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In Jordan, the Middle East’s first Miyawaki-style ‘baby’ forests take root

Omar al-Sharif, Motoharu Nochi, and a team of volunteers after a “growth monitoring” activity at the Marka baby forest in April 2022.

Omar al-Sharif, bottom left, Motoharu Nochi, second bottom left, and a team of volunteers after a “growth monitoring” activity at the Marka baby forest in April 2022. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.

  • Since 2018, a Jordanian architect and a Japanese environmentalist have planted three tiny forests in Amman, Jordan, the largest with a footprint of just 250 square meters (2,700 square feet).
  • These are some of the first forests in the Middle East to be designed according to the Miyawaki method, a technique for growing mature forests in a matter of decades at virtually any scale.
  • In a country with just 0.03% tree cover and where tree planting is increasingly popular but knowledge about native vegetation is scattered, the effort involved extensive research and experimentation to identify and propagate native plants.
  • With more “baby forests” on the way, the goal is to sketch a path toward the restoration of Jordan’s disappearing forest ecosystems while reconnecting urban communities to nature.

AMMAN, Jordan — It’s a quiet day in Omar al-Faisal Park, in the impoverished industrial outskirts of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Sandwiched between the runway of a military airport and residential streets, the park seems unimpressive at first glance, but it shelters a little-known gem.

Behind a wire fence, trees neatly planted a few meters apart give way to a dense flurry of branches and tangled shrubs. Compact soil has been replaced by a thick mix of straw, earth and decomposing weeds. In spring, dozens of wildflowers blossom along the edges of the garden, swaying to the gentle hum of beetles and bees.

Pay no heed to its appearance; this messy-looking garden is actually a budding forest that will soon host towering native trees. Nicknamed “Marka baby forest” for its location in the Marka neighborhood and its tiny footprint, it’s one of the first forests of the Middle East to be designed according to the Miyawaki method, a technique for growing mature forests in a matter of decades.

Since 2018, Jordanian architect Deema Assaf and Japanese environmentalist Motoharu Nochi have planted three such forests in Amman, the largest with a footprint of just 250 square meters (2,700 square feet). Their goal? Sketching a path toward the restoration of Jordan’s disappearing forest ecosystems while reconnecting urban communities to nature.

The Miyawaki method

Akira Miyawaki developed his namesake method in the 1970s in Japan, in the midst of  a post-war industrial boom that was taking a visible toll on the environment. As a botanist, Miyawaki knew this damage could be partially healed by regrowing native forests, which play an essential role in regulating the environment. Studying the centuries-old sacred forests around Japan’s Shinto temples, Miyawaki developed the concept of potential natural vegetation (PNV) to describe the plant communities that would normally thrive in ancient native forest without human intervention.

Determining PNV is a crucial step in establishing a true Miyawaki forest. But while Japan could rely on its tradition of sacred forests to identify suitable species, Jordan faces an uphill battle. The country’s primary forests are greatly damaged, if not lost entirely, and knowledge about native plants is scattered. “People in the villages, Bedouins, academics do have information, but it’s often not available to the public,” Nochi told Mongabay. “Sometimes it’s not even written, it’s just orally passed on.”

Despite these challenges, once an approximative PNV has been identified, forest-making can begin. Forest growers take samples to measure the soil’s natural composition, pH and quality. “Before planting, we design a 30- to 40-centimeter-thick [12- to 16-inch] layer of compost mixed with soil that mimics the natural surface layer of humus in natural forests,” Nochi said. They then plant native seedlings closely together, around three per square meter (about 11 square feet). This is supposed to favor faster growth as the budding trees compete for sunlight.

“In the nursery, native plants take a long time to grow,” Fadwa Almadmouj, an agricultural engineer at Mujeb Nursery on Amman’s outskirts, which prepares the native seedlings, told Mongabay. “But in a Miyawaki forest, they grow much bigger, healthier and stronger thanks to the competition between the plants.”

A view from the entrance of the Marka baby forest in Omar al-Faisal park, Amman, in December 2021. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.

