My Journey

In September, 2009, this Canadian boy started a masters program the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, learning about ecology and health, middle-eastern politics and the environment, and how a dire problem may facilitate a region's coming together for the better. This Blog is a record of my head-first dive into this immense world.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Negev Trip Part 1

Ok, I know you’re dying for Bethlehem. But right now we are on the mid-semester trip to the Negev Highlands, and there’s just too much interesting stuff to share! I packed my roots backpack full with clothes, a sleeping bag for a tent night, schoolbooks and laptop, and of course couldn’t go without my banjo. We packed all 50 of us into a bus and drove about 2 hours north and west to Sde Boqer. This area, according to people who travel from Ketura and the Eilat region, is cool and wet. This means it gets up to 100 (count ‘em) millimeters of rain a year, as opposed to the less than 20 in EIlat. It’s also about 700 meters higher, meaning that you really need a good jacket to be out past sunset in November. Getting there bright and early in the morning, first thing we did was head into the wadis for a hike, and surveyed the open landscapes. Looking out over these almost barren limestone and flint hills stretching to the horizon, wadis crisscrossing the open space, ibex relaxing in the paths, you get the impression of boundless space – Israel isn’t a tiny country after all!

Once we got back though, we got some help from our professors in looking more closely. More than half of the land area of Israel is the Negev in the south, and yet only about 9 percent of the population lives there. For the past number of decades, it has been a government priority to settle people (i.e. Jews, more on that later) into these areas, promoting development and pouring a lot of money into the areas. About 80 percent of the Negev is designated military and is used for training purposes, and another 50 percent or so is nature preserve (the math baffles me too, but strangely there’s a ton of overlap) but much of the rest is open for discussion. If you ask different people, you’ll end with many different answers as to what to do with this land. Some people look at the Negev and say “we need this area to stay open and wild, to be there for hiking, eco-tourism, and nature preserves, but not for settlement!” Settlement looks inefficient here, sprawling and poor. Life expectancies, services, and general qualities of life are indeed lower here. Others will say that this is the best place for settlement, open and awaiting a population who will make this area bloom – as desalination technology gets cheaper, water really needn’t be a limiting factor here, and Israelis are incredible technologically and agriculturally. And indeed, the government has over time funded many settlements, some of refugees and immigrant Jews from poorer parts of the world. They have also been leasing land for “homesteads” to Jews who want to make something of the land. One more thing that there has been plenty of in the Negev, since it is such a wide open space, is dumping and heavy industry – things that wouldn’t fly so well near the bigger centers.

There is one more thing that needs to be taken into account in these discussions, and this is the Bedouin populations that make their homes in Israel’s south. Originally semi-nomadic herders who wouldn’t have considered themselves part of any nationality and wandered across borders readily, since 1948 there is a significant Bedouin population that finds itself as Israeli citizens, caught between an old style of life and a new reality of borders and zoning laws. About 10,000 in 1948, this population is now about 160,000. In the south here there are many settlements of Bedouin unrecognized by the Israeli government because they live in areas that are not zoned as residential areas. As such, they receive no services (water, sanitation, garbage collection, electricity). The majority of the Bedouin have moved to areas recognized by the government and receive these services, but often at the sacrifice of much of their lifestyle – they receive a one-time compensation and perhaps a small house, but there are stories of those people then putting their livestock in the house and living outside in a tent – it’s just ingrained culturally. So many of these people persist here, bringing us to the start of our trip. The trip was really masterfully arranged, quite like a mystery story. The subject was Negev development and one by one we met a whole bunch of witnesses to the story, building up a clearer and clearer picture as we went.

Kornmehl Farms – The first visit on our trip was to an artisanal goat cheese farm, one of the 25 homesteads to be granted to people to further the development of the area. It is owned by a very nice Jewish couple, both graduates of agricultural school, who have had a dream from the beginning to open a farm and work with animals. Once they learned their trade they began looking for land near Jerusalem, but to no avail after about three years. The government finally decided to settle them on a little piece of land, about 200 acres, in the Negev, where they can’t really graze their goat herd. They make their living though, buying in feed, making amazing cheese and selling to markets and restaurants, also running their own small restaurant on the farm. The land authority, though, according to them difficult as always, is trying to make them move, and has only renewed their lease on a yearly basis for the past 8 years. So here we have our first in a pattern – everybody is standing in their own place, with their own goals and dreams, dealing with other people, groups, and institutions in a highly contested area.

