The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted in 1992 focusing on conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of nature, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. The UN Sustainable Development Goals include things like ending poverty and hunger, sustainable water security, universal clean energy, healthy and productive ecosystems, and governance for sustainable societies. The global climate deterioration and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic showed how far we are from these and how limited our global responses were. Developing countries, where most of humanity lives, face particular challenges. Here we explain how the establishment of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) in 2014 at Bethlehem University tried to address these challenges locally and the lessons learned.
Before the Zionist project in the late 19th century, Palestine had some 1300 villages and towns each with small and manageable population. The total population then was 850,000 with various religious persuasions (3% Jewish, 13% Christian, 80% Muslim, 4% other). It was only in 1948-1950 when Israel was founded by military rule that a large wave of ethnic cleansing happened and Zionists took control of much of the land of the local Palestinians. Over 500 villages and towns were destroyed and their land re-cultivated mostly with European pine trees which damaged the local environment. Pines were chosen for their fast growth, in order to cover leftovers of ruins of stone houses, so that people who have been expelled from their homes would have no place to return to. Inevitably, importing and widespread of species not native in the region has affected / interfered into the whole species diversity (agricultural and natural) and in this case the pine monoculture forests specifically increased the vulnerability of whole localities to devastating fires, which is the heritage with particularly timely consequence today, amidst the global warming.
The system of occupation and colonization creates significant issues for the local people and the local environment. We can cite dozens of example in detail but let us just give a few examples of land interventions with impact on a great scale. The earliest projects engaged in by the Zionist movement were water projects: draining of the Hula wetlands and diversion of the Jordan valley waters. The former resulted in loss of 119 species and the latter in the desertification of the valley system and drying the Dead Sea. The new Red Sea – Dead Sea canal supposedly to fix the problem of the Dead Sea will have a catastrophic impact on Wadi Araba and the coral reefs of the Red Sea. It will also burden Jordan with nearly $20 billion in debt which is nearly impossible to pay back. But that is how the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund works.
On smaller yet also devastating scale, Israeli industries that are most polluting were built in Palestinian areas and the settlements and the walls scar the biblical and natural landscape. Israeli settlers and the occupation army regularly attacks Palestinian property, including but not limited to burning trees and dumping sewage on farm land. Israeli colonies were – and still continue to be – built on stolen Palestinian lands and concentrated on the high grounds (hills and mountains). Further there is uneven distribution of water between the natives and the Israeli colonizers with Palestinians allowed access to less water than the World Health Organization recommends for health living and Israelis getting many folds more. There are many other issues where the occupation can affect sustainable development and protection of the environment because it is basically profitable to the occupiers. Examples of other actions with harmful environmental impact include confiscation of solar panels (that help reduce the power shortfalls), use of banned weapons like white phosphorus and depleted uranium, use of “skunk” fluid for dispersing demonstrators, and use of “spiked” tear gas that causes skin rashes.
Alon Tal, Founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, acknowledged that: „…it’s a Zionist paradox. We came here to redeem a land and we end up contaminating it“.
Besides the colonization other issues affect environmental conservation in Palestine. Rapid growth of population (caused both by natality and migration) places much pressure on our limited space and overtaxed water resources. The industrial consumerist agriculture imported from the West exacerbates things (use of pesticides, monoculture etc). Law enforcement related to nature conservation remains marginal and the society remains largely unconnected from nature, focusing on mere survival. Finally, we can state that research and development efforts were very meagre because of this complicated stressful situation in Palestine. Here I think of ingenuity of people of Gaza with help from others in starting to do some things like making stethoscopes with 3D printers or innovating solar ovens and rooftop gardens or making bricks from debris and employing women in the process (e.g. see work of Majd Mashharawi).
Our response and the first results
Using largely volunteer efforts and local donations but with significant networking globally (see below), Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) and the Palestine Museum of Natural History of Bethlehem University were established in 2014 and focused on research, education, and conservation of our natural world, culture and heritage and the use of knowledge to promote responsible empowered human interactions with all components of our environment. We endeavored to work locally, regionally and globally to achieve the UN SDGs like healthy living and healthy environment.
