Letters from the West Bank – Seeds of Hope Scattered from the West Bank’s First PDC

Editor’s caution: I trust our objective, peace-loving permaculture readers will resist the temptation to comment such, but just in case, please know that non-productive, antagonistic comments against any of the players involved in the Israeli/Palestinian Middle-East conflict will not be moderated through. Keep them civil, well-intentioned and constructive and you’ll pass muster though.

The view at sunset, westwards from Marda, Palestine
All photographs © copyright Craig Mackintosh

This is now the second time I’ve had an automatic weapon aimed at me. I hope it doesn’t become a habit….

Sara (Australia)

Student spotlight

I found out about the course quite randomly through my sister in Melbourne, whilst travelling in Israel. I had wanted to take a PDC, so jumped at the prospect of doing it at Marda because I saw it as a unique opportunity to work and learn from Palestinian farmers/permaculturalists. I could have done this course in Australia and maybe this would make more sense as I would be learning about the permaculture techniques appropriate to the landscape in which I live, however I chose to take it here as I also saw it as an act of international solidarity, where I could spend time with the local people, support the local economy, and hear about their social, political and economic hardships from living under occupation.

My favourite part of the course was exploring the village, led by two local farmers. For example, one day we went to see the village spring. We climbed about 10 metres into a cave to see the water, while hearing the history of how the spring used to be central to community life, empowering and sustaining the people. And then hearing about the shift in control over this water source: how the people of Marda are now purchasing their water from an Israeli company who is actually stealing this same water from a well they built nearby. One of our permaculture teachers, Brad Lancaster, encouraged the farmers to reclaim the spring and to educate the rest of the village how they could replenish the original spring using rainwater harvesting methods. This was an excellent and very real way of seeing how permaculture can not only restore environmental degradation but also empower people to take back control of their own lives; to live positively and to literally "turn the problem into the solution". This course inspired me in many ways, giving me ideas for my own projects in the future. For example, I am interested in starting an urban community compost project in Sydney, where we would convert our perceived ‘wastes’ into resources. Overall, I had a great time staying in Marda. I was welcomed into a Palestinian family, who showed me incredible warmth and amazing hospitality. These last two weeks have been a wonderful learning experience for me where I was able to immerse myself both in permaculture and Palestinian life.

I was heading back from a short visit at a permaculture demonstration site in the Salfit district of the West Bank, via Jericho, returning to Jordan over the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge crossing. Being on a bus full of Palestinians taking the same route, I ended up funneled through the security process reserved for them instead of the usual tourist path held for non-Palestinians coming out of Jerusalem or elsewhere. The first of several stages of border control had us all off the bus to pass through a body scanner. The woman with the Galil kept it trained on the queue, reinforced with a serious look of concentration on her face. Being last in line as I collected my gear after passing through the scanner, I was the only one left to point the rifle at, so the barrel kept pace with me as I began my walk back to the bus.

Realising my vulnerability in this situation, and the tragedy of circumstances that created it, I felt a strange desire to reach into the soul of this particular soldier. This woman, at that particular moment, had me within a finger’s twitch of finalising my life, should she choose to do so – but, being a fellow human being, I still wanted to catch a glimpse of who she really was, inside.

With just a few metres between us, I turned my face towards her as I walked – looking directly into her eyes without aggression or malice; perhaps just a hint of sadness. I suspect she wasn’t accustomed to direct eye contact, I don’t know, but the barrel jerked noticeably as she further tightened the grip on her assault rifle. I suppose we both felt some degree of relief when a few seconds later a building broke our respective lines of sight, and I hopped back onto the bus.

Two days prior…

When it took me a full four and a half hours to cover a mere two kilometres of sun drenched sand and earth, I had to remind myself I was still accomplishing something many might never do in their entire lifetime. By entering the Jordanian border control and exiting the Israeli’s on the other side, I was passing through the no man’s land straddling the Jordan river. Of the five million plus residents of Jordan, almost two million are Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Palestinian War (of which more than 300,000 are still living in refugee camps). A return to their homeland is difficult to impossible for many of these.

The village of Marda, with olive trees for as far as the eye can see

Once through, I took a bus to Marda village and met with teachers and students of the West Bank’s first Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course, held at the West Bank’s first permaculture demonstration site, Marda Farm. Despite my only instructions being to say ‘Marda’ to the bus driver, he drove straight through the village of 2,600 people and dropped me directly in front of the house of the project’s founder, Murad Alkufash. It was clear I wasn’t the only ‘international’ to arrive here in recent days.