Yerucham – The next stop on the trip was to a development town south of the farm, home to about 9,500. This town has existed for about 40 years, and has been heavily subsidized by the government as a settling place for many Jews from non-European countries, especially Arab countries. We first heard from a woman named Leah, who is a very famous social activist living in Yerucham. A teacher by trade, she moved to Yerucham with her husband about 30 years ago essentially to give herself to the development of people less fortunate than her. But in her own words, “that’s not how it worked”. She’s a modern orthodox woman, and has made great strides in women’s rights within that community, as well as being a hub of social organization for the community. Her passion for democracy, human rights, and equality were really inspiring, even if her rhetoric was a little strong and old-school leftist. After speaking with her for an hour and a half, we split up and went for dinner at a couple different houses, collectively the “Culinary Queens of Yerucham”. This is one of Leah’s social programs, organizing women in the community to open their houses for groups passing through, sharing both their food and their stories. The woman who’s house I ate at cam from Morocco looking for a better life, not even knowing where in Israel she would end up. Imagine ending up in the middle of the Negev! But in the end she said that she would do it all over again – her six children are all skilled professionals with families and a good life.

Wadi Na’im - We got up the next morning and drove along the power station road to Wadi Na’im, one of the largest unrecognized Bedouin villages at 6,500 people. It is located about five kilometers from Romat Chovav, an industrial park with a an income of multiple billions of dollars that essentially looks like a caricature of “Big Industry”. They make pesticides and plastics, toxins and chemicals of all different uses, also taking in and processing the toxic waste from all over Israel. Also right next door to Wadi Na’im is a massive power plant, and criss-crossing over your head as you walk through the village are many power lines. After taking a look (and a smell) around the place, we were invited to a big tent for tea and a talk with a representative from the community. The stories we heard were pretty heavy – elevated risk for birth defects, respiratory problems in children, cancer, and so on, all as a result of exposure to the environmental hazards around them. We also hear about their struggle with the government for recognition, and to move to a place where they want to go. It’s a very complicated issue – the Bedouin have always been semi-nomadic, meaning that each tribe had its own patch of land, and migrated within than, but kept mostly to this land. Moving to a new settlement in the midst of other tribes and families poses many problems, but the lands that this group thought would be ok to move to were refused by the government, so they struggle on. The spokeman voiced frustration that out of the 25 homesteads granted to people in that development program, only a single one of them was granted to Bedouin – the rest went to Jews.

Ramat Chovav – Leaving Wadi Na’im, we drove right over to the industrial park, where we listened to a presentation from the man in charge of the environmental issues and monitoring surrounding Romat Chovav. He proceeded to describe all of the different industries residing in the park, and what each of them does. He acknowledged that in the past standards have not been as strict as they are now, but he spent most of his time describing how in the past 3 or 4 years the park has done much to control the airborne and waterborne pollution from the plant, monitoring very closely for many different compounds that could potentially cause health effects. The result of all of this effort (and hundreds of millions of dollars) looked like an almost silenced threat. In case after case the monitoring graphs showed levels dropping to nearly zero for dangerous pollutants. After the presentation, and some pretty skeptical questions, they drove us out into the midst of the park, where we got a whiff of what it is like to work there. The smell of Hydrogen Sulfide (NOT a toxin, we were reminded) was so heavy many people had to go back onto the bus. They’re hoping to reduce the smell also to nearly zero by the end of 2010. A bit overwhelmed and confused, we drove to a park for a big pizza lunch

Interlude – Even in two hours off in a lovely little park, this group can’t seem to avoid a little shaking things up. As we ate our pizza, did our yoga and played our music, our attention was drawn to a group of 30 or so female soldiers doing just about the same about 50 meters off. Even the drums were identical. So it occurred to a few of us to try and bring the soldiers, in full uniform, over to our group for a jam session. This threw many of the Palestinian students, some dressed in hijabs or kefiyehs, into a bit of crisis. The soldiers came over and we indeed began to jam, with drums, guitars, flute, violin, harmonicas, etc. But most of the Palestinians walked off, followed closely by some of the Jewish students trying to persuade them to stay. As we jammed, about 20 meters off arguments were raging, in a very surreal scene. The arguments essentially boiled down to two: From the Palestinian side, seeing people in IDF uniforms just makes them into a symbol, something that they can’t deal with in a person-to-person situation. Remember that as Palestinians they are NOT under Israeli law, but under martial law, and someone in uniform can at any time come to their house in the night and arrest them and hold them with no charge for more than a year. Those soldiers weren’t people, but soldiers. We, however, argued that if they had stayed they would have provided those soldiers with a different experience than they likely ever had before – friendly Palestinians laughing and singing with them. Wouldn’t it make it that much harder to be hard and cold in the territories with that experience ringing in your head? Not only that, but it would give the Palestinians an opportunity to open themselves up to the fact that soldiers on top of being soldiers, really ARE people. We’ll be talking about this one for a while to come.
After that we had a long talk about the disparate information we received that morning, and about who to trust and how you can ever know.

Anyways, that’s it for part 1. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Age of Ahava

No, not Bethlehem yet. But I just found the piece of paper cleaning up my room and thought you might get a kick out of this. When all the masters students went to the international dinner at Sde Boqer, where we'll be spending our second year, we presented a little skit of what life is like at the Arava Institute. We reinforced the stereotype a wee little bit, but it's not that far off :-)

To the tune of Age of Aquarius:

Age of Ahava

When Mohammad hikes with Ya’ara
And Benjamin reads with Fatima
They both are getting filled with grace
The great grace of Love

This is the dawning of the Age of Ahava
The Age of Ahava
Let's go Ketura!
In the Arava!

Mudbuilding and conservation
Fighting desertification
Ecology without borders
Dialogue instead of mortars
Environmental peace supporters
Make this drought of progress shorter
Ahava! In Arava!

When we learn to have respect for all
Human beings, plant and animal
Then Peace will guide the planet
And Love will fill the world

This is the dawning of the Age of Ahava
The Age of Ahava
Let's go Ketra!
In the Arava!

Grey water and solar panels
Lots of hippies, some wear flannel
Dance the dovka dance the hora
Save the fauna and flora
Let us listen to Al Gora
Or we’ll end up like gamorrah
Ahava! In Ketura!
Ahava! In Ketura!

Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in
The flood come in
Let the rain come, Let the flood come in

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Importance of Urban Agriculture

As some funny men used to say, and now for something completely different!

I will definitely be writing about Bethlehem, but it'll take some time and I want it to be good. And in the mean time, here's a little piece I wrote for the Ben Nobleman Orchard site that they didn't end up needing. So why waste a good little bit of writing?

If Jeff Rubin is correct in his recent book “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller”, then the Ben Nobleman Orchard, currently Toronto’s only community orchard, won’t be so for long. The reason is actually quite simple: the industrialization and globalization of food production of the past fifty years has increased the amount of energy used to produce every calorie of food on your plate. This rise in the energy intensity of our food has occurred in almost every aspect of the food system, from farm to plate; fossil fuels are now the lifeblood of the system that feeds us. First, there is the natural gas converted into synthetic fertilizer and the diesel that runs the massive farm machinery. Then there’s the bunker fuel that runs the shipping (or worse, the jet fuel that flies chilled vegetables around the world). Trucking to the supermarket, driving to the supermarket, even the plastic packaging that the food comes in depends on fossil fuel feedstocks. While there are many social and ecological impacts of this method of food production and consumption which provide reasons for diversifying our methods, the most important reason is a purely economic one: Peak Oil. According to Jeff Rubin, the lifeblood of our food system is getting inexorably scarcer:
“In a world of dwindling oil supplies and steadily mounting demand around the world, there is no such thing as cheap oil. Oil might be less expensive in the middle of a recession, but it will never be cheap again”
This is not going to happen overnight, but the gist is that oil prices are going to become both higher and more volatile in the near future. This will translate directly into significantly higher prices for foods that have a significant fossil fuel input. The farther food has traveled, and the greater diesel and synthetic fertilizer input needed in its production, the greater the price increase at the superstore. This is not a theoretical assumption: the $147 a barrel oil prices facing the world in the summer of 2008 were a large part of the doubling or even tripling of the global prices of staples like rice, wheat, and corn. In this sense, urban agriculture is not just a social or ecological issue (though these are important reasons for community urban agriculture), but a food security issue.
As an example, FoodShare Ontario recently conducted a survey of the distance food had travelled at both a Supermarket and a Farmer’s Market. The supermarket food had travelled an average of 5,364 kilometres from farm to market, while the farmer’s market food had travelled a mere 101. The energy intensity of food can also be expressed in terms of the number of calories used to produce each kilogram of a specific food item. Some estimates show that nearly 2,000 kcal of energy are needed to get each kilogram of frozen fruit to the table. Breakfast cereal is nearly 15,000 kcal, and chocolate is a whopping 18,000 kcal. The wonderful thing about community gardens and community orchards is that those numbers are virtually zero. From an economic standpoint, it just makes sense to increase urban food production, especially in underutilized areas like parks and lawns.
Not only is the problem not merely a theoretical one, but the urban agriculture solution has already manifested itself on the world stage. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90’s, Cuba was left high and dry. Stifled by the US trade embargo, it had relied on vast support from the Soviets in terms of subsidized fossil fuels, machinery, and farm inputs like fertilizers and pesticides. With the end of this support, caloric intake in Cuba more than halved almost overnight. It was like Peak Oil in fast motion. But with intensive research into organic solutions to pests and fertilizer shortages and the blossoming of 2,730 urban gardens and 4,347 larger gardens on the outskirts of cities, most municipalities now produce upwards of 30 percent of their own food. Havana now produces more than half a million tons of food every year.
The benefits of urban agriculture aren’t limited to food security. Projects like community orchards are the epitome of the adage “think globally, act locally”. They help to strengthen the resilience of neighbourhoods and give neighbours a reason to get to know one another. They provide a way for urban dwellers to connect to the natural world and the soil, and also provide the health benefits of active lifestyles and added nutrition from the healthy food grown. They’re also a lot of fun!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bait Jala

