www.banksy.co.uk - adaptation by shadow

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Of fish and Faidherbia......

Impelled by enthusiasm brought by Phil and Lorena rejoining the project in July after their epic bike ride to Palestine from the UK, we mounted an expedition to bring tilapia fish to the wadi cistern to kick-start our new fish-farming project.

A friendly fish farmer on the River Jordan, volunteered several hundred fingerlings, which posed us with the challenge of transporting the fish the length of the Jordan Valley, by then a forbidding inferno of sun cracked rock, without baking them alive. Having no vehicle of our own, we usually hitchhike, but with temperatures exceeding 50 degrees every day of August and being wise to the complications presented by hitchhiking with live fish (this would not be my first time), we resolved we would need help to safely deliver the perishable cargo. Persuaded by the promise of swimming in the freshwater of the lake, Magda and Andrea (friends living in Beit Sahour) agreed to drive their little Renault van. As the military checkpoints on the road prevented us from squeezing more people in to van than its two seats allowed, Phil, Lorena, and I would hitch. We planned to meet after the last checkpoint at a Crusader fortress called the Star of the Winds, where it is rumoured the rarest tree in Palestine, Faidherbia albidia, can still be found on the mountain slopes beneath the castle. I hoped to collect seeds. From there we would travel north together to camp on the bank of the River Jordan close to the fish farm to collect the fish early in the morning and drive them back to the farm before the day hit boiling point. As we set out that early summer morning, we were expecting heat, but I don’t think any one of us could imagine just what lay in store for us.

Setting out at dawn, we quickly descended the mountain slopes in a series of rides (Fellaheen, Bedouin, Settlers) down through the shabby Arab towns, across the steeply sloping desert whose pink and white rock shone in the bright morning light, down, down under sea level to the deep blue Dead Sea, laid still as a corpse on the floor of the Rift Valley surrounded by a plane of blinding white salt. Outside Jericho, huddled in a shrinking pool of shade cast by a road sign eventually we flagged down a driver. Winding down the window a little the driver a young man squinted at the bright reflected light “I’m bound to Bet She’an!” he shouted in Hebrew, confusing heat with noise and added in pre-emption of any panic once we were in the car, “You understand I am Arab?” Replying in broken Arabic I assured him that was not a problem for us and we gratefully jumped into the car. The thermometer on the dashboard informed us the temperature was 47 degrees. The time was only nine O’clock. At some point in the conversation we spun along the long valley road he admitted that he was afraid we were settlers with a plan to kill him. He would not have stopped had we not looked so desperate. Perhaps he felt guilty for having not trusted us because he drove us 10 km beyond his junction, leaving us under the mountain crowned by the Fortress of the Star of the Winds. The thermometer read 51 degrees. The time was one O’clock.

Our forlorn trio stood sinking into the tarmac of the road as we gazed up at the mountain, its broad tan swell, the castle only just discernable, stood infinitely remote on the summit. A single road, a ribbon of tarmac, wound up the pleated flanks and disappeared over the horizon to the right of the peak. Blinking, my eyelids folded rather than slid over my dried eyeballs. No wind stirred the brittle golden thistles of the verge. We set out through a grove of Christ-thorn Jujube trees (Zizyphus spina –christi), their tangled white trunks naked but for the last vestiges of dry foliage. Seen through the heat bent the air, the trees appeared to melt then crystallise into fierce spines. In a futile attempt to head-off feelings of despair I extolled the virtues of the elusive Faidherbia tree and, attempting to rally the spirit of adventure, tried “nothing worth having comes easy” and “A man's worth is no greater than his ambitions”. Not even I was convinced.

There was no time for dissent. Lorena made it 100m meters until complaining that her earrings where burning in her ears, took refuge under the first bush and, quite sensibly, refused to go on. After all, Magda and Andrea would follow this way in the little van. But van or no van it was clear to me the lure of copious fresh water would overwhelm my urgings so I resolved to use all the remaining time until their arrival to find my trees. Phil conceded to accompany me but almost immediately began to regret his decision. After the grove of Jujube trees the track climbed steeply up the treeless slopes. We were walking fast in the knowledge that we needed to get out of the sun and that we must find these trees before our rescue party could save us from ourselves. After half an hour of climbing and still no sign of a Faidherbia we began to feel a bit queer. Nothing serious, just a tingling in the arms and legs and a sense of wellbeing incongruous with our situation. I attributed the tingling to the fact that I was not getting enough oxygen into my body to maintain our rapid pace. It seemed reasonable to me that upon sensing the atmosphere to be moustache-stingingly hot, one’s physiological response is to protect the lungs by not sucking the stuff in. Deliberately, I breathed more deeply. Sharing my observations with Phil he confirmed my symptoms and added with detachment, between gasps, that he was experiencing a euphoric delirium akin to the nitrogen narcosis experienced by divers who go too deep for too long. Now analogous to a fatal condition, our state gave us cause for mild concern. We reviewed our situation: Having drunk almost continuously since setting off half an hour ago we reasoned we could not yet be dehydrated. Our heads where well covered but nevertheless concluded that hastening up a mountain with no shade, at midday, in August, in the Jordan Valley was a sure way of inducing hyperthermia. Predicting a cool breeze on the mountain top and the welcoming shade of the fortress we resolved to go on.

