Sulh: Settling disputes over resources in Soqotra (PART 2/2) [Archives:2002/41/Reportage]

October 7 2002


The inspiring talk from the police chief did not have the desired effect, for upon its return the group delivered a no-compromise, no negotiations ultimatum, which failed completely to see any reasonable ground to the special request for water by the villager from Kedina.
Indeed, the written statement that was read out loud was a declaration of war against this or any other intruder into the wadi. The main points were the following:
Nobody will be allowed to take out water from the wadi, and anyone who tries will be prevented from doing so;
ii) The villagers were ready to spend money to take this case to the highest court in the country;
iii) They will physically defend the water from the wadi, even if it costs the lives of all the villagers.
This was extreme bravado talk, a kind of brinkmanship. For the statement identified exactly what everyone would prefer not to take place. Perhaps it was an implicit reminder to all of the consequences of not reaching an amicable resolution. Thus there was no need to despair; this was part of the politics of peace. In response to this, the villager from Kedina seemed to have raised the stakes with some bravado talk of his own by demanding compensation for the trees that died because his pipes were pulled out of the wadi. This was seen as an outrageous demand from an intruder, which led to a rise in tension in the assembly. The language switched from Arabic to Soqotri, as the former was no longer adequate to convey the real feelings of the parties, perhaps.
Venting anger
This was a time to allow people to vent off their anger, and the committee knew that and did not try to prevent it but to manage it with calls to order and motioning to those who sought to monopolize the discussion to give a chance to others. After all, eight villages were involved and clearly each one had to air its particular grievance and give examples of the sacrifice they were making by withdrawing their own pipes from the wadi, so why should one village be exempted from this collective abnegation for the common good.
Moreover, why did one villager select this time to plant ninety palm trees, in the absence of rain for over a year, and then have all of the other villages bear the burden of his unreasonable decision? Some were asking. This moment of catharsis, however useful, had to be brought to an end. The police chief called the assembly to order, to suggest that tomorrow morning a visit will be paid to the wadi, and that any decision regarding water use, will depend on the water level. Also the following order of priority in water usage will be observed: Drinking and cooking, irrigating vegetable gardens, and palm trees. It was time for everyone to find shelter for the night; it was well past ten o’clock at night.
Early morning trail
Before seven in the morning people had already formed a long trail along the narrow paths next to the wadi and were walking toward its source. It had drizzled the night before so the water was running fairly strongly, and the network of natural pools along the wadi bed was full. This was a good sign, as it would facilitate the finding of a solution, perhaps.
The black vinyl pipes could be seen laying on both sides of the wadi, withdrawn and piled up, as if awaiting a decision about their fate. We were on our way to observe the only pipe allowed in the wadi, and it belonged to the mosque. It was placed, and cemented down, in the crevices of a rock that served as a natural conduit for the water right at the beginning of a slope where the water attains its maximum momentum as it goes down. This was no doubt the most strategic part of the wadi in which to place a pipe, and thus obviate the need for a pump.
Everyone had seen the level of the water in the wadi; now the time had come to enter into the final phase of negotiations that must lead to a collective agreement, as failure was not an option given that the alternative to the Sulh process did not offer a better prospect for a resolution. However, these negotiations will be conducted in small groups.
On one side, the committee will figure out what would the most acceptable resolution of this conflict, which would be based on the principle of sharing of natural resources as per the advice of the Hadith while not appearing to be too generous with the villager from Kedina, whose judgment about the timing for planting trees was not the best, mildly put. On the other side, those who oppose the request from the villager from Kedina had to figure out what would be acceptable to them, as total refusal would be contrary to their sense of community, while not giving in to any excessive generosity on the part of the committee, and thus be ready to whittle down the Committee’s largess.
As we returned from visiting the wadi, those who were not involved in making decision gathered under a giant tamarind tree, where mats and pillows were placed. The tree was in the form of an enormous umbrella that was at least fifteen meter high and with a twenty-meter circumference of shade. It was perhaps over a hundred years old.