So, today I'm off to Bethlehem to visit with the family of one of my new friends here. I will be crossing the checkpoints into the West Bank, and maybe by next week I'll be able to bring some personal experience to PELS. I will fill you in on the trip upon my return.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

It Gets Cold There?

All those in the audience who are currently living in temperate climates, please excuse the following comment:  It is getting cold here!  Seriously though, I know that 20-25 during the day and 8-10 at night is a wimpy November, but it just kind of settled down upon us here.  One day it was blistering hot and I could sleep, *ahem*, in my birthday suit, and then there were three days of crazy clouds and even crazier winds, and then….desert winter!  Extreme climate I guess.
So it has now become clear to all of us that the Institute is not, as one of our profs put it, a “schluff off to Israel for six months kind of program.”  There’s some serious work going on here.  The work is a lot of reading, quizzes, and papers, but many projects too, and the projects are largely hands on.  For Environmental Anthropology, our job is to do a mini ethnographic study, picking a little micro-culture of the Kibbutz – my group will be the Volunteers who serve food in the kitchen.  For Environmental Education we develop five lesson plans, and then the prof actually hooks us up with an appropriate class in the area to carry out one of the lessons.  One slight issue I’m having with the program so far is that the year at the Arava is essentially the same year as someone going through their undergrad – same classes, lots of introduction to ______ - but as a masters student we take it at the “masters” level.  This essentially means harder assignments and exams.  We also TA a class (environmental ethics for me, very enjoyable actually), and so when it comes down to getting to work on our masters projects, time is a bit of an issue!  It’s tough when you want to be experiencing everything to its fullest (e.g. there’s a mountain expedition going for a few hours, work in the garden, a little self-run workshop), and you know that you should really stay in the room and work…C’est la Vie d’etudient master.  Pardon my French, I barely knew it to begin with :-).
     That’s not to say we don’t get to have any fun.  We went hiking on one of the crazy cloud and wind days about a week ago, and I thought it’d be nice to have some pictures of the area up:

Here is the start of our hike, climbing through an ever narrowing Wadi up into the hills

A very cool rock formation - the geology here is pretty much naked

Sun and Shadow are a recurring theme in the desert

Just when you thought nothing could grow out of this stuff.  Actually, this is in a Wadi bottom, "where the life

Ummmm......Little help?

That is, literally, winter blowing in

Sun and shadow again - one one side, summer, on the other, winter.

And now, a moment that may shock you all.  Parents with small children please use discretion (not really):





Back with more soon!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Encounter Point

Yesterday we had our third PELS session, and watched the movie encounter point, then had a discussion with two of the people featured in the documentary.  If you have time to look into it, please do - it's a very important look into the peace and reconciliation movements on both sides of the line.