Sunday, April 18, 2021

First ecovillage in Palestine: the weapon of self-reliance

By Ary Gotlib - February 18, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [agriculture] [sustainability]

"Here is the kingdom of potatoes, spinach, lemons, beans and zaