of rocks and silt. Thus, the damage done to dams can be considerably reduced and the costs to clean the dam of accumulating silt diminished.
In areas surrounded by deserts, trees act as windbreaks to prevent sand dunes from encroaching on the farms.
Some trees such the acacia are used to provide animal feed during winter, the dry season in Yemen. Farmers prune the tree tops and feed them to their animals in winter.
All these benefits are provided by trees, not to speak of releasing oxygen in the atmosphere through photosynthesis and soothing the oppressive hot weather.
Q: Do you coordinate your activities with the municipalities concerned?
A: The two sides complement each other, technically and expertise wise. Our department provides the municipalities with information about the most suitable saplings to be planted and in which environment. Also, some other technical information is given such as the distance between two successive trees, how to irrigate, the need for metal meshes around tree trunks, etc.
Q: What is the role of farmers in all of this?
A: Old policies treated farmers as mere spectators to be provided with information, technical support, funds, etc. Such a policy proved to be useless. Nowadays, farmers are encouraged to take a bigger part in decision making, choosing the site and maintaining it, and even providing some of the funding. This way, a farmer would feel as a more important participant in the process.
Q: What trees do you encourage people to plant?
A: Well, this actually varies from one region to another. In Sanaa, for example, we tend to plant a certain type of pepper, cypress, camphor tree, acacia, and olive trees. We encourage farmers to plant olive trees for both forestation and as a source of a cash crop. Ultimately, it all depends on the climate in each region.
Q: Which governorates are in immediate danger of desertification?
A: The governorates that are presently facing the a real danger from desertification are Tihama, Mareb, Lahaj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadhramaut. These places lie on the edge of the desert.
Desertification has a wider meaning than just wind-swept sand dunes encroaching on green areas. A more encompassing definition of desertification refers to all kinds of deterioration in the plant cover, whether on the mountains, in the plains, at the coast, etc.
Q: What are the main reasons for desertification?
A: The majority of farmers are ignorant of the importance of having a plant cover to protect the upper soil from erosion. Even wild grass is important for holding the soil together. For immediate financial gains, farmers tend to over-log and over-graze green areas.
In Tihama, for instance, gathering firewood is a major source of income for many poor people. Most damaging of all is cutting the mangroves for firewood. Mangroves provide very important places for lobsters and other types of marine life to reproduce and multiply. They also act as windbreaks in the face of coastal sandstorms.
Another important source of desertification is the haphazard drilling of water wells. Farmers often drill wells too near to each other thereby depleting the underground water reserves. When a well goes dry, the farmer abandons the area, which becomes desolate, and drills another well in another area.
In remote regions where cooking gas cylinders are not usually available or when people are too poor to buy gas, dependence on firewood is more prevalent. This of course leads to an increase in logging.
Big farmers and other investors cut wild trees and other bushes to create new farms at high costs. The yield from such farms, however, is not that good. Some of these lands are, by nature, only suitable for grazing. They are not fertile enough to support economically feasible farming. So the investor abandons the land in desperation after removing its green cover and failing to turn it into a successful farm.
Another cause of desertification is urbanization at the expense of arable land. Cities, towns, and other urban centers are expanding by encroaching on farms and green areas. The rapid population growth in Yemen is also exacerbating matters.
Also, using saline water for irrigation causes desertification. Underground water in Hadhramaut, say, is found in three different layers. The third layer is usually where fresh water can be found. But many farmers do not have the facilities to drill deep wells to reach fresh water, so they use the more saline water at the top. This gradually increases the salinity of the soil to the point of rendering it unsuitable for farming.
Small and isolated populations such as in Hadhramaut also cause desertification. When these people can no longer support themselves, they immigrate to the major towns and cities and abandon their farms to desolation. So it seems that too large and too small populations can both lead indirectly to desertification.
On top of all that, low annual rainfall and long periods of drought cause large areas of arable land to become arid. The soil in some coastal areas is rather thin and easily eroded by wind and water.
All the above factors interact with each other in a complicated manner, leading to more desertification.
Q: Aren’t there any legislations or even tribal customs to stop people from damaging the country’s flora?
A: Islam urges us to plant trees as much as we can. ‘Even if the Day of Judgment is upon you and you see a sapling, plant it;’ goes a saying attributed to the Prophet (P).
Some tribal customs also protect greenery and arable lands. In Hadhramaut, for example, people put fertilizer on a plot of land and announce that it is to be protected for six months. No grazing or cutting of bushes or trees is allowed on this protected land. The ban is only lifted when the land is suitable and ready. Another tribal custom obliges people to only cut dead branches, and save the rest of the tree.
A draft law is submitted by the Directorate of Forestry and the Environment Protection Council to help protect the environment in Yemen. This law has not been ratified yet.
Q: Isn’t there any contradiction between planting trees, which need a lot of water for irrigation, and the water scarcity in Yemen?
A: Yes, there is. The major obstacle that hinders our work now is lack of water. When trees are planted in a certain area, a water tank, a pump, and pipes have to be made available; a thing not always easy to do.
Another obstacle is land ownership. When we decide to plant a particular area with trees, ownership claims start to pour in. In Khokha – an important tourist resort – as soon as tree-planting started, thousands of people submitted land claims. It took a lot of efforts to sort things out.
Q: Do you receive any support from foreign organizations?
A: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank, Switzerland, Holland, and the US have been supporting Yemen’s efforts to fight desertification for the last 12 years.
Local funding, however, is rather small. The Forestry Directorate’s annual budget does not exceed YR 2 million.