Harvey (my cousin) was nervous about me going into the West Bank on my own. He was also nervous about going in himself, but he did take me there. Even though Murad AlKhufash, my permaculture contact, assured us there was no worry, Harvey’s biggest fear was about young men stoning the car, given the recent border clashes. Plus Harvey is just a worrier. On the other hand, I was excited to go to the West Bank, to meet a Palestinian farmer, and to experience something very new.
We drove to the arranged meeting spot and Murad jumped into our car, having been brought there by a taxi. And then we drove into Marda, a small village near the very large Israeli settlement of Ariel (one of the many disputed Jewish settlements in the West Bank). Murad was born here, has always been a farmer, and the permaculture farm was once his father’s farm. We began our visit in his home, meeting his wife, Ghada, and their three lovely daughters, Sara, Halla, and Toleen. While sitting there we heard the very loud mosque’s call to prayer. I asked Murad why he didn’t stop to pray and he explained that he would do it after we left, but we were his guests and he took that seriously.
Murad’s English was excellent since he had lived in the United States for 5 years to earn money and eventually to take an extensive permaculture workshop. He worked at The Farm, in Tennessee (www.thefarmcommunity.com) which is also home to the Global Village Project, an international NGO in Summertown, Tennessee. And now his NGO, Marda Permaculture Farm (www.mardapermaculture.org), is a partner project with The Farm and is recognized as a branch of the Global Village Institute. Contributions can be made to Marda through The Farm. According to the Marda website:
Palestine has some problems, and Marda brings some new solutions. come and see how it’s done. The farm is an oasis of green in a land that is dry, where Palestinians have lived under great hardship, yet where there is a promise of a new future. We believe that permaculture is a key ingredient in the future, not only for Palestine, but for the Middle East and the world. We’re setting out to show how it’s done.
The farm was initiated in 2006. The Marda Farm was founded by permaculturist Murad Alkhufash, whose family has farmed the region for more than ten generations. The project seeks to promote ecological, cultural and economic resilience in the region by developing a small scale permaculture site to serve as a model and teaching center for local farmers and international permaculture students. Farm staff will also facilitate permaculture design courses in diverse communities across Palestine.
Murad’s farm is about 2 1/2 dunoms, which is 6/10 of an acre or 1/10 of a hectare. It’s amazing how much is being grown in such a small area. We approached via a very narrow, dirt road which wound around homes, with people sitting “curb” side, sharing stories of the day--women always donned with head scarves. Right away you notice the lushness and organic feel of of the place and see the prominent and very large greenhouse. Inside the greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, beans, companion flowers, and more were growing in abundance. Drip irrigation is used so that the small amount of water available is used directly on the roots.
Outside the greenhouse is the typical spiral garden, a symbol of permaculture. He has a “no-till” garden and in amongst the huge variety of fruit and nut trees and vegetables are lovely places to sit. Many abandoned tires have been used for walls and dividers, and in some cases for planters. The whole small farm is so vibrant and productive--a perfect permaculture garden. We sat in the shade of an olive tree to conduct the interview.
Murad said that he is doing this work because he likes to grow, plant seeds, and watching things grow. He likes to eat healthy food and provide it for others in his village. He also wants to build the movement to help local farmers see how productive permaculture farming is. He has a vision of building a house on the site, creating electricity from solar panels, and becoming self sufficient. He then wants the farmers in the village, after adopting permaculture ethics, to sell to outside markets, marketing the organic vegetables and fruits, bringing some economic security to an economically depressed area. His vision also includes diversity of crops so that a farmer isn’t wiped out from a disaster of one crop. Also he plants crops that mature throughout the year, helping to bring income on a more regular schedule. He does believe that his project will help create global health through teaching internationals who come to learn permaculture.
I appreciated Murad’s enthusiasm and energy and knowledge. Because his family has been farming in Marda for so many generations, he’s known and respected in town and has more of an opportunity to influence his neighbors than outside NGO’s bringing the message. We returned to his home to a splendid lunch with his family. Before we left, we purchased olives and olive oil from Murad which were packaged in 1 1/2 in cola bottles.
An added event was interviewing Laithi Ghnaim, an Arab farmer living in Sakhnin, an Arab city in the state of Israel. Laithi works with an NGO, Arasid which is based in Sakhnin. His English is great and he also speaks Arabic and Hebrew. Sakhnin is a city of about 25,000 people situated in the hills of northern Israel and is reached by driving through other Arab towns all with their beautiful mosques quite prominently displayed.
On an approximately 50-acre project, Laithi is teaching farmers sustainable farming methods based on indigenous knowledge from the area and from other parts of the world. He attended a year-long training at the Arava Institute (see previous blog) and with his university training in biology and agricultural planning, he launched into this work. The big issue facing the El Boutof valley is water. Although there’s a water channel flowing through the valley, the farmers are not allowed any of it. They are not allowed to collect rainwater either since that all “belongs” to the government. So, the project is demonstrating what can be grown with only rain, or as Laithi says, “it’s rain-fed farming.” Laithi is clear that he considers this discrimination by the Israeli government towards Arab farmers. More than 70% of the average rainfall in Israel falls between November and March; June through September are usually rainless. Rainfall is unevenly distributed, significantly lower in the south of the country. In the north where Laithi’s project is, the average annual rainfall exceeds 900 millimeters (35.4 in).
The project is incredibly impressive. The crops include cucumbers, okra, zucchini, figs, olives, tomatoes, beans, watermelon, and other melons, wheat, barley, and pomegranates. One farmer has tried pecans, citrus and peaches, but that hasn’t been successful. There are some grape vines that appeared to be doing well. Laithi said the grape leaves were a bigger income producer than the grapes since stuffed grape leaves is a big part of the Arab diet. The 14 farmers he’s working with are mostly young and eager, though there are some older farmers as well. The growing season for wheat, barley, sorgum (for animals), chickpeas, and beans is November through July. The rest of the crops are planted in March and harvested in July. Already the ground was parched and cracked and Laithi said that by July the cracks would be huge chasms. They are hoping to make owl habitats so the owls will eat the rodents in the fields.
When asked about why he is doing this work, which does not bring financial rewards, he responded that even though they couldn’t change the political reality, they could create new economic ways to support the local communities here. He said that the people are connected to their land, to the valley, the land is part of their life, and so to help make a way to earn a living from the land without irrigation, was a dream made into reality, and the people are eager to participate.
His vision is beyond agriculture, it’s about sustainability and how to bring needy families from the valley to earn a living from the land. They led a workshop for poor women to learn to make Arab pita bread from the wheat grown on the land. The women then make money selling the pita. This is a long-term project to bring self sufficiency to the area. They are also beginning to work with youth at risk, bringing them to the fields to learn farming, and want to do much more, culturally. He feels they’ve made a small change in their reality.
He added that sustainability is beyond not using pesticides or chemical fertilizers--that it’s about people being able to live from the land and to be self-reliant. They didn’t get some funding from the government because they were told that it seemed their vision was to economically separate from the government. But Laithi pointed out that the Arabs are not really part of the government anyway! His vision is to have the valley be an organic valley and that this is a model project for the area and sees the model as a good one for a global vision of sustainability. He hopes that Arabs and Jews and all others will see the valley as a chance for supporting both people and nature, since sustainable agriculture is gentler on the environment.
Laithi’s dream is to be a full-time farmer, but he can’t afford it. He doesn’t receive money for the work with the project and instead earns money as an agricultural planner. That helps support his wife and son and the daughter on the way. From our short time together I have great confidence that he will help make this project a great success.
To get more details of this part of my trip, go to www.transitionvision.wordpress.com