Permaculture in the West Bank
A spotlight on Marda Permaculture Farm, Palestine
Marda Permaculture Farm, Palestine
Olive trees, some over a thousand years old, grow in the shadows of the settlement on the hillside above, their gnarled old trunks spiraling towards the open sky. Tended through the generations by local farmers in a once verdant countryside, they stand as a testament to human and ecological resilience in an occupied land.
The village of Marda (pop. 2,600) is located about twenty kilometres south of Nablus in the Salfit District in the West Bank of Palestine, beneath one of the largest illegal Israeli settlements, Ariel.
This olive tree is as many as 1000 years
old. These beautiful trees are found
throughout and surrounding the village,
and are cared for by the people. Their
numbers are dwindling as they are cut
by settlers and the Israeli military.
Villages such as Marda exist throughout the occupied West Bank, where resources and land are scarce and where daily life for the average citizen is often riddled with difficulty. More than seventy-five percent of community members are plagued by unemployment. Gaining permits for work and travel is extremely difficult, and travel between towns is equally difficult given the numerous checkpoints that must be passed, leaving many Palestinians few options for earning a livelihood.
In a place where many farmers have experienced soil depletion, environmental degradation and continual threats to their cultural heritage due to occupation and further expansion, developing sustainable agricultural practices may be the best solution to holding onto one’s personal land and livelihood. Much of the land annexed in the West Bank over the past half century was previously under cultivation by Palestinian farmers. This fertile agricultural land – home to orchards, olive groves and wells – is crucial to the livelihood of local shepherds, settlers and their families. When crops are destroyed through expansion, those dependent upon them end up homeless or in destitute economic conditions. The confiscation of water aquifers only adds to their losses.
Many Palestinians, however, still retain strong ties to their homes and to the land, while others continue to defend or have begun to reclaim this connection. Marda Permaculture Farm was established in 2006 to address the cultural, economic and social needs of people of the region by developing a small-scale permaculture site to serve as a model and teaching center for local farmers and international permaculture students. Murad Alkhfash, founder of the project, is committed to improving the quality of life in the West Bank through reviving a local economy connected to the land. He established the Marda project as a working farm and demonstration site to teach permaculture principles, techniques and strategies.
Murad is well-versed in endurance. Initially trained through a previous permaculture project located in Marda, Murad left to work in the United States in 1998. The earlier project, initiated by Australian permaculturalists, eventually closed its doors in 2000 after an attack by Israeli troops. During his five years in the U.S., Murad would work for seven to ten months in a fast food restaurant in Chicago, while intermittently spending time at The Farm, an eco-village and training institute in Tennessee, where he gained further permaculture training and met individuals who would eventually become supporters of his project in Palestine. In 2006, Murad returned to Palestine and married. He made a commitment to start the Marda Permaculture Farm despite the challenges and obstacles he knew he would face.
In 2008, Marda successfully hosted a five-day Introduction to Permaculture course. When activist and permaculture instructor Starhawk was denied entry to Israel, Jesse Lemieux and Tanya Booth, a Canadian couple who completed permaculture training in Australia and who continue to work as permaculture consultants and educators in Canada and internationally, stepped in at the last minute to take over. Twenty-six students took part, sixteen of them international students. The coordinators pulled together their sparse resources, ensuring the course was a success and that students left with the knowledge and inspiration to spread permaculture.
Jesse and Tanya Lemioux led the spring 2008 Permaculture Workshop in Marda
In his mission to establish and develop the site, Murad often comes up against limitations and obstacles. He cannot easily travel to expand his network and cannot gain a permit to teach or work in Israel. Once, his fence was cut and he had to spend money to replace it. And many times he has found widespread damage to his crops due to the thousands of pigs which were released into the wild by the Israeli government. In addition, Murad, like most Palestinians, purchases his water from a large company in Israel which extracts it from Palestinian land and then resells it. This makes the practice of growing one’s own food expensive, and deters some people from farming or gardening.
Murad doesn’t have enough funds to hold workshops for his neighbours, but being a good neighbor, he offers his advice and counsel to those eager to learn. Many of his neighbours make compost and garden because it saves them some money on the cost of labor.
“People like the idea,” says Murad. “If you explain it to them and talk to them.” His vegetables are in high demand and people come often to seek his advice.
