Hima as a model for natural resource management in West Asia and North Africa

By: Odeh Al-Jayyousi, PhD.
Regional Director, IUCN Regional Office for West Asia 

The West Asia - North Africa region has a rich history of hosting and nurturing a system of community-based natural resource management, one that can inform governance structures in the 21st century to benefit local communities in WANA.

Kafr Zabad Hima Area

What is the Hima?

The hima is a traditional system of resource tenure that has been practiced for more than 1400 years in the Arabian Peninsula. It predates Islam. The hima is the most widespread and longstanding indigenous / traditional conservation institution in the Middle East, and perhaps on Earth.

The Arabic word “hima” literally means “a protected place” or “protected area.” Access to this place was declared forbidden by the individual or group who owned it. Later its meaning evolved to signify a reserved pasture, a piece of land set aside seasonally to allow regeneration.

Himas (protected areas) were managed by sound local governance rooted in a culture of coexistence, integrity, trust, care and respect for both the natural and human environment. Many types of himas existed to address diverse contexts, such as various grazing systems (i.e. restricted, seasonal and sustainable).

The principles of hima are in harmony with the key concepts of ecosystem management, which include 1) building consensus and a sense of ownership with stakeholders; 2) dealing with the natural system as one integral unit that includes socio-economic and ecological governance; and 3) ensuring a process of feedback and social learning evident in local knowledge, culture and religion.

Hima as a social institution resulted in response to the need to promote coexistence between humans and nature. This social innovation, inspired and informed by local culture, was developed through reasoning, experimentation and innovation (ijtihad). Hima is a good example of a human-centered development model where people are viewed as trustees of this Earth responsible for the “construction of the world” (emmarat al-kawn).

Local knowledge and wisdom promoted and refined appropriate governance, norms, ethics and means to collaboratively co-manage and common-pool resources in overcoming spillover effects, externalities and free-rider problems. Deep within local Arab culture, the notion of sustainability, resilience and managing bounded instability are key elements for survival in a harsh and scarce natural environment yet one that is also rich in social and human capital.

In the Arab peninsula, where the natural environment is characterized by aridity, fluctuation and uncertainty, cooperation over shared resources becomes essential to securing the livelihoods of local communities. Through public participation (shura) and reaching consensus through consultation, the community-based management model of hima contributed positively to saving and protecting natural resources, rangelands and forests for 5000 years, and providing the enabling environment for managing conflicts. The deep understanding of the cycles of nature, seasonal variations and carrying capacity informed social innovation in community-based natural resource management.

Islam contributed to the value system and ethical dimension of hima along with the rational imperative and judgement for measuring trade-offs between human rights and nature conservation. The Prophet Mohammad declared that free access to public water is the right of the community and said that “people are partners in three resources: water, pasture, and fire.” The notion of social justice and equity (adl) for all people, regardless of their culture or belief system, is the cornerstone of Islamic values. Islamic law has devised and formalised specific rules for formulating public policies and making trade-offs between public and private interest. Maslaha (public interest) may lead to an understanding of sustainability in its broader terms.

Hima contextualized the notion of public goods co-managed by local communities in accordance with customary laws. A new social contract evolved through social learning and adaptive management which prohibited ecological degradation (fasad) and human and social alienation and promoted respect for human rights and nature, public interest (maslaha) and the sustainable use of resources. This social contract was constantly reformed and adapted by a community of practice (ummah) who set standards for ethical codes of conduct and for creating new knowledge based on public interest and necessity.

One key pitfall of some western models of development is that they undermine communal existence in promoting urban development, increasing insecurity by displacing traditional agriculture and debt finance. In this globalized world, natural resources are often commercialized and local people suffer alienation from their land and culture. In today’s economic model, financial institutions rule the world and generally take precedence over the interests of local communities.

In the WANA region, people are beginning to seek inspiration from local knowledge and local culture. Reviving the hima system in WANA requires a commitment to the principles of justice, human rights and ecological sustainability along with adaptive management and community-based natural resource management. The following conditions represent the value chain for co-creation of knowledge about new models of community-based natural resource management inspired by culture:

1. The ability to assimilate and synthesize knowledge about hima;
2. The formation of a community of practice (ummah) of reflective practitioners and knowledge navigators who can de-construct and re-construct a new paradigm for hima in the 21st century;
3. Research and Development using action learning; and
4. Implementation of pilot projects based on hima concepts.

Hima can be sustained and resourced by community-based financing models such as waqf (trust funds). This is an innovative way to secure resources such as land, energy and water for socioeconomic disadvantaged communities by enhancing social responsibility and solidarity. Waqf can be harnessed and institutionalized to promote people-centered development through capacity building for local communities and with the involvement of civil society.

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Work area: 
West Asia
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