Palestinian farmers use permaculture to challenge occupation

Marda village beneath the Ariel settlement in the occupied West Bank, 2008. (Amy
Rawlins)

At five in the morning on 8 November 2000, Israeli troops invaded the Sustainable Development Centre in the West Bank village of Marda, tearing doors off their hinges and smashing windows. They destroyed seven years of work on the permaculture project. During the two-and-a-half hour rampage, the plant nursery, seed bank, agricultural equipment, computers and files were all wrecked.

The Centre had been established in 1993 to explore ways in which permaculture’s principles of self-sufficiency could help Palestinian farmers whose lands were being confiscated and polluted by settlements like Ariel, which overshadows Marda village.

With the help of funding from Europe, the US and Australia, the Centre had managed to store and grow over 300 native plant varieties and had on its two-hectare site run courses for agricultural engineers from across the Middle East on permaculture techniques such as composting, irrigation, grey water recycling and using organic pesticides. It also offered local women training in computer and English-language skills.

The only danger that the Marda Sustainable Development Centre posed was the “threat of a good example” to Israeli military control over civil society in the West Bank. At the time of the November 2000 attack, a spokesperson for APHEDA, one of the Australian non-governmental organizations which supported the Centre, called the Israeli army’s actions “a senseless attempt to destroy the morale of the community and another example of the unnecessary force being used by the Israeli military.”

Green shoots

Murad al-Khufash spent four years working on that first project in Marda. When efforts to re-open the Centre foundered on a lack of funds and the threats of the on-going Israeli occupation, he decided to use his family’s land to create a demonstration farm, continuing the work of trialing and adapting permaculture techniques for the West Bank’s environment.

Permaculture, a movement which built on organic principles to develop a whole range of techniques for living self-sufficiently and with minimal impact on the environment, is more often associated with Westerners seeking alternative lifestyles. But, says al-Khufash, it has direct political relevance in the Israeli occupied West Bank.

“I like to help my people by teaching them the idea of growing their own food and to be independent in their markets and food” he says, “because if every farmer or Palestinian started to grow their own food we will be independent from the Israeli market.”

Murad al-Khufash hopes that his new project will grow, creating jobs in the local area and allowing Palestinians from Marda and the wider area to stay at home with their families, rather than having to work overseas as he did for five years. But the savings he accumulated by working in the United States have almost run out, and he has had to make some tough choices about the project’s future.

“The hardest thing is how to balance what your family needs and what the project needs, this is the hardest decision I have to make, it’s a challenge and I have no guarantee of what I will have tomorrow,” he explains. He was offered a visa to work abroad again this spring, and only an emergency appeal by organizations like Britain’s Permaculture Association enabled him to continue working on the demonstration farm.

“What I got for the funding makes me stay and not give up, because I have hope and I prefer to live in my country and with my family rather than going to Norway and making more money. And I have to trust my friends around the world and accept the challenge, and we will see what happens next,” he says.

A lack of funding isn’t the only problem faced by al-Khufash’s demonstration farm. Israeli army restrictions on movement mean that he has trouble finding volunteers to help on the farm, and the same travel restrictions hamper his own work. Feral pigs, allegedly released into the wild by Israeli settlers, have increased to an estimated 1,000 in number and are strong enough to break through security fences to eat crops, damage olive trees and trample seedlings. Marda is set to lose yet more land with plans to expand the Israeli settlement at Tapuah. Until he can raise the money to build a water cistern al-Khufash, like other Palestinians, is subject to the high charges imposed by the Israeli water company Mekorot — even though they may well be buying back water stolen from their own land.

Tami Brunk, international co-ordinator for the Marda project, reports that simply carrying out the kind of farming that Murad al-Khufash does can be difficult. He is competing, she says, with farmers who “use all the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides pushed by development groups like the US Agency for International Development (USAID).” Moreover, using permaculture solutions is made all the harder by the bureaucratic impediments institutionalized within Israel’s occupation. For example, “Murad’s farm was hit in 2007 by a mite which destroyed his crop of cucumbers. There is a beneficial spider which preys on the mite … but there are restrictions on importing it into Palestine.”

