Land is key to the ongoing occupation in Palestine. Wars have been fought over territory and legal battles have spun out for decades over matters as basic as accessing a plot. Despite land being such a major issue, the human cost of occupation means that the environmental cost is forgotten not just by Western outsiders like myself, but also by Palestinians themselves.
The destruction of olive trees has, of course, become almost a symbol of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The cultural significance of olive branches as messages of peace add a metaphorical layer to the trials Palestinian farmers face when their income and heritage is destroyed. (Read the Journal’s 2002 report on this issue here). However, there are many other native plants and wildlife that too, are an integral part of Palestinian history and culture.
While walking in the hills around Ramallah with a group of friends recently, I ran into Saleh Totah, an activist who co-founded Mashjar Juthour, a 2.5 acre arboretum and eco-park on the Thahr al Okda hillside. Totah and his partner, Morgan Cooper, started Mashjar Juthour, which translates roughly as “the Roots Arboretum,” in 2013 as a permaculture education project seeking to re-establish the diverse range of flora that flourished in Palestine years ago, but which has been lost in conflict and in ignorance.
The project is one of many that have cropped up in Palestine in recent years, including rooftop gardens and fish farms, that hope to reconnect the people in this conflict-ridden region with their natural environment and inspire Palestinians to work towards a sustainable future for themselves and their land.
That day, and on a subsequent visit when we helped to clear stones, we heard about the different plants growing in the Mashjar: Palestinian oak with its edible acorns, orchids which are used to make the drink salep, tiny, wild peas which we ate from the pod. Many of Mashjar’s plants have a dual purpose. They make the land itself rich and sustainable while also providing sustenance. Lentils, for example, are grown for food and at the same time return nitrogen to the soil for hungry trees.
The diverse range of plants found in Mashjar Juthour is unusual in Palestine. The hills around the park are filled almost exclusively with olives. There is little room for any other kind of tree to grow.
“People see value only in the olive tree,” says Cooper. “It’s a major source of income, so farmers clear the land of all the other trees in order for the olive trees to live without other trees competing.”
Partly, this is due to the challenge of accessing land. Olives are hardy, and once they reach maturity they can survive with little maintenance. This is a necessity for the many farmers who require permits, rarely granted, to access their land that has been enveloped behind the Israeli barrier wall. This rationale is understandable, but it means that much of the traditional knowledge in sustainable farming – what we would call permaculture – has been lost. And that loss makes Palestinians more dependent on imports for everything beyond olive oil products.
It’s not just farmers with land outside across the wall who are affected. The West Bank itself was divided in 1990s, with the vast majority, about 60 percent, being designated as Area C, under Israeli occupation. On this land, the Palestinian Authority controls only health and educational matters. For every other aspect of life here, Israel is the governing authority.
The problems this causes – whether it’s the lack of protection for Palestinian villagers, unplanned waste disposal that sees settlement sewage tainting Palestinian crops, or withholding of development permits – mean that people are too afraid or too frustrated to connect with the land.
“Area C has compacted the Palestinian alienation from land and it’s so uncommon to see Palestinians picnicking or even hiking,” Cooper says. “We don’t access nature. And we’re losing so much of the knowledge we have about it, without even realizing it, because most of us are totally distracted with the greater struggles of living under occupation.”
The result of this is a shocking lack of environmental awareness, not just among farmers or landowners, but the wider Palestinian community. One obvious indicator is the widespread littering. The road from Ramallah to Mashjar, a winding path through hills lined with old stone huts and terraces of olive trees, would appear Biblical were it not strewn with candy wrappers and energy drink cans.
“It’s a complete lack of awareness we have about the environment and the negative effect we have on it,” Cooper says. The issue is compounded because the road is in Area C, so the Palestinian Authority isn’t allowed to provide waste disposal services, she explains. “Instead it is the responsibility of the [Israeli authorities]. And they simply don’t take that responsibility. So what happens to waste, then?”
The Mashjar project aims to use education to reverse Palestinians’ loss of knowledge about the environment and of how to take care of it.
“The idea is to get our community back to nature, to remind them of the very important relationship we have always had to the environment around us, and especially to bring back the traditional knowledge and natural heritage of Palestine,” Cooper says.
With a small team of mostly volunteers, Cooper and Totah have painstakingly rehabilitated the 2.5 acres of land. The park now boasts 60 species of trees, including native oaks, kaykabs, caroubs, maples, and pines. To get people out of the city and into the wild, Mashjar runs events in its arboretum: workshops, family days, guided walks and one-off events like an astronomy camp.
Cooper hopes that their schemes will encourage environmental stewardship and make food sovereignty part of the Palestinian human rights movement. It seems like their efforts have been bearing some fruit. After they’ve visited the Mashjar, children start to chide each other for littering, Cooper tells me. But, just a couple of acres and limited human resources, are hampering the Mashjar’s ambitions .
“We have a huge vision, but that needs capacity and we just don’t have capacity,” Cooper says. “We have requests for more activities and workshops, for guided walks and camps, but we simply can’t. Further, we’re starting from square one, taking on questions like ‘what is waste’ and ‘why should we care about the environment at all?’ “
Cooper and Totah are now looking to expand the Mashjar Juthour’s land and get more local educators involved in the project.