For some years there has been a vigorous debate about the best way to conserve biodiversity. 'Nature protectionists' assert that the only effective method is to establish parks that exclude people, prioritise biodiversity protection over poverty alleviation, and regard biodiversity as intrinsically valuable. 'Social conservationists' stress that such parks fail to protect biodiversity because the serious social and economic costs imposed on local people are not addressed and over the long term come to dominate; social issues must be tackled, and biodiversity maintained for its instrumental value for people. This debate also encapsulates a move in ecological theory towards increasing spatial and temporal scales - the forces controlling and maintaining biodiversity are no longer thought to be contained within small areas (such as reserves) but occur at much larger regional scales and over long time scales. Such an approach is fundamental to the 'ecosystem services' view of conservation promulgated today.
Ecosystem services from biodiversity underpin human well-being and livelihoods: if these services fail, the quality of human life is threatened. Human well-being depends on core 'ecosystem services' supporting ecosystem provisioning, regulating and cultural services. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) aims to 'mainstream' this new conservation paradigm by integrating ecological sustainability into human lifestyles everywhere rather than simply relying on insular Protected Areas.
We are trying to apply this model to conservation and bedouin livelihoods in South Sinai, working with their traditional practices to provide ecologically sustainable options that meet their current and future needs. This honours in spirit and letter the CBD COP10 decision of Oct 2010 that traditional knowledge should be "valued equally with and complementary to scientific knowledge" in order to "promote full respect for the cultural and intellectual heritage of indigenous and local communities relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity". If it works in the small and delimited microcosm of South Sinai, then it is potentially replicable elsewhere. We thus attempt to address the question of whether sustainable conservation is possible in a people-centred approach.
We are now working on testing the role of traditional bedouin practices in the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. As nomadic pastoralists, Bedu have evolved resource management techniques to maximize returns from their meagre lands in two main ways: (i) managing levels of grazing inter-tribally for mutual use of territories, and intra-tribal helf agreements under 'urf (tribal law) to set aside fallow areas for specified periods of time; (ii) maximising water availability by tapping otherwise unavailable groundwater using wells within walled gardens to grow fruit trees and vegetables, and building low sand dams to retain runoff during flash floods. We are interested in developing a hydrological model to predict the way water moves in the landscape of South Sinai; we have modelled the climate and projected the likely climate into the near-future, particularly precipitation(with Simon Gosling, Geography Department); and are incorporating information (eg archival) from the past (Caroline Servaes, PhD 2011-16, with Georgina Endfield, Geography Department).
We would also like to study the effect of small-scale traditional sand dams on biodiversity, garden productivity and bedouin health and well-being. We also want to test the use of recycled water via small-scale low-cost recirculating vertical-flow constructed wetlands (RVFCW), specifically designed for small communites in arid lands with highly variable amounts of waste water.
The whole project will enable us to assess both the impact of socially-focussed conservation on the sustainability of local livelihoods, and on the biodiversity of this unique ecosystem.
The role of grazing in biodiversity conservation in Sinai
The role of Bedouin gardens in biodiversity conservation in Sinai
South Sinai Bedu within the St Katherine Protectorate
The genetics of the South Sinai Bedu
Zalat S & Gilbert F (2008) Gardens in a sacred landscape: Bedouin heritage and natural history in the high mountains of Sinai. Illustrated by Ahmed Gheith. American University in Cairo Press, Cairo. ISBN 978 977 416 117 9