Multiple benefits

For the first two to three years, people weed and water the forest. After that, it is expected to maintain itself and become virtually costless. “In the long term, it is very economical compared to conventional planting methods,” Nochi said. “It seems expensive when you start because it requires a lot of resources and labor, but after two years, it becomes irrigation-free and maintenance-free.”

In nature, it can take a century or longer for a forest to grow. It starts with small “pioneer species” that can survive in poor soil: herbaceous plants, lichens, ferns that enrich the soil as they decompose. These are gradually replaced by a series of other species that are increasingly larger, longer-living and shade-tolerant, through a process called “ecological succession.” The resulting group of “climax species” tends to be stable until a fire or other major disturbance sweeps through.

In the Miyawaki method, people plant climax species into an enriched soil at high density. The result is a “mature” forest grown in a matter of decades, skipping centuries of ecological succession. In some of the forests designed by Miyawaki for the Mitsubishi Corporation and planted in Malaysia and Brazil in the 1990s, 30-cm (12-in) saplings grew into 10- to 20-meter (33- to 66-foot) trees in little more than a decade, according to Mitsubishi and a paper by Miyawaki.

Miyawaki forests can thrive on plots as small as a couple of parking spots, which is how they earned the moniker “tiny” or “mini” forest. And they immediately start to provide a wide range of ecological services.

“By creating a small healthy ecosystem within a city, you deal with some of the problems caused by climate change: droughts, high temperature, flooding,” Hannah Lewis, the author of the book Mini-Forest Revolution, to be released in June 2022, told Mongabay. “The spongy soil created absorbs water, allowing floodwater to enter into the ground and be stored there for droughts, later. Plants and vegetation also cool the area around them, not just with shade but also with transpiration.”

A volunteer planting a new seedling in the Marka baby forest in December 2021. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.

Individually, the smaller forests have a limited impact on large-scale problems like drought and flooding, but they shelter local birds and insects, and form rare islands of wild vegetation and shade in urban settings.

Jordan’s first Miyawaki forests were born of the collaboration between Assaf, an architect specialized in green and sustainable design, and Nochi, a former businessman who decided to dedicate his life to “greening” the Earth after witnessing the devastating impact of industrial pollution in Southeast Asia. Moved by a shared interest in food forests, they attended trainings together and came across the Miyawaki method at a workshop in the Indian state of Rajasthan, which has an arid climate similar to the Middle East. “We felt that if they could grow forests there, so could we in Jordan,” Nochi recalled.

Their three Miyawaki-style mini forests in Amman are the first in the region. They planted their first one in November 2018, in a private garden. The remaining two they planted in public parks in November 2020, as part of the Urban-Micro Lungs Initiative of the German development agency, GIZ, and the municipality of Amman and Jordan’s Ministry of Environment. Starting in 2019, local activists have applied the method successfully  to reclaim an urban riverbed in Beirut, Lebanon, as well.

Restoring forests, how?

Large swaths of the Levant, a historical region roughly along the eastern Mediterranean coast, have been deforested over the past two centuries. Majestic oak forests were largely razed under Ottoman rule to build the Hejaz railway, a train line connecting Mecca to Damascus and beyond. Then, urbanization, wildfires and spectacular demographic growth ate away the rest. Forests now cover only 0.03% of Jordan’s surface, according to Global Forest Watch.

Reforestation efforts have multiplied in recent years, driven by concerns about rampant desertification and by growing interest in carbon offsetting in a region hosting the world’s oil giants. In 2021, Saudi Arabia launched the Green Middle East Initiative, which aims to plant 50 billion trees across the region, and Jordan committed to planting 10 million trees in a decade. Yet these ambitious projects generally come without a clear road map: which species to plant, and where? And how to maintain them in a water-scarce context?

So far, some of the region’s most successful reforestation projects have focused on “useful” forests that generate immediate and perceptible benefits to surrounding communities.

“We believe that reforestation projects have to win the ownership of the local community by providing some form of value,” Mariam Al Jaajaa, general manager of the Arab Protection of Nature (APN) organization in Jordan, told Mongabay. “Otherwise, projects fail because trees are not taken care of. Trees are not seen as a priority for water consumption and pastoralists often let their sheep feed on them prematurely.”

