07/18/2006, 00.00
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Real estate boom pushing Saudi farmers to do away with their trees

Selling land on which palm dates are cultivated is illegal, but the land is worth more than what farmers can make from selling dates. Green spaces in the kingdom's holy cities are thus diminishing. In Madinah the authorities are trying an awareness campaign to stop the trend.

Madinah (AsiaNews) – Farm land and trees are disappearing in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. A booming real estate market is pushing farmers away from growing palm trees and selling dates towards selling to land developpers. The one hitch in all of this is that it is illegal.

In recent reporting, the Arab News daily has exposed the trend telling its readers that under Saudi law farm land like date plantations is protected and cannot be razed for real estate development.

Some farmers though have found ways to go around the law by not watering the trees or removing them at night. Once the crops are dead, the land can then be legally sold to developers.

Unconcerned by the environmental impact of losing the trees, these landowners are earning millions of riyals by selling land. In a city where average daily temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius (113F) for a good part of the year, green areas offer some respite from the heat. But farmers dismiss suggestions that they're being greedy, claiming instead that it is a simple matter of economics.

A former date farmer, who had a plot near Madinah's Qiblatin Mosque, said that he simply stopped watering the trees because it cost him more to keep them alive than what he was making from selling the dates they produced. The trees are now dead, ready to be cleared to make room for yet another residential unit. The farmer, who did not want to be named, said that "there were problems (with farming), like lack of water". Another farm owner admitted that he stopped tending to his crop and is preparing to sell the land.

Municipal authorities are however trying to encourage people to respect the diminishing urban green zones.

Although no statistics are available from government officials regarding undeveloped land in Makkah or Madinah, a recent awareness campaign launched by the Madinah municipality indicates that officials are concerned about the depletion of urban green areas.

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