Our folly was soon rewarded when nearing the crest of the ridge, there silhouetted above us on the horizon, a file of twisted-trunked trees with thin crowns. Upon closer inspection the trees were even stranger with short thick gnarled trunks, contorted branches bent down under their own weight and liberally scattered with small but incredibly sharp spines (Although careful to avoid the spines I picked my finger the moment I reached out to touch a leaf). The leaves, shaped like those of a mimosa, were delicate, tiny and few. The trees were small and spaced apart but numbered several hundred. The shade they offered, though sparse, was welcome. As we walked on the searching for a tree in fruit in the hope of collecting the seed, we saw a big old tree whose branches came down to the ground. “I’m waiting here for the van,” declared Phil. I walked on to the summit in the vain hope of collecting seeds.

The stand of Faidherbia trees ended as abruptly as it began, numbering only a few hundred trees. I saw neither flowers nor fruit. My dead-end, burning path climbed gently along the bare ridge to the castle whose approach was lined with old carob trees each oddly dense in this lofty world dissipating into the bright heat. The castle stood abandoned on the peak. Alone I bridged the deep moat entering the gate of a symmetrical temple of massive stones neatly placed on vertical walls arranged in concentric rings. Griffon vultures hopped and hunched on the battlement from where the land fell away. Far below in the depths of the Jordan Valley, like pooled mercury, lay the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, and, far off in the haze, a sliver of silver which could only be the Mediterranean Sea. A triangulation of hope, infinitely remote in this cruel theatre of war. The Star of the Winds: a temple to Futility.

Gazing on the great stones of the crumbling walls stacked on the brink, I fancied I knew how Sisyphus feels as he begins his descent. I’ll be back in another season in the hope of collecting Faidherbia seeds and maybe many times after that. Maybe the trees have lost their pollinator species. Maybe they stopped fruiting decades ago (I observed no young trees). But if the task be futile and hope absurd, then I must be content I reached the top of the mountain and found my trees. As Camus puts it, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Returning to the bridge over the moat I encountered the others small and quiet wandering scattered between the great walls of the ruin. Packed like tined sardines in the back of the scorching Renault van we descended the mountain track back into the Jordan Valley Highway and there turned North to where the River flows out of the lake. Panting in a pool of our mingling sweat we silently tolerated conditions illegal since the passing of animal welfare legislation for the transport of livestock.

Tumbling to the dust from the back of the van we dashed for the glassy green water without even removing our clothes. We bathed in the flow for hours watching the kingfishers perched in the over-arching green of tall eucalyptus trees until dusk. The Jordan under Israel has morphed into a billabong. Exhausted we slept there on bank between the water of the Jordan and a canal of sewage. It was a foul spot but we hadn’t the energy to search for another. As we rested the coypu emerged from their burrows frolicked around our sleeping forms plunging noisily into the river.

At dawn we returned to the van and after breakfast in a bland kibbutz we drove south to the meet Roy, our friendly fish farmer. He drove us around the artificial rectangular lakes where for 18 years he has been raising fish. We smelt the fish before we saw them. The surface of the water boiled as the fish slid over one another. The seagulls picked at the pale bloated corpses lining the shore. The survivors gaped in water hot to touch. “We used to treat for fresh water diseases but now the water has become so saline we treat for marine diseases” he informed us. Hot and boring fast we were shown lake after lake full of desperate fish. “There are 2000 to 3000 fish per meter cubed.” From the shallows of one lagoon he netted hundreds of tiny tilapia fish – our precious cargo. Fistfulls of their silvery forms were cast into a cardboard box lined with a plastic bag. The temperature of the water was cooled by the addition of chilled water and an atmosphere of oxygen pumped in before the bag was sealed. Now the race was on. After a hasty farewell we waved the goodbye to the Renault heading South on Route 90. They would stop at each service station on the road to add ice to the fishes’ water.