Subhur Mahla
That spot was called ”Subhur Mahla”, and it is where all official functions of all the neighboring villages are held. A few weeks earlier a camel was slaughtered in honor of a villager who had returned from the Emirates. Already the members of the committee had congregated under a tree about twenty meters away; out of hear shot of the curious onlookers. On the opposite side and within a similar distance of the gathering under the tamarind tree, the members of the ”opposition” were in a circle formation already engaged in heated discussions under the leadership of the sheikh of the area.
Their objective was to agree on what would be acceptable to them as a solution and thus be ready to suggest an alternative to whatever the committee might propose. The committee’s strategy of deliberation was to debate among themselves all of the viewpoints aired during yesterday’s session taking into account what they had observed during the visit to the wadi, in order to harmonize their position into a tentative proposal for a resolution of the conflict. Once this is achieved, the proposal is shared with the sheikh to test its acceptability.
Further discussion will follow between the committee and the sheikh. Finally, the latter having conveyed his reaction to the committee’s proposal, agrees to take it to his people for their review and approval or further modification. In this way leaving himself some margin for further negotiations. In the meanwhile, the villager from Cedilla had taken his seat among the others under the tamarind tree, waiting his turn for a separate meeting with the committee, where he will be informed of the agreement reached with those who opposed him, and his concurrence will be sought. At this point however, he is not expected to put much of a resistance as long as he gets some water. He had already risked so much to save his palm trees. He had incurred the ire of the entire community of fellow villagers; his social standing had suffered and he might be socially ostracized from now on.
It is only at the conclusion of these bilateral discussions and after agreement was reached between all of the parties that the plenary session is convened during which a member of the committee drafts the agreement, which will be duplicated by a Katib from one of the villages. Both copies will be signed by all the Muqaddam of the villages concerned as well as the sheikh of the region, the police chief as head of the committee, and the original owner of the land on which the wadi is located. Each one will affix his signature as well as thumbprint.
The latter is perhaps a relic of the days when illiteracy was much more widespread than it is now. As discussions were interrupted for the noon prayer, there was already emerging the basis of an agreement. However its finalization will have to wait for the observance of the noon prayer and the conclusion of lunch, which are essential parts of the ritual of settling a dispute:
Prayer reinforces the feeling of community, which was most needed in this context, while lunch provides a last opportunity to the hosting village to display its hospitality. The end of lunch signaled the resumption of bilateral discussions to bring the parties into a final reconciliatory embrace, metaphorically speaking. This was not easy, as it took until shortly before Al Asr prayer for the agreement to be drafted.
Its main conclusions were the following:
– It was no longer allowed to take water from the wadi through the use of pipes, with the exception of the pipes belonging to the mosque;
– All villagers will be allowed to take water only from the mosque to be used for drinking and their vegetable gardens, but not for palm trees.
– The villager from Kedina will be given water drawn from the reservoir of the mosque once a week for a non-extendable period of four months. During this time he will search for alternative ways, excluding the use of the wadi, to irrigate his palm trees.
– The sheikh and his deputy will prepare a water distribution system for the three villages adjoining the mosque. The water will be used only for drinking and vegetable gardens only.
The resolution of this conflict introduced new constraints on all the villagers regarding the use of the wadi. Perhaps as the dust settles some will feel worse off than before.
However, as the new water distribution system is put in place and the mosque reservoir is enlarged to accommodate the increased demand, the villagers may gradually begin to realize that this was what they needed in the first place: a system to regulate the sustainable use of water in a manner that ensures its availability across seasons in an ecological context where weather patterns have been inconsistent.
The agreement brokered by the committee has led to the introduction of a water conservation mechanism that could be applicable in many places around the island. Perhaps the intruder from Kedina may have been a blessing in disguise, after all.
As the delegation from Hadiboh was making its way out of the village, people were standing in front of their houses handing palm branches full of yellow dates the only kind grown here or small sacks of dry dates with the kernel removed, as a sign of gratitude for the committee’s intervention and the hope it has generated for the return of normalcy in the community’s life after a period of social tension and uncertainty about access to water.
Mission accomplished!
The writer is a Doctoral Researcher in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, UK.