Traditional Palestinian Farming Spurs Rare Plant Boom

Murad Alkhufash from Marda Permaculture FarmLow impact farming starts new cycle of plant life in the Palestinian Authority.

Age-old agricultural techniques in the West Bank help conserve rare plants that might otherwise have perished, according to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

A new survey shows that farmers following traditional practices in the south Hebron Hills have sustained a large number of rare plants.  According to plant researcher Yair Or, the fieldwork turned up several species “that had been found decades ago in the Jerusalem area and since then had not been found and were considered extinct.”

Traditional Palestinian farming is practiced throughout much of the test area.  Therefore, researchers determined it has played an invaluable role in the survival of rare plants.

Unfortunately, not all agricultural practices are so helpful.  The hills around Ein Gedi were covered with at least ten species of trees and shrubs until 60 years ago, when land development in Israel intensified.  Those species had specifically adapted to Ein Gedi’s dry microclimate.

Groundwater pumping by Kibbutz Ein Gedi and land clearing by several farms eventually wiped out the native plants.  Now the Authority is rehabilitating Ein Gedi.  Park staff planted the first set of new flora about four years ago.

Rangers created intricate plans for seeding, germinating and caring for the fledgling trees and shrubs, according to the Authority.  After successfully developing a nursery with several hundred plants, ecologists planted experimental plots.  This process helped them learn to properly water and prune the trees and shrubs.

And the  Israel Nature and Parks Authority has worked diligently to preserve rare plants elsewhere in Israel.  In the Beit Netufa Valley – considered a flora hotspot – there are more than 60 species of unique plants, several of which are in danger of extinction.

A rare type of yellow-petal iris called Grant- Duff’s Iris is among them.  It densely populates the valley but is not adequately bearing fruit.  Hypothesizing that artificial agricultural growth is inhibiting insects from pollinating the irises, the  Israel Nature and Parks Authority initiated a breeding program for the flowers.

Iris atropurpurea purple iris israelThe rare purple iris, Iris atropurpurea, from Israel

So why has agriculture in the Hebron Hills actually helped rare plants, in contrast to the deleterious effects of agriculture in Beit Netufa and Ein Gedi?

Traditional Palestinian agriculture utilizes low impact farming methods, such as harvesting by hand, avoidance or limited use of pesticides and fertilizers, and shallow plowing.  Several of the rare species that flourish in the area are annuals that grow amidst the cultivated crops.  They share a similar life cycle.

Additionally, these traditional practices promote rainwater percolation and soil aeration.  Several rare plants, particularly those with bulbs or corms, favor such conditions.  And the microclimate of the southern Hebron Hills is also partially responsible for the rare plant boon.

The findings in the Hebron area add credence to the beliefs of organic agriculture proponents.  Low-impact agriculture has been proven to conserve water, reduce pollution, and minimize exposure to crop disease.  Now those proponents can add another reason to their list – preservation of rare plants.

Professor Zev Naveh, an ecologist at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, notes that “the farmers of the Mediterranean area did not neglect and deplete the soils, but rather knew in different periods how to preserve them and to exploit their biological variety correctly.”

Ironically, it was originally human activity, including agriculture, that created the diversity of flora and fauna currently found in the Mediterranean Basin.

How wonderful to know that our agricultural practices need not be at odds with nature.  Turns out it isn’t necessary to wrestle the very lifeblood from the land to earn our daily bread.  Perhaps we have something to learn from the keepers of traditional farming in the south Hebron Hills, and from the generations of agriculturalists before them.

Above image of Murad Alkhufash from Marda Permaculture Farm in the West Bank (courtesy); image of purple iris from Shutterstock

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2 thoughts on “Traditional Palestinian Farming Spurs Rare Plant Boom”

  1. Alice Gray says:

    Look at this for example: http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/springwater-flows-in-the-west-bank-but-who-controls-it-1.422687

    A total green-wash by the settlers. Given the track record or agencies such as the JNF and the Parks and Nature Authority in appropriating Palestinian land under the pretext of ‘greening it’, I think it is a bit of a disgrace that this article plays into the same narrative whilst at the same time lauding traditional Palestinian farming techniques. Let’s be honest: the Israeli government and their environmental agencies are the enemies of Palestinian farmers. We need to admit it and expose them for what they are, not help them to hide behind a facade of concern for the environment while they strip people of their rights.

  2. Alice Gray says:

    I think that it is a glaring omission that the author of this article fails to mention that traditional Palestinian farming is under direct attack by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Government policies aimed at forcing people to leave Area C (which is 62% of the land area) are decimating the ancient culture and redefining the Palestinian relationship with the environment in a totally destructive way. People are being excluded from the land, rainwater harvesting cisterns that allow farming to happen are being destroyed by Israeli bulldozers, people are denied access to piped water, electricity of sewage infrastructure, the great efforts of organisations like COMET-ME who are trying to help people to live off the grid with solar panels and wind turbines have demolition orders on them as well. It is a total BALAGAN that abuses peoples human rights and promotes an ugly and environmentally destructive scenario of disenfranchisement and ghettoisation for the Palestinians while their land is colonised.

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