Green too can be deadly: Honey Mesquite Tree

Published March 22nd, 2023 - 09:18 GMT
Honey Mesquite Tree
Providing a vast expanse of green space helps absorb the harmful carbon dioxide, but greenery may sometimes be harmful or fatal.

ALBAWABA - Providing a vast expanse of green space helps absorb the harmful carbon dioxide of the planet and pumps oxygen into the atmosphere.

Therefore, nations have been working to increase their green areas because of their beneficial properties, which contribute to easing the effect of global warming and climate change, and by default, rescinding the threat to societies and the environment.

But such greenery may sometimes be harmful or fatal and a process that is quite difficult to reverse, as it is costly for society and the state itself.

This investigation documents the story of the "Honey Mesquite tree," which is among the 10 worst species that are alien to the ecosystem of Jordan, despite those trees’ overwhelming spread in the southern and northern parts of the Jordan Valley, where they negatively impacted people’s lives, farmers' businesses and water security.

Honey Mesquite trees spread and grow rapidly due to their ability to absorb surface and underground water as deep as 30 meters, rendering some agricultural areas into barren lands.

The Prosopis juliflora tree, common name “honey mesquite”

The scientific name of the honey mesquite tree is Prosopis juliflora. Its journey across the world started from its original habitat in Latin America, in countries like Venezuela and Colombia.

Honey Mesquite Tree

Studies have shown that the Ministry of Agriculture had introduced the Honey Mesquite tree to Jordan between 1950 and 1980, for afforestation and greening purposes, due to its characteristic ability to withstand disease, heat and water scarcity.

Environmental experts later were alerted to the dangers of this tree.

A study entitled "Prosopis (Prosopis juliflora): Blessing and Bane" has revealed the impact of the spread of the Honey Mesquite tree in India. When the tree is brought to a place other than its original habitat, it can become invasive because it overpowers the native species and outdo them for resources.

This type of trees is resilient and could withstand harsh conditions, such as extreme temperatures, high salinity and poor soil conditions. It also hinders the growth of other nearby plants as it spreads, monopolises space and blocks sunlight and nutrients from reaching other plants.

This tree is considered an invasive specie in many countries.

The Black Book of Invasive Alien Plant Species of Jordan, (page 4) prepared by GIZ and the National Center for Agricultural Research, in cooperation with the Ministry of the Environment classifies the tree among the top of the worst invasive species for the Jordanian environment.

Doctor Maher Tadros is a professor of plant production at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and has been involved in many studies related to the Honey Mesquite tree.

He said that the tree destroys biodiversity and that local species cannot compete with them.

The biggest issue is that these trees have found the right conditions to spread, particularly through the northern and southern part of the Jordan Valley areas in particular, doubling their negative impact on the agricultural sector as a whole, since this is the most significant agricultural area of Jordan providing the country with crops throughout the year.

Tadros said that some agricultural lands are no longer suitable for cultivation, due to the spread of Honey Mesquite trees. He explained that in the past, "farmers would plant tomatoes in some areas. When we asked, they said that this area has been taken over by honey mesquite trees."

Photo of the areas where honey mesquite trees have spread throughout the Jordan Valley (The Black Book of Invasive Alien Plant Species of Jordan).

Photo of the areas where honey mesquite trees have spread throughout the Jordan Valley (The Black Book of Invasive Alien Plant Species of Jordan).

Ziyad, a farmer from the village of Al-Rama in the Dead Sea region, has not been able to let his land for a year because Honey Mesquite trees.

He saaid: "Honey Mesquite trees have spread where there used to be banana trees in my farmland. I need to use bulldozers to destroy the trees and reclaim the land."

The farmer explained that with the high cost of diesel fuel, "renting a bulldozer for an hour costs 75 Jordanian Dinars (JD), or $110, and then I have to pay for renting saws and other special machines."

"None of these methods managed to curb the spread of Honey Mesquite trees," he noted. "On the contrary, maybe they have contributed to their faster spread when water was available."

A farmer has to follow a long list of procedures to be able to remove Honey Mesquite trees in order to reclaim the land.

A special request to cut the trees should be presented to the directorate of the Ministry of Agriculture in the region where a committee from the agricultural directorates inspects the land for damages and issues a license allowing the landowner to cut the trees causing the damage.

A study was conducted on an area of 11,800 square kilometers in the Afar region in Ethiopia, infested with Money Mesquite trees, examined in depth the volume of water consumed by these trees, estimated that these plants consume between 3.1 to 3.3 billion cubic meters of water, that is seven liters of water per tree.