“To start doing something like this, money is the problem,” says Murad. If he had the money, he says, he would start a composting project. On a large scale, this compost would go back to the land. He would teach the local women how to build their compost in their own yard. The streets in the village would be very clean. Less waste in the streets would mean fewer rats, pests and disease. Such a project would have the potential to save the village a lot of money and is only one small project of many that have potential in Marda.
Community dialogue and training workshops for local women on building a solar oven have taken place at Marda Farm in the past. More workshops like these would help provide women with skills, which would strengthen the local economy and provide alternatives to purchasing expensive resources from Israel.
There is much potential for establishing a network to create a sustainable economy in the West Bank. The village is surrounded by twenty-two other villages which in themselves form a network, and is also surrounded by around the same number of settlements which continue to grow and expand. Murad’s network already extends throughout Palestine and around the globe. The organization receives support from a number of private individuals and organizations. Marda Farm operates under the umbrella of the Global Village Institute, a U.S. non-profit, is a member of the UK Permaculture Association, and is further supported by a growing network of individuals and organizations.
Another PDC is planned for 2010, which will host two overseas permaculture design instructors and will feature drylands permaculture instruction from Geoff Lawton via Skype. As a means of fostering social and eco-tourism in the area, the program includes optional Arabic language and cooking courses. Funding for this course is currently very limited and Murad and his supporters are currently seeking grants and donations to support the project. The cost to successfully carry out the two-week intensive course and three-day optional Arabic course will run $20,000 USD, between the cost of teachers’ fees, accommodation, food and course materials.
Murad regularly discusses solutions with others about developing the permaculture movement in his native land. Wael al Saad, another Palestinian, is leading the movement for a Global Green Palestine, whose vision, in his own words, is an “alternative holistic model of social, economic and environmental reconstruction based on a ‘healing economy’, which ensures positive change that recognizes and honors our indigenous roots and culture as Palestinians.” Wael has reached out to Murad and others in order to expand the network which will serve as the foundation for developing and creating social change in Palestine.
Although Wael previously lived and studied in Germany for seventeen years and has German citizenship, he has chosen to return to Palestine recently out of a sense of social responsibility. He is committed to building and developing community in Palestine in the midst of chaos and political disorder through sustainable agriculture and by helping to foster sustainable economies.
Wael’s vision entails calling back professionals and skilled Palestinians from overseas to take part in building communities and a green economy, as well as developing the skills of local people. Through developing a strong social basis and rural communities, he believes Palestinians will be able to endure.
“Our main goal is to encourage farmers to return to their land, not to abandon it to go to work in Israel or abandon it for Israel to come and take. Most land is taken because nothing is growing there. We want to encourage farmers to farm and to use land so they have something,” echoes Murad.
If Marda Farm receives further funding, it will hire local people to fill new positions, including an administrator, as well as instructors and others to run the site and facilitate workshops. It is not always easy, however, to find the funding or to bring international instructors, who often run into complications with their visas upon arrival. Training more local instructors would help to alleviate this problem and would accelerate the process of local education.
Murad, who stays up late waiting for his infant daughter to fall asleep, spends most of his day running back and forth between the field and the house, checking his crops, tending to the land, selling his cucumbers, and meeting his partners online to discuss the project and current grant proposals, has made a deep commitment to run this project, despite the obstacles he often faces.
After his years overseas, Murad has established himself at home and will keep pushing to expand this movement and see that his project is fully realized. His father, also a farmer, passed away over thirty years ago, but Murad still retains a strong connection to this land and to his family. He lived amongst trees and grew up on the land, and will see that his children do as well.
“Sometimes it is complicated. But I will stay here, I will do my best to build and run this project. I will see how long I can stay and stand it.”
With the addition of permaculture in this arid land, rebuilding the soil and repairing the landscape begin to take form. Marda’s ancient olives continue to grow, despite limited water, resources and occupation. They endure, just as Murad, his family and many Palestinians will, and will continue to flourish, producing fruit to nourish many future generations.
Donate to the Marda Permaculture Farm online at: https://www.thefarm.org/charities/i4at/marda/
Project Proposal and Description are available from the Marda Permaculture Farm website (Embed link: https://sites.google.com/site/mardapermaculturecentre/home) (under construction).