In Palestine, Plant Your Resistance

Bustan Qaraaqa
Together with the support of locals, four environmentalists setup Bustan Qaraaqa or ‘Tortoise Garden’ in the summer of 2008.

Looking over the rugged landscape of the West Bank, it’s hard to believe that even nature’s resources are under Israeli control. Yet over the years of occupation, the fertile lands of the West Bank have been confiscated for illegal settlements. Palestinian water supplies have also been hijacked so that Israeli citizens enjoy four times as much water as Palestinians.Israeli control of the West Bank’s natural resources has led to stunted development in the region, with Palestinians increasingly dependent on Israel for their food and water. In response to this, a group of environmentalists in the West Bank have come with a unique and eco-friendly way to fight the Israeli occupation: they are growing their own food!

“More Independent, More Self-sufficient”

In the village of Beit Sahour on the outskirts of Bethlehem, UK environmentalists have decided that the best way to empower Palestinians is to teach them to grow their own food and utilize naturally available resources. Alice Gray, an environmental scientist who helped launch the project explained to, “All of these things, these dependences, are being used as weapons against the Palestinians. So our point is that the more independent, the more self-sufficient you are the less these things can be used as political tools.”

Together with the support of locals, four environmentalists setup Bustan Qaraaqa or ‘Tortoise Garden’ in the summer of 2008. It is entirely independently run by these environmental activists who hope to pass it over to Palestinian management over the next five years. Since the project launched it has grown to include a guest house for volunteers and a 4-acre plot of land dedicated to experimentation with permaculture techniques.

Permaculture is a method of growing food using sustainable methods which advocate a close relationship between people and nature on ethical grounds. Gray, however, sees it in a very different light insisting that “Permaculture is a political act and the politics of it is in taking back control and moving away from dependence.”

Whilst this new-found green concept may seem irrelevant for Palestinians struggling to put food on the plate, Gray also argues that it is these very people that the project is aimed at.

“In Palestine, [permaculture] is not just answering some ethical concept but also [fulfills] a dire need. We are always experimenting with lots of ways of growing vegetables and resource-use such as water conservation, but everything that we do we will do at low cost so that it is easily replicable for Palestinians.”

Water Shortages

Water is one of the most contentious issues affecting Palestinians in the West Bank as it is inextricably linked to farming and food security.

In fact, the project has already gathered a wide base of support ranging from Palestinians in refugee camps to the Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor who reportedly said in The Jordan Times that such a project would be “very positive”.

“Everyone we talk to, on all levels of society can relate to it as it’s practical and needed,” said Gray. “There is no Palestinian who has not experienced problems like water shortage, which we are trying to resolve.”

Water is one of the most contentious issues affecting Palestinians in the West Bank as it is inextricably linked to farming and food security. A recent report by the World Bank found that Palestinians have the lowest access to fresh water in the region and 50% of households have reported quality problems in their drinking water supply. The World Bank also found that Israel has been over-extracting water from the West Bank’s resources, reducing the amount left for Palestinians and increasing Palestinian dependency on Israeli water supplies.

The lack of water in the region also means that vast expanses of Palestinian West Bank farmland are currently drying out and unable to grow crops. The agricultural sector is already an important lifeline to the West Bank, which given better access to water could create more jobs, independent food security and even contribute to poverty reduction. The World Bank has estimated that the restrictions in agriculture and declining availability of agricultural water carry significant losses as high as 10 percent of GDP and 110,000 jobs (World Bank, April 2009, West Bank and Gaza: Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development).

Water shortages are also pushing up the price of water for Palestinian farmers who in some cases are paying 12 times more for the same amount of water in comparison with Israeli farmers. Bustan Qaraaqa has been trying to resolve the issue of water shortages by encouraging farmers to build underground cisterns which catch and store large amounts of rainwater as well as incorporating sewage systems which don’t use any water. “To make sure that people have access to water although they are being denied water infrastructure, you have to store every drop so nothing is wasted,” asserted Gray.

Bustan Qaraaqa also practices what it preaches and has recently built a rainwater system to support its flourishing orchards of olive trees, figs, pomegranate and apricot as well as wheat. “The tree nursery is my great love!” beams Gray. “We collected all of the seeds ourselves.We didn’t buy it from anyone; we just walked around and took it from the trees we saw and so far we have collected around 200 species.”

Reconnecting with their Land

As well as tackling the dependence of Palestinians on Israel for food and water, Bustan Qaraaqa is also aiming to resist the occupation by reconnecting Palestinians with their lands.

Before the Nakba of 1948, many Palestinian communities were traditionally centered around agricultural farms which fostered a strong bond between people and their land. With the invasion of Zionist militias, however, many fled or were forced from these small villages into highly urbanized areas which undermined the importance of land and agricultural farming.

Ever since, Palestinians have been losing their lands to ‘security zones’, the Apartheid Wall as well as to illegal Israeli settlements scattered across the West Bank. “A real concern for modern Palestine is that people are being severed from their land, even their consciousness of it is disappearing as they are being shut into ghettos behind 8 meter walls,” Gray explains.

“Part of the strategy of dispossession of the Palestinians is to kick them off their land and so part of resisting it must be to reconnect them with it again.”

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