Three teachers, twenty students – Marda PDC, June 2010

Establishing and running a permaculture farm in Palestine, nestled amongst the largest illegal Israeli settlements, is, of course, always going to be an interesting endeavour. This is the most religiously/politically complicated region in the world – an area of immense historical significance, and rife with contention. (A little history here and here.) In the lead-up to my visit alone, nine Turkish activists were killed trying to deliver aid to the Gaza strip and a little earlier in the month the outspoken U.S./Jewish scholar-activist Naom Chomsky was denied entry to speak in the West Bank by the Israeli border control.

Not wanting to focus on these political entanglements, however, I will instead shift focus to the productive labours of Murad Alkufash towards putting his community onto a more sustainable platform, where such work has enormous potential to reduce the need for contention over land and resources, whilst inspiring others in the region – of any race, religion and creed – to do likewise.

Instructors (left to right): Brad Lancaster, David Spicer and Murad Alkufash

Class time

A little background

In the early 1990s, two men (Allan Howard, a Scotsman, and ‘Damian’, an Australian) chose to study the township of Marda – a village surrounded in miles of olive groves and lying in a valley between Palestinian Salfit and the Israeli settlement of Ariel – with a view to analysing its water, food, housing and energy requirements. In 1993 they opened an education centre to train locals how to meet those needs sustainably through traditional techniques and low-input permaculture methods. A Marda local, Murad Alkufash, soon got fully involved with the centre, learning everything he could in the process. Over the course of time Murad was a student on two PDC courses given by international permaculture teachers (Julie Firth and Mike Feingold in 1994, and Peter White and ‘Barbara’ in 1996) and Murad progressed further to receive his Permaculture Diploma in 1996.

The Israeli settlement of Ariel, surrounded in wire, overlooks the township.
Ariel hosts Israel’s largest public college

The centre was inexplicably and summarily closed by Israeli troops in 2000, where in just a couple of hours soldiers destroyed everything from computers to crops, seeds and tools. Lack of funding ensured the centre could not reopen, and in 2001 Murad found himself in the U.S. where he remained for five years. Rather than give up his dream of seeing permaculture-based people systems bloom in his homeland, Murad worked whatever jobs he could to earn some money whilst simultaneously gaining additional permaculture knowledge and contacts.

When Murad returned home again in 2006, Tami Brunk from The Farm in Tennessee helped with proposals and fundraising in a bid to start a new farm project; this time on his own family’s land. Despite the odds, the fledgling permaculture project – Marda Farm – has made some headway and is now beginning to blossom.

Evening socialising

Teaching Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share principles – right where they’re needed most

The three foundational ethics of permaculture should be applied everywhere, but in situations where their absence is felt to the extreme, they should also be appreciated the most. As such, Marda Farm development reached a point where including educational programs was the logical next step. Plans for an Intro to Permaculture course in 2008 almost came unglued when the teacher, activist and permaculture educator ‘Starhawk’, was denied entry into Israel and deported instead. Geoff Lawton promptly organised replacement teachers by way of Jesse and Tanya Lemieux, who were, conveniently at the time, helping establish Geoff and Nadia’s Jordan Valley Permaculture Project, just across the border.

Students enjoy traditional Palestinian culinary workshops
and cultural exchange after class

Despite the complications, with Jesse and Tanya’s input the course was a great success. There were 26 students in total – with the course fees from 16 international students subsidising the training of a further ten Palestinians, as per the Permaculture Master Plan.

Eighteen months later I arrive to this latest course, a full 72-hour PDC taught by seasoned international permaculturists Brad Lancaster (USA), David Spicer (AUS) and Murad Alkufash himself.

The class takes a tour on natural building day – Marda has a good selection
of traditional old buildings to explore. Brad said the buildings were a
fantastic example of using local materials well – minimising material use
through good rock placement, and utilising the stone’s properties as a
thermal ‘battery’. He said with stone you don’t want insulation, but
‘exhalation’. It absorbs cold at night and heat during the day, and
finds a midpoint to moderate temperature. Further use of plants to
create shade in appropriate places magnifies these benefits.

The course was supported by the Firedoll Foundation, the Council for Australian Arab Relations and our own Permaculture Research Institute. It attracted twenty students: four Australians, one Italian, two Brits (presently working on another Palestinian aid site with inspiration from Marda) and thirteen Palestinians from across the region.

Practical PDC exercises directly aid residents, educate students, and provide examples for other villagers to emulate

I arrived two-thirds of the way through, and found students talking enthusiastically about their experiences when I was able to pry them away from the practical design exercises that are a central part of all PDCs.

