Dana is unique, not only in Jordan but in the whole Middle East – the setting for a positive, visionary programme combining scientific research, social reconstruction and sustainable tourism. For most of the twentieth century Dana was a simple farming community thriving on a temperate climate, three abundant springs and good grazing; indeed, some inhabitants had previously left Tafileh specifically for a better life in the village. But as Jordan developed new technologies and the general standard of living rose, a growing number of villagers felt isolated in their mountain hamlet of Ottoman stone cottages. Some moved out in the late 1960s to establish a new village, Qadisiyyeh, on the main Tafileh–Shobak road, and the attractions of electricity and plumbing rapidly emptied primitive Dana. The construction of the huge Rashdiyyeh cement factory close by in the early 1980s was the last straw: with well-paid jobs for the taking, most locals saw the daily trek up from Dana to the factory as pointless, and almost everyone moved to Qadisiyyeh.
Dana lay semi-abandoned for a decade or more, its handful of impoverished farmers forced to compete in the local markets with bigger farms using more advanced methods of production. This was what a group of twelve women from Amman discovered in the early 1990s as they travelled across the country to catalogue the remnants of traditional culture. Realizing the deprivation faced by some of the poorest people in Jordan, these “Friends of Dana” embarked on a project to renovate and revitalize the fabric of the village under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Electricity, telephones and a water supply were extended to the village and 65 cottages renovated. People started to drift back to Dana. The RSCN quickly realized the potential of the secluded Wadi Dana for scientific research; in a project funded partly by the World Bank and the UN, they turned the area into a protected nature reserve, built a small research station next to the village and, in 1994, launched a detailed ecological survey.
Continued grazing by thousands of domesticated goats, sheep and camels couldn’t be reconciled with the need for environmental protection and so – not without controversy – was banned; studies were undertaken into creating sustainable opportunities for villagers to gain a livelihood from the reserve. The ingenious solution came in redirecting the village’s traditional crops to a new market. Dana’s farmers produced their olives, figs, grapes, other fruits and nuts as before, but instead they sold everything to the RSCN, who employed the villagers to process these crops into novelty products such as organically produced jams and olive-oil soap for direct sale to relatively wealthy, environmentally aware consumers, both Jordanian and foreign. Medicinal herbs were introduced as a cash crop to aid the economic recovery, and the last Dana resident familiar with traditional pottery-making was encouraged to teach her craft to a younger generation.
Dana soon hit the headlines, and in 1996 the RSCN launched low-impact tourism to the reserve, with the traditional-style Guesthouse going up next to the research buildings. Local villagers – some of whom were already employed as research scientists – were taken on as managers and guides. “Green tourism” awards followed, and, with Dana becoming better known as a tourist destination, locals opened small, budget hotels within the village. A campsite was established in the hills at Rummana, and in 2005 the RSCN opened a “wilderness ecolodge” at the lower, western end of the reserve at Feynan – both of them built and staffed by local people. Even before the 2012 renovations, Dana was receiving 100,000 visitors a year, around a quarter of whom stayed overnight, bringing money to the village economy and focusing attention on how sustainable tourism can benefit rural people.
In only one generation, moribund Dana has been given a new lease of life.