Reluctantly we began to hitch home. A haze of blasé surrounds my memories of a series of rides with soldiers, uniforms and guns checkpoints etc… Occupation lite. Hitching with a Palestinian (Jerusalem ID but living illegally in Hebron), the road was so hot one of the car’s tyres bust as he was buying us iced grapefruit juice. His shaved head and fat neck looked like melting wax as he struggled to align the bolt holes on the hub. Thankfully he drove us to into Beit Sahour from where we could walk home and release the fish found already floating in their bag in the cistern as they had been left by Magda and Andrea.
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Saturday, 19 June 2010

Permaculture and Empowerment in Palestine

By Alice Gray, first published in Permaculture Activist, June 2010

“Nations and peoples are largely the stories they tell themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.” (Ben Okri)

The Middle East has long been a place for beginnings. It was here that people first began to practice agriculture approximately 12,000 years ago, here that the first cities were established, and here that 3 major monotheistic religions were born. It is a place for questions and for seeking answers, and so perhaps it is appropriate that we should have chosen this venue to start our own search for answers to perhaps the most important question of our time: how can we live sustainably?

Such a simple question, it seems the answer too should be simple. And yet, in the world we live in, where global climate change, loss of biodiversity and toxification of the environment are all daily realities, it is clear that we do not have that answer. In fact it is increasingly clear that the ‘status quo’ for human existence on this planet, particularly in our so-called ‘developed’ nations, is one of environmental destruction.

A rudimentary examination of global resource flows or ecological footprinting can tell us that developed nations are consuming the vast majority of the world’s ecological wealth. It is a cliché these days to say that if everybody lived like Americans we would need 10 planets to support us. Another almost equally obvious although less frequently acknowledged fact is that this monopolisation of resources is being enforced through military coercion. Resource war, like climate change, is not a frightening story of what tomorrow may bring, but a horrific reality of today. In the Middle East, where Iraq lies smouldering in ruins and the brutal summers are getting longer and dryer year by year, both are already far too much in evidence.

Palestine is a special place: a tiny Mediterranean coastal strip on the edge of the Naqab desert, and a brief flush of mountains between the bulwark of Israel on one side and the Judean desert on the other form the Gaza Strip and the West Bank respectively. It is a land of ancient stone terraces and olive groves, of almond blossom and minarets; but also of military occupation and active colonisation, where the call to prayer mingles with the hum of fighter jets overhead, and wild flowers grow between the razorwire and the watchtowers of the Occupation.

To live in Palestine is as if to live beneath a magnifying glass. It is a place of conflict where two worlds meet and clash within a scant 6200 square kilometres of land; and control of and access to resources play very directly into politics of power and oppression. A country of extremes and extreme contrasts: it is like a microcosm of global problems, where everything is exaggerated and condensed.

A red-roofed Israeli settlement perches on a West Bank hilltop: the epitome of modernity. Sprinklers play across well watered lawns, swimming pools shimmer in the ever-present sun and air-conditioning units hum in neat brick houses. Connected to Israel by well-surfaced roads, the well-to-do residents, who are the recipients of numerous tax-breaks and government-funded utility subsidies for their participation in this colonisation project, are able to zoom back and forth unimpeded; going about their business without ever coming into contact with or barely even seeing another world that hovers close by.

At the foot of the hill, a scant stones’ throw away, a Palestinian village nestles in the valley. Caught between the settlement on one side and its access road on the other (which is out-of bounds to Palestinians), the village is practically encircled by a razorwire fence. The narrow streets that wind between the old stone houses are potholed and choked with rubbish and dust; the gardens wilted and dry. Water supply in the summer is intermittent at best and non-existent at worst. People scratch a living; the agricultural land from which they used to support themselves is either rendered inaccessible by the encircling fence or ruined by untreated sewage pouring down the hill from the settlement above, or from the village itself.

This spectacle is familiar to anybody who has spent time in the West Bank and could refer to literally hundreds of villages, from Jenin governorate in the north to Hebron in the south. These marked contrasts are not only the product of cultural differences (which may explain differences in dress, language and architecture), but of a carefully orchestrated and brutally enforced program of colonisation and control that is designed to create and reinforce privilege and power. In the case of the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank this is motivated by a religious-nationalist agenda; but once you start to understand this pattern, you begin to see it operating everywhere, and at every scale.

Breaking it down, we see that it rests on two main pillars: appropriation of resources and control over their production and distribution to benefit an ‘elite’; and disenfranchisement and subjugation of an ‘underclass’ to create a dynamic of dependency and thus of control; both backed by military might.

Looking again at the Israeli settlement and the Palestinian village, and the great gulf in privilege between them, we can see this pattern in action very clearly. Perhaps the issue of access to water, that most vital of life-giving resources, is a good illustration. Why is it that the settlers are so much better off in this respect than the Palestinians? Is it lack of organisation on the part of the Arabs? Is it that there is not enough water to go around, and so someone has to lose out?

Looking beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that the answer to both questions is no. Despite the aridity of the Middle East in general, there is enough water in naturally occurring resources inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories for everyone to receive the World Health Organisation recommendation of 100 litres per person per day to cover their basic needs; and still have a substantial amount left over for agricultural and industrial purposes (see below for the basic sums).