Students work on their designs

Knowing I was to arrive, the team were kind enough to hold back covering the greywater system they were installing at a village home, so I could show you the setup:

Prior to this little earthworks exercise, rain and Ariel blackwater runoff was pooling in the house’s foundations. Brad and David showed the students how to ‘turn the problem into a solution’, shaping the earth next to the house so as to drain the water away into two mulch basins. Putting even more design intelligence into the plans, they decided to divert westwards instead of eastwards, to encourage plant growth that would not only provide food, but also shelter the home from the harshest sunlight.

The always-practical David Spicer guides rock placements for a
water-pacifying spillway into the mulch pits – to avoid soil erosion

A layer of straw in each of the two mulch basins completes the setup

The typical mixing of theory and practice in PDCs is a win-win-win, leaving students more confident, and leaving something behind for locals to learn from. The design exercises for the June 2010 course targeted: Marda Farm, the afore-mentioned house (greywater system), the local council building and the local kindergarten (below). If Murad manages to secure sufficient funds, the best ideas will be applied at all four locations.

Students discuss design ideas with the kindergarten teacher – who looks
forward to the children being able to interact more with nature as a result

Mahmoud (Hebron)

Student spotlights – Palestinians take the benefits home

Mahoud graduated from the Hebron University as a psychologist/counsellor a few years ago, after which he worked for Save the Children. He decided to come to the course as he has been using chemicals on his family farm until now, and wanted to find ways to reduce or eliminate them. He said the rising costs of pesticides and herbicides were creating difficulties, and, along with his concern over the health of his family and his customers, he wanted to remove this dependency.

For Mahoud, the most interesting aspects of the course were rainwater harvesting, compost teas, plant protection techniques like garlic/onion sprays, and better understanding what a plant or tree really needs.

Mahoud found out about the course through an Australian English teacher in his home village. Apparently the teacher insists he must share what he learns when he gets home!

Danna (Ramala)

Danna is an architect who took her Masters in the U.S., where she heard about Geoff Lawton’s Greening the Desert work. Danna originally intended to take the October 2010 Jordan course under Geoff and Nadia, but decided instead to support Marda’s growing influence in her homeland.

Danna said "I probably learned more in this short course than in my formal education", explaining that the standard architecture she learned creates problems, whereas natural building techniques, where buildings can create their own energy, etc., solves them. She contrasted LEED type concepts, where heating problems are ‘solved’ by slapping solar panels onto them, with natural buildings that can be designed so they don’t require them.

Danna’s favourite topics on the course were: plant guilds, creating microclimates and passive solar.

Danna is working with an international NGO, Architecture for Humanity, that is trying to help those Gazans whose buildings have been partially destroyed by Israeli bombing. Building materials top the list of items Gazans are short of, and so the NGO is trying help them rebuild more ‘creatively’ and sustainably with materials at hand. Danna cannot get a visa for Gaza, so assists from Ramala, in the south of the West Bank. It seems this PDC has given Danna a lot of food for thoughts she can inject into this humanitarian work.


Wael (Jenin), at right, talks with Brad

After returning to the West Bank after many years in Germany, Wael was considering the fragmented state of Palestinians – geographically, politically and socially. He observed that most were passive onlookers, stuck in the consumer economy – working to have enough money to entertain themselves – and failing to initiate positive trends for a better future. He saw there was no real democracy, anywhere, and understood the need to somehow encourage universal participation.

Wael saw permaculture as a vital component of a society where people take responsibility for their own futures and regain control of it. He heard about Murad through WiserEarth, and has been working to assist him since.

Your turn next time?

We love to see this kind of permaculture networking happening on ‘both sides of the fence’. Stay tuned to our site if you’re interested in supporting more like it. Murad wants to run a natural building course near the end of 2010, and of course more PDCs and other workshops after that. We’ll post information and provide booking facilities for Murad once he’s firmed up his plans.

For ‘internationals’, it’s not as difficult as you may think to enter ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’. I’m confident you’ll have a great experience at Marda Farm’s next courses, and you’ll feel great supporting the critical work going on there. In case some are worried about firearm-wielding border guards, my only suggestion is make it easy on yourself, and perhaps just don’t make any sudden moves….

Donate! If you’d like to contribute to Marda Farm, please donate via one of the options on this page. Be sure to specify ‘Marda’.

Brad and David plan for the following day


Local children get a good dose of permaculture goodness as they listen in


David Spicer examines traditional stonework amongst Marda village ruins


Brad Lancaster does likewise

The greenhouse/nursery and crop rows


Composting to build soil fertility and water-holding capacity


Drip lines further conserve precious water in a land where the people
are not allowed to drill wells.


The ‘Holy Lands’ – there’s plenty of it just itching to be revegetated.


One more shot of The Three Stooges to finish!