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on Huffington Post: Permaculture as Necessity, Not Choice, in Palestine

April 24, 2009

On Earth Day in Palestine, I wrote this piece for the Huffington Post. It’s about the Bustan Qaraaqa farm in northern Beit Sahour, where Palestinians and international volunteers are starting an ambitious re-greening project — to counteract the Israeli land-steal by settlement colonies, the expanding food crisis and the desertification via global climate change.

It was cut for content and word count; below is my longer version.

And last night on Flashpoints, my audio companion piece was broadcast. Give it a listen.

Fruit and olive trees in Bustan Qaraaqa

Fruit and olive trees in Bustan Qaraaqa

Permaculture as Necessity, Not Choice, in Palestine
by Nora Barrows-Friedman

This Earth Day in occupied Palestine, the last rain has finished its wet sweep over the ancient land as carpets of deep red hanoon (Rinunculus) flowers burst into another sparkling Spring. But even within the renewed grace of a turning season, Israel’s 62-year old colonial-military occupation disfigures the scenery as Palestinians lose their land to settlements in the West Bank, bury another family member in the wrecked, open-air prison of Gaza, or wait for hours at Israeli checkpoints, and years inside prisons. As always in this part of the world, exquisite beauty and bottomless despair interweave; together they become a living, breathing microcosm of the human capacity for both unmitigated suffering and resourceful tenacity.

The wadi (desert valley) near the Bustan Qaraqa farm in Beit Sahour was, thousands of years ago,  home to a thicket of oak and pistachio trees; one of innumerable and vast forests that stretched from modern-day Lebanon down to the Sinai. Today, the wadi is a tumble of sparse, cream-colored hillsides that sprout a few sun-bleached bushes and some scraggly, two hundred-year-old olive trees clinging tenuously to the sandy rocks. The physical violence of the many occupations and conquests of Palestine, together with over-farming, regional toxic pollution and global climate change is accelerating the desertification of this wadi and many others like it. And, noticing the mandatory need for both sustainable environmental adaptation and collective resistance to the current Israeli stranglehold, Palestinians have begun to re-green the land, reclaiming the ancient ways of growing crops and going “off the grid,” using what we in the States would call doctrines of permaculture.

Back in my hometown of Berkeley, California, the idea and practice of permaculture exists in a sort of hippie-elite framework. Even though the theory of permaculture mostly revolves around a re-connection to indigenous land practices that have been lost, forgotten or supplanted by the rise of agri-industrial capitalism (the corporatized over-production of food, the saturation of farmland with chemicals and pollutants, and monocropping), the movement itself is one of decided convenience, an alternative to the mainstream food and lifestyle structures offered by Safeway and Wal-Mart. We can choose to buy Chilean-grown tomatoes from the store, or we can plant tomato seeds in our gardens if we have time and land to do so. Though it is a righteous and valuable movement, one that encourages self-sufficiency and respect for the land and its delicate and forgiving systems (and we get to feel good about ourselves when we serve a garden-grown salad to our dinner guests), Palestinians under military occupation see it as a necessary means of empowerment within an ever-changing and uncertain landscape.

Palestinians in the area say they are excited about this re-greening movement. “I was born here,” Munther, a Beit Sahour resident says. “My grandfather farmed here on this same ground. And I’m learning to be a farmer in a new way…in Palestine, we don’t have a lot. We just have land.”

The Israeli occupation controls nearly every aspect of Palestinian life: from access to education and proper medical care, to freedom of movement (or lack thereof), to the economy inside the West Bank and Gaza strip. In the farming sector, Israel allows Palestinians only certain types of fertilizer and regulates where crops can be exported. Through permaculture, Palestinians and international environmentalists say, people don’t have to allow themselves to be subjected to Israel’s administrative policies. And by providing locally-grown food security to their own communities, Palestinians contribute to a movement of resistance against a discriminatory system.

The Bustan Qaraqa farm began last year, when Alice Harrison, an environmental scientist from the United Kingdom, says she helped start the farm after consulting in water development at a Palestinian environmental NGO. “From the top-down development level, nothing was happening to prevent the destruction of Palestine. Instead of saying ‘this is terrible, something must be done,’ we thought, ‘this is terrible, what do we do now?’”

The practice of permaculture in Palestine is multi-faceted, Harrison says. “We’re developing simple things that anyone can do in order to salvage something from the occupation…We’re also responding to the economic crisis and the food security crisis.”

Thomas, a farm volunteer, says that over 70 different species of local and regionally-native plants are being propagated and rooted throughout this wadi. He explains the tenets of permaculture. “It’s just another word for ‘common sense,’ really,” he says, leaning on his pickaxe. “It’s an old idea. It’s about sustainable living, be that part of an agricultural system or domestically, even if you don’t have access to any land. It’s about using what you’ve got where you’ve got it. It’s pertinent here in Palestine. The government has no sovereignty. The municipality is banned by the restrictions of the occupation. If people are to address these issues that are worrying them, they have to act themselves.”

Across the so-called Green Line, Israeli agriculture flourishes. Unrestricted access to land and water resources inside Israel and within the illegal settlement colonies mean abundance of crops, sophisticated irrigation, water grids and full swimming pools. But this system is based upon a discriminatory set of policies, according to reports published by the World Bank and United Nations.

The green fields of vegetable and fruit crops in Israel are fed from water aquifers and the Jordan river as settlement colonies across the West Bank are deliberately placed on top of the most fertile land and the biggest underground water tables. On the other hand, Palestinian farms, villages, towns and refugee camps (all of which are restricted from accessing the same water tables and the Jordan river) must then rely on rainwater-catching tubs on top of roofs and beside homes — an meager source of water especially in the burning-hot summer months. According to a report published by the World Bank on Tuesday, the average Israeli receives access to four times as much water as the average Palestinian. Additionally, the World Bank says that the uneven allocation now results in a “near catastrophe” for the Palestinian Authority’s current water system. “Palestinians have access to only one-fifth of the mountain aquifer supply, while Israel pumps out the rest, reaching its allocated quota without due authorization from the joint water committee set up in the Oslo accords. (Haaretz, April 20th)”

As Palestinians struggle with water, land and food availability, Harrison reiterates that on a basic level, practicing permaculture means that people can take care of their needs. “This isn’t a movement for yuppies,” she says. “This is a very grassroots concern. We want to look at rooftop gardening and water re-use in the refugee camps.”

“However,” Harrison continues, “Palestine could lead the world in arid-zone agriculture. Already, 80% of the farming is rain-fed. But it’s predicted that, because of global climate change, rainfall in this area will decrease 20% by 2050. We should be prepared for it…With permaculture techniques, there are crops that you can grow, there are things you can do.”

In practice of re-greening an increasingly fractionalized, disappearing and drying land, Harrison quotes a Bedouin friend of hers. “He says, ‘This is us recognizing our own rights. We don’t need anyone giving us rights to our land. We live here…In the [Palestinian] environmental movement, this is a case of us recognizing ourselves.’”

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