www.banksy.co.uk - adaptation by shadow

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.”
Read more!