Hima, practised for over 14,000 years in the Arabian Peninsula, is believed to be the most widespread system of traditional conservation in the Middle East, and perhaps the entire earth.
In these modern times, it’s easy to think of environmental protection as a new concept which has emerged in response to modern problems linked to industrialisation and globalisation. In reality, the need to protect the environment from abuse has been a constant concern for humans since the beginning of time- especially for people who were living directly of the earth’s resources.
Even the Middle East,which many assume is new to environmental concerns, had a system to help protect nature called ‘Hima’. Hima which roughly translates as ‘protected or preserved place’ has been practised for over 14,000 years in the Arabian Peninsula and is believed to be the most widespread system of traditional conservation in the Middle East, and perhaps the entire earth.
Protecting The Public Good
Hima is a system of resource protection in which pastures, trees or grazing lands are declared as forbidden and access to them and their use is denied by the owner. Types of Himas included reserves for bee-keeping, forest trees, reserving woodland to stop desertification as well as the seasonal regeneration of fields. Hima pre-dates the emergence of Islam in Arabia, and according to Lutfallah Gari who has charted the rise and fall of the Hima system, Hima was sometimes placed under the protection of tribal deity.
He notes that; “Fauna and flora were protected; and [Hima areas] enjoyed the right of asylum… The animals consecrated to them grazed there safely, and no on dared to kill or steal them. The straying animals that crossed over the boundary were lost to their owner…” Despite this, the system was subject to some abuse. The rich took advantage of it to protect their interests by preserving certain pastures for their flocks and protecting themselves against the effects of future droughts.
Under Islamic law, however, the use of Hima was altered slightly and now meant ‘a natural area set aside permanently or seasonally for public good, which may not be privately owned.’ For Hima to be valid in Islamic law, the area had to be for the purposes of public welfare and the area wasn’t allowed to be so large as to cause undue hardship to locals. It was also established that the over-riding aim of Hima was the economic and environmental benefit of the people. In fact, the most famous examples of Hima include those established by the Prophet Muhammed [pbuh] around Mecca and Medina where hunting and the destruction of plants were forbidden.
Surviving Harsh Conditions
According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Hima became a symbol of social equity, justice and instrument of environmental conservation. As such, Hima was a way of life which helped people to use the resources available sustainably and build resilience. Furthermore the system encouraged ‘equitable sharing of resources, social inclusion, sustainable use, consultation (shura), representation for decision-making, land management, management of scarce resources, rights of use, ethics, conservation and poverty prevention.’
In the harsh living conditions of the Arab peninsula where the environment was arid, uncertain and unforgiving this cooperation inspired by Hima helped to secure the livelihood of the communities. And maybe it could do so again. Gari acknowledges the modern-day potential of the system in the Middle East region. As it is rooted in the social and cultural history of the region, he states that Hima’s revival and extension for land improvement (with some modification for the current societies of the region) could be successful for a more sustainable future.
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