The recent funding appeal has meant that al-Khufash’s demonstration farm will keep going, at least for the moment. High-profile support from figures in the international permaculture movement has been a big boost to the project’s profile and morale, and other West Bank permaculturists have tried to help out by sharing resources and trying to build up a network of like-minded people in Palestine.

The tortoise garden

An experimental permaculture community near Beit Sahour is one of those organizations trying to support Murad al-Khufasha, as well as find new ways of overcoming the Occupation.

Bustan Qaraaqa’s Alice Gray emphasizes that permaculture isn’t just about alternative agriculture. She hopes that the work being done at the farm she established in February 2008 with three friends from the UK — one of whom has since been deported — will tackle wider social and environmental issues.

“Certain native trees are very good at colonizing degraded soil and facilitating other trees that are more demanding to grow, or at soil enrichment and stabilization and altering soil conditions,” she explains, pointing out the West Bank’s only native tree nursery. Some tree species could help to clean up soil polluted by the chemical and sewage waste pumped out by Israeli settlements.

Bustan Qaraaqa’s workers are also looking at ways that native species could help to solve the huge problem of soil erosion on the hillsides of the eastern West Bank leading to the Jordan River. According to Gray, overgrazing on land where Palestinian farmers are increasingly confined to small areas by settlements has created a situation where soil is “being just stripped away, which is totally disastrous, so we’re looking at ways of using trees to stabilize the soil, to enrich it, and to provide fodder for livestock and possibly also fuel for people.”

Gray adds that “Trees are much more resilient than ground vegetation to grazing and with trees it’s quite easy to control — you can cut the boughs of the tree and you can see when it’s had enough and you have to find another source of fodder. But restoring that kind of habitat, if it’s not done in the next decades it will be impossible to do at all because the soil’s going at such a rate and once it’s gone it’s gone.”

Permaculture’s approach to reducing waste is also helping to reduce the volume of rubbish dumped in wild areas by Palestinian communities with no adequate waste management facilities. “We’ve supported the SOS Children’s Village in Bethlehem to set up a composting scheme,” Gray explains. She adds that “They’re composting all their food waste now, and it can be quite powerful to do something like that, at an institutional level where there is a big volume of rubbish being generated, which might otherwise be just thrown into the desert or set on fire.”

Off the grid

The Bustan Qaraaqa community — a big stone farmhouse surrounded by 12 dunums of land — also acts as a testing ground for ways of living “off the grid” in Palestine. Like Murad al-Khufash in Marda, Gray believes that lifestyles more associated with alternative communities in Europe and the US could offer new solutions to farmers cut off from their land by the Israeli Separation Wall.

“One of the Occupation’s methods is to refuse to give people infrastructure,” Gray explains. “Some farmers are saying OK, you build the Wall between me and my land. I choose my land. So the Israelis say — you can have no infrastructure. No electricity, no running water. Now try living there.”

However, she notes that “Permaculture ideas are very much about how to live ‘off the grid.’ You have to think, how will I get water? So if you harvest rainwater you remove a level of dependency. And how do I handle waste? If you’re on a short water budget and there’s no sewage collection it makes sense to have a compost toilet. And then there are sustainable ways of generating electricity. That’s the next step, we haven’t got there yet but we’d really like to work with getting funding to get people solar panels and things like that so they can have electricity at their sites.”

As Gray emphasizes, the denial of services is one of the Israeli State’s means of enforcing a political agenda aimed at removing the Arab population, from “unrecognized” Bedouin communities in the Negev as well as Palestinian villages near to the Wall. But, she believes, permaculture’s reinvention of ways of living that might have been familiar generations ago can help to circumvent the occupation’s methods, and farmers from villages like al-Walaja where land confiscation has been a major issue are wiling to try out some of Bustan Qaraaqa’s ideas.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-2 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-6. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine.

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