Volunteers weed the Marka baby forest in March 2022. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.

Since its founding in 2003, APN has planted more than 110,000 trees in Jordan. The vast majority are local fruit-bearing species that surrounding communities can exploit to generate an income, like carob, olive and almond trees.

Al Jaajaa says Amman’s Miyawaki forests, while small, complement larger-scale efforts to increase Jordan’s tree cover. “We carry a common goal towards ecological well-being: their focus is on preserving and bringing back native species, while we try to combine ecological, economic and food values. Both approaches are essential to creating a sustainable future.”

Rewilding

Miyawaki forests are planted 30 times more densely than forests planted using mainstream methods. Their purpose is not recreational, productive or aesthetic; instead, the method fosters a robust local ecosystem able to thrive on its own.

“This is a natural forest that welcomes wildlife,” said gardener Omar al-Sharif, who cares for the Marka baby forest. “With time, I noticed that new types of birds were coming to the garden, new types of insects — bees, butterflies.”

Mastic trees (Pistacia lentiscus), evergreen oaks (Quercus calliprinos), strawberry trees (Arbutus andrachne): Amman’s Miyawaki forests host only native species, many of which are endangered. “The species we use in this method are very generous: they host biodiversity, they coexist and interact with other plant species,” Assaf said.

Planting whole forests of complementary species, rather than choosing species for their individual characteristics, should in theory generate a diverse plant community that is more resilient to diseases, pests and other threats. “So far, this is the model that comes closest to how nature works,” Assaf said. “It draws on what nature would choose as a stable plant community. I haven’t come across a similar man-made forest elsewhere.”

But this seemingly “natural” result builds on extensive research and efforts, from identifying PNV to collecting the seeds of native trees. Nochi and Assaf gathered this through years of forest observation and by mobilizing collective knowledge: reading books, reaching out to Facebook communities, asking experts in tree nurseries. They’ve collected seeds from around 40 native species, which Mujeb Nursery now grows for sale to the public as well as for forests.

Fadwa Almadmouj, second from right, and three volunteers prepare native seedlings at Mujeb Nursery on the outskirts of Amman in April 2022. Image courtesy of Motoharu Nochi.

Community-building through forest-making

“One of the great benefits of the Miyawaki method is the fact that it’s convincing people all over the world that it is possible to make forests,” Nochi said.

Indeed, the method is becoming increasingly popular. It has been applied to create natural buffers near highways and industrial sites in Europe and Asia, among numerous examples. Often, it has elicited extraordinary community engagement, with schools, neighborhoods or collectives coming together to design forests.

“Miyawaki himself always emphasized the community that was going to plant, and that was really important to him to have people participate in growing forests,” Lewis said. “He often worked in collaboration with schools, universities, cities, and companies.” Part of this momentum can be explained by the simplicity of the method. Anyone can participate; planting seedlings doesn’t involve complex equipment or heavy machinery.

“This project is about bringing these trees back to the city,” Assaf said. “It’s about recreating the bond between people and ecosystems.” In Amman’s public mini forests, residents can discover thousands of saplings from 18 native species, and more forests are on the way in other neighborhoods.

“At first it seems that making a forest is just about planting trees and increasing green cover,” Nochi said. “But through doing this we are providing opportunities for people to get together. We are nurturing ourselves.”

Banner image: Omar al-Sharif, bottom left, Motoharu Nochi, second bottom left, and a team of volunteers after a “growth monitoring” activity at the Marka baby forest in  April 2022. Image by Lyse Mauvais for Mongabay.

Correction 6/2/22: The original version of this story misspelled Mariam Al Jaajaa’s name and misstated her title. She is the general manager of Arab Protection of Nature, not the executive director. We have corrected the story. We regret the errors.

Citation:

Miyawaki, A. (1999). Creative ecology: Restoration of native forests by native trees. Plant Biotechnology16(1), 15-25. doi:10.5511/plantbiotechnology.16.15