A fictional narrative about land use conflict somewhere in the UAE
One of the oldest archaeological sites in the country lies at the foothills of a mountain range and has been untouched for decades. Surrounding it are residences of descendants of a historical tribe who once inhabited the area. The area is barren and brown, covered by rocks and a handful of trees. No humans inhabit the area and very few insects and animals can sustain themselves in such an infertile condition. Occasionally a group of picnickers or some wandering goats visit the archaeological remains.
Recently, archaeologists discovered the remains of a community grave suggesting that it was one of the largest and oldest tribes to ever inhabit the valley. In parallel to studying the area and assembling resources to plan further excavations, the Historical Preservation Department has also been pushing to create a protected archaeological park to display and educate people about its significance in the historical development of the city. After a decade of urging the involved institutions to procure resources to fence the site, work commenced and the installation of a fence from one edge of the site began. Celebrating their victory of crossing the biggest hurdle, the Department proceeded to the next step and start designing the park. Little did they know that the biggest resistance they will face would surface the following week.
On returning after the weekend, to continue installing the remaining part of the fence, the workmen find a structure, presumably a house, with a fence around it marking its territory in the middle of the archaeological site they continue to protect. It was not a big house, seemingly a living space for 2 or 3 persons. It didn’t have the polished finish of a residence such as in the surrounding areas, but a rough uncut finish with a water tank on the ceiling. In this part of the country it was customary to have such a structure in the backyard of the family house for servants. The servants’ quarters were usually located close to the enclosure of any farm animals the family might own. And here was no exception. Some goats roamed around within the ‘boundary’ of this new house. Bewildered, the construction workers immediately called their employers at Historical Preservation Department who rushed to inspect the scene. The site enraged and saddened the archaeologists. All said and done, they would never know if there was any valuable information below the sub surface of that house and its immediate surroundings. The land that they worked so hard to protect and preserve for as long as they worked in the city was no more untouched.
It would take them a few more weeks to urge the concerned institution to get involved and do the needful to demolish the structure. What followed was almost a half-year long dispute between the owner of the structure and decision-making entities involved. What motivated the owner to construct a structure in two nights in the middle of a protected archaeological site? The old man claimed that this was his ancestral land and a long dead relative had always lived there, and therefore it belongs to his family. He refused to acknowledge the ‘foreign’ archaeologists (who are expatriates) claim or effort into protecting a historical landmark in the development of his country. For years everyone who lived in the vicinity knew that the area was meant to be a protected area. There were never any fences or signage, just an unspoken rule. As long no one tried to fence the land, no one wanted parts of it for themselves. The minute the fencing began and the announcement to create an archaeological park was made public, the peaceful neighbors woke up from their slumber and decided to claim a part of their ‘heritage’.
This raises many questions. Why did the tribes living there want to claim this small piece of land when they already own property? Who is to blame for the ignorance of the tribes and their inability to realize the scientific and historical value of the land that they destroyed? Do they have a side to the story which was unheard all these years? Why was no one guarding the site at night during the weekend? Is this after all, a security problem, an education problem or a regulation problem? Maybe it is all of the above.
Such conflicts arise in every part of the world. Land use regulation and urban development projects clash with the interest of locals, resulting in one party taking drastic measures to protect heritage and cultural value of their urban environment or to support a notion they strongly believe in. A negotiation to reach a middle point that makes both sides happy is the ideal solution. But how often does that actually happen without an expensive (in the above case irreversible) loss?
It is time for governance to anticipate these ad hoc situations and accommodate for them. In the above case there was minimum public engagement in the decision-making process. Perhaps if the residents were recognized as a stakeholder in the process from the beginning, an agreement making both parties happy would have been reached from the start. Cross cultural differences also play a role in this situation. Local culture has an influence on decision making in spatial planning. Professionals from outside this culture (in this case the archaeologists) make decisions based on their expertise. Contradictions are therefore an inevitable part of the process. Who is responsible for bridging this gap? Since almost all decisions are made through a top-down framework within spatial planning, it is indisputable that a higher authority needs to step up and attempt to handle such disputes in a better manner. These ‘invisible’ layers of tribal beliefs and cross cultural differences have a spatial impact on the city and cannot be ignored.