One of our small projects helped 30 families (starting with a single child from each family) start a plot of land for agriculture at the museum gardens (a community garden). The 12 most dedicated were then chosen to help them start home gardens whether they have land next to their homes or they don’t (e.g. several refugee families). Those who don’t have land were shown how to have a garden on balconies. This project came in handy and spread later when COVID-19 came to us and enforced stay-at-home policies were introduced. We also created environmental clubs at school which also gave ideas to students to transfer that knowledge to their homes during these stay-at-home procedures. Our institute does not only help people but animals and plants. We have an animal rehabilitation unit that gets, treats as needed and releases wild animals. Already, many snakes, a hyena, a buzzard, two eagle owls, and many other birds, reptiles and mammals were released back to the wild. The garden serves as a place for in situ and ex situ conservation of plants. It currently includes >388 species of plants including many rare and endangered ones (e.g. irises, orchids).
In the past five years, PIBS published dozens of applied research papers on issues ranging from environmental health to biodiversity to sustainable livelihoods, to education, and more. We developed an agricultural research station and botanical garden and used them to empower marginalized local farmers (production, research, and knowledge transfer). For example we trained farmers in use of aquaponics based on research in our facilities. We also developed educational programs that benefited thousands and hosted thousands of local and international visitors who gained knowledge of local challenges and opportunities. We built partnerships with local and global governmental and non-governmental entities resulting in benefit to environment and sustainability.
This is an integrated system for research, education, and conservation to address areas in need in Palestine, a country under stresses of occupation. Our motto is RESPECT (first for ourselves, then other human beings, then the environment with all its components). The museum grounds and its botanical garden (integrated ecosystem) is an oasis for wildlife in Bethlehem and an oasis for young people seeking alternatives and a new way of looking at themselves and their environment (empowerment and nature conservation).
The botanical garden and experimental agriculture research station develops modules that are expanding (a ripple effect). It has been well received and replicated in other places. PMNH/PIBS published papers that suggest to other developing countries that they could do similar projects and already received some inquiries and interests on these even before some of our experiences are fully out and shared.
It is in cooperation that we find hope
How did we manage to do all of that with limited funds and largely volunteer cadre of dedicated people? The key criteria for our success included: a bottom up and involved both local and international volunteers, collaborative research, leveraging technology, and leveraging local and international students and volunteers.
PIBS also emphasizes benefit sharing to local people and this increased our involvement in permaculture (including aquaponics and aquaculture) as well as in ecotourism for example in four communities (Husan, Battir, Al-Walaja, Beit Jala) surrounding Wadi Al-Makhrour, a world heritage site where we benefited 80 farmers and many other locals*.
As climate changes and population growth increases, the practices described above become even more critical to sustainable development. Having people grow food and herbs literally in their backyards gives them empowerment and increases their incomes and food security. The project also improves both physical (through better and more organic nutrition) and psychological (through gardening and fresh air and plants) well-being of marginalized communities especially in the difficult circumstances of occupation and marginalization. Increased vegetation cover while recycling nutrients via composting also reduces effects of global warming (mitigation and adaptation for sustainability).
Social networking also allows us to get almost immediate support from colleagues and strangers across continents. One has to guard not to spend too much time on social platforms but they could allow for fruitful collaborations and networking if done properly. We have managed to recruit significant support, meet potential volunteers, collaborators and donors through such platforms as VolunteerMatch, WorkAway, FaceBook and LinkedIn.
Currently with EU support, we are building a state of the art regional biodiversity center* in a project that will show people the value of preserving diversity in nature and in human communities. Our experience with PIBS shows that even in very difficult circumstances (colonization and economic deprivation), these amazing new tools have given us the ability to develop at an accelerated pace and even compete with the best research, education, and conservation centers in the world. Hard work, collaboration, networking, trans-disciplinary work, and a bit of humility can go a long way.
*We are grateful to the EU Peacebuilding Initiative for support of the nascent Biodiversity Center at PIBS and to the Darwin Initiative and National Geographic Society for support of the work in Al-Makhrour.
The author is a founder and volunteering director of Palestine Museum of Natural History (PMNH) and its Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) of Bethlehem University, the author of the book Sharing the Land of Kanaan (Pluto Press, 2004, available free online).