Total sustainable yield of main natural water resources in Israel and the OPT (million cubic metres per year) About 1800
Total population of Israel and the OPT About 10 000 000
Total annual water requirement for everyone to receive 100 litres per person per day (million cubic metres per year) (10 000 000 x 100 x 365) / 1000 000 000
= 365
Remainder (million cubic metres per year) 1435
In spite of this, average water supply to Palestinians in the West Bank is a scanty 50 litres per person per day (just half of the World Health Organisation recommended minimum) while Israeli settlers living in the same area receive an unlimited supply. Across the board (including industrial and agricultural water use), on a per capita basis, Israelis have access to four times as much water as Palestinians according to the World Bank’s most recent water development report.

This inequality is no coincidence. It is well documented that Israel has maintained a strangle-hold on Palestinian water development: first under the Israeli Civil Administration from 1967-1995, and then under the terms of the Oslo Interim Agreement, in force from 1995 until the present. Organisations working in the sector, from Amnesty International to Oxfam to the World Bank have drawn the same conclusion . A similar story applies to other development sectors such as wastewater or solid waste management.

The upshot of this monopolisation of resources and strangulation of development is one of both human suffering and environmental destruction, as not only the people and their culture but also the very fabric of the country crumble under the strain. Food, water and economic insecurity are commonplace in Palestinian communities; while 90% of sewage goes untreated, choking the wadis and poisoning the soil, and the air is thick with the fumes of burning garbage. In the West Bank, Israel controls 60% of the land and 80% of the water, while in Gaza, where 1.5 million people are crammed into a scarce 365 km2 of land, there are insufficient resources to support the population and incessant border closures (not to mention bombings) have created widespread hardship.

The gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is wide and widening. In 2005, Israel’s Gross National Income (GNI) per capita was almost eighteen times the Palestinian GNI per capita. Militarily and economically, the power dynamics are clear. Does this pattern seem familiar yet? Looking around the world at the global trade system, the issue of Third World Debt, the interventionist foreign policies of Western nations; and back at a long history of Western imperialism and colonialism, it is hard not to see a parallel . Both within and between countries, this culture of exploitation deeply permeates our societies; ensuring that the world is arranged to benefit a few powerful elites at the expense of the majority of people and the fabric of the planet.

How can we overcome these dynamics of oppression and destruction, whether as unwilling participants in exploitative systems or as victims of those systems? Whilst systemic change is clearly desirable, action at the individual and community level is more immediately obtainable and will have more tangible consequences in our lives. Permaculture is one route to effect such change, essentially taking back control over our patterns of consumption and disposal and placing ourselves at the centre of a conscious interaction with the world. Permaculture is about reimagining our relationship with the rest of existence, and finding within ourselves the creativity to live in a way that enhances the world, rather than destroying it.

Which brings us back to Bustan Qaraaqa: a four-acre permaculture farm on the edge of the Judean desert in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour close to the city of Bethlehem. Bustan Qaraaqa is an experiment in sustainable living and food production, seeking to support and empower Palestinians to obtain the resources they need from the environment around them, whilst also managing their environmental impacts to turn the tide of destruction that is destroying their country. Bustan Qaraaqa is about demonstrating what individuals and communities can do, even under military occupation, to take control of their situation and to create in the midst of destruction.

We are using techniques such as rainwater harvesting and grey-water recycling to augment water supplies. Composting toilets save water and prevent sewage pollution. Composting of food waste and cardboard provides a valuable resource for growing food, as well as taking care of a good deal of household waste; and green-building techniques such as using tyres stuffed with rubbish as bricks make for cheap structures that also help clean up the country.

Beit Sahour is one of the hottest and driest towns in the West Bank, which presents the perfect testing ground for drought-tolerant, low water input food production techniques. Using a combination of drip irrigation and mulching, we are attempting to minimize water input whilst maximizing soil moisture content. We are also experimenting with companion planting and agroforestry techniques to develop robust ecosystems that supply a variety of goods and services, from building materials to food and medicines. We have managed to develop the only native tree nursery in the Palestinian Territories, and are making its products freely available to the surrounding community for agroforestry, ecosystem restoration and community gardening projects.

The founders of the farm are British by origin, and we are finding a warm welcome in the Palestinian community that hosts us, building strong partnerships with Palestinian farmers and organisations. In addition, we are finding friends across the border, in the ‘green’ community in Israel, who are keen to connect with and support Palestinians in obtaining their environmental rights and resisting the oppressive dynamics of the Israeli occupation. Working alongside Israelis and Palestinians, we are realising more and more the truth of the statement by Bill Mollison, one of the fathers of the permaculture concept that: “A person of courage today is a person of peace. The courage we need is to refuse authority and accept only personally responsible decisions.”
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