To put the results in context, we compared them with the design capacity of all Jordanian dams.

The reports issued by the Ministry of Water in 2020 revealed that 14 dams had a design capacity of 338.3 million cubic meters, meaning that all Jordanian dams collect only about 10 percent of the water consumed by the Honey Mesquite trees.

The study was conducted on an area of approximately 13 percent of the total surface of Jordan, and its findings have confirmed that there is a real problem if the issue has been left unresolved.

Anwar Al-Jaaraat, a farmer from the village of Sweimeh in the area of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, took us on a tour to see how the groundwater springs have dried up after the spread of the Honey Mesquite trees in his region.

He said: "The roots of the trees extend over long distances under the ground, and they dried up most of the springs that people used to rely on for cultivation in Sweimeh."

According to Anwar, the five main springs of Ain Al-Ghourbeh, Al-Be’r El-Azraq, the Sweimeh Dam, Ain Al-Jame’e and the well of the village area have all dried up, which led to a decline in agriculture as a result of the depleting water.

Jaafar attempted to mitigate the damage of the Honey Mesquite trees in his village by removing them, despite the prohibition imposed by the Forestry Directorate in the Jordan Valley. "we used to cut the trees down because they are harmful, but the Ministry of Agriculture had a problem with that, and would fine us with up to JD500 ($700) the first time, and the amount would increase if we cut them again," he pointed out.

Article 18 of the Jordanian Forestry Law stipulates that anyone who violates the provisions of any clause of paragraphs (A, B) of Article (5) of the law shall be punished by imprisonment between one to three months, and shall pay a fine between five to JD25 for every tree, bush or sapling, or any part thereof. Tools, forest plants shall be confiscated and sold for the benefit of the treasury.

Agriculture Law No. (13) of 2015 mandates the Ministry of Agriculture to oversee combating animal and plant pests, epidemics, combating desertification; protecting biodiversity; and creating a suitable climate for investment in the agricultural sector.

The Law issued by the Ministry of Agriculture

Khalid al-Manasir, the head of the Forestry Directorate at the Jordanian Ministry of Agriculture,  confirmed that government nurseries have stopped producing Honey Mesquite saplings in recent years and did not deny that nurseries still stocked them as those were the left over from previous years.

Al-Manasir stressed that these were precautionary measures awaiting the final classification of the Committee for Biodiversity regarding this plant.

Honey Mesquite Tree

Documents showing that the production of Honey Mesquite saplings in government nurseries has stopped since 2020

Apart from the Jordan Valley, investment licenses have been issued to allow the cutting of forest trees throughout the year in private properties, and in some periods only in most regions excluding the Jordan Valley region.

Al-Manasir added that getting rid of Honey Mesquite trees altogether has some legal implications because the tree is considered a forest plant protected by regulations and laws that prevent the removal of all types of trees as this constitutes a legal violation.

He pointed out that the committee is due to issue a document confirming that this tree is invasive, and therefore strips it of its protective classification so it can be removed.

The CEO of the Dead Sea Friends Association Zaid Al-Sawalqa says that the association has submitted an investment project to the Ministry of Agriculture proposing the removal of Honey Mesquite trees and substitute it by other local trees, such as palm and Washingtonia instead.

No response has been received from the Ministry of Agriculture ahead of the publication of this investigation.

Engineer Bilal Quteishat, a delegate of the Ministry of Environment in the National Committee for Biodiversity, said that the Honey Mesquite tree has an impact on biodiversity and on native plants like the tamarix tree in the Dead Sea region.

In turn, this leads to the extinction of some animals like the Dead Sea Sparrow that takes up the tamarix as its home. He pointed out that the Honey Mesquite tree is not a good environment for this bird, nor is it a habitat where it can build a nest.

When asked about the dangers the Honey Mesquite tree poses to the soil, Quteishat highlighted that in addition to absorbing moisture from the soil, it breaks it up and changes its properties.

The engineer explained that in order to remove the dangers posed by this type of trees, the government nurseries should refrain from producing the Honey Mesquite trees, and cutting some down to conduct some research to see how could we adapt to live with this tree in a way that benefits the ecosystem from its strength and high levels of resistance.

Quteishat discouraged resorting to the use of chemicals to eradicate the tree, claiming that traces of chemicals will persist in the soil long after the tree's disappearance and could have an impact on unground water.

Therefore, removing the tree will have to be done biologically and in environmentally safe methods.

Written by Salam Freihat and Mamdouh Al-Hanahneh to ARIJ.

The article is published in collaboration with ARIJ.

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