Jordan's mission to save its ancient olive trees

Jordanian farmer Ali Saleh Atta holds a branch of an olive tree and inspects its leaves
Jordanian farmer Ali Saleh Atta, 84, has given his children and grandchildren a written will instructing them to look after the family's olive trees and live from what they produce (image: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

Many of Jordan's olive trees are an integral part of the country's identity and culture. Having survived thousands of years, they are now under threat from a series of very modern phenomena

Every morning, Jordanian farmer Ali Saleh Atta swallows two cloves of garlic with a cup of olive oil before heading out to check on his ancient olive trees.

"These trees represent the history of Jordan," said the 84-year-old, looking at the 2,000-year-old trees whose enormous gnarled trunks hoist up branches with delicate, pale green leaves.

The trees are a beloved national symbol, but they are also under threat from urban sprawl, illegal logging for firewood and uprooting to the homes and gardens of the wealthy for decoration.

The land of Atta, a father of 10, is in Al-Hashimiyya, a wooded area about 70 kilometres (45 miles) north-west of Amman.

"I have given my children and grandchildren a written will that after my death, you preserve them and (live) from what they produce," he said.

Nizar Haddad, director of the Jordanian National Agricultural Research Center, gestures as he speaks, sitting on a chair with the flags of Jordan and the NARC behind him
According to Nizar Haddad, director of the National Agricultural Research Center, new Jordanian legislation now protects olive trees from being uprooted or removed (image: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

Tenth-largest producer of olives worldwide

Jordan is the tenth-largest producer of olives globally, according to the World Olive Council.

Its many ancient trees that have survived thousands of years are an integral part of the country's identity and culture.

Across many regions, "you can hardly visit a house ... without finding an olive tree in every garden", said Nizar Haddad, director general of the National Agricultural Research Center. "We were raised from childhood on this culture."

But today, he said, the trees' beauty has put them in danger. "Some hotels, villas, businessmen and companies like to add a touch to their institutions' decoration, so they buy such trees and transport them" away, he said.

The trees often do not survive the move, said Haddad, adding that new laws aim to protect them. "New Jordanian legislation protects these trees from being uprooted or removed, and there is coordination between the Ministry of Interior, our centre and the police to prevent transport operations except in very exceptional cases."

As the sun shines through the leaves of an olive tree with a very wide and gnarly trunk, Jordanian farmer Ali Saleh Atta looks at the tree as he holds one of its branches
Jordan's Culture Ministry and the Mehras Cooperative Society hope to get the trees added to the UNESCO Intangible World Heritage List

Symbolic meaning for both Muslim and Christian Jordanians

Jordan has 11 million olive trees in groves that make up 20 per cent of all cultivated land in the country. 

They produce 50,000 tons of olives and 25,000 tons of olive oil annually, contributing 120 million Jordanian dinars ($169 million) to the economy.

Haddad noted that the olive tree has symbolic meaning for both Muslim and Christian Jordanians, saying they are mentioned in the Koran and "Jesus Christ spent his last hours praying on the Mount of Olives".

"These trees must be preserved so that they can remain a source of inspiration for the community, especially since they are the type capable of adapting to all the environmental challenges facing not only our region, but the world."

Trees dating from Roman times

The tree variety, commonly known as Roman or Mehras, should be preserved as a "national treasure", said Amer Gharaibeh, head of the Mehras Cooperative Society.

"Here you can see the oldest olive trees ... they have been here since the Romans ruled this region, before Muslims controlled it," he said.

Research has shown that the Mehras has a common ancestor with cultivated olives in Italy, Cyprus and Spain.

Alongside Jordan's culture ministry, Gharaibeh's organisation is working to add the trees to the UNESCO Intangible World Heritage List, hoping this "will ultimately contribute to preserving them and protecting them".

Jordan is working on a plan to engage the public with the trees by placing a QR code on every bottle of olive oil produced.

It lists the tree's location, the name of its owner, its history, the quality of the oil and the age of the tree, said Haddad, whose organisation is working on the project.

"We will not only sell olive oil," he said, "but we spread a relevant story through which we can fully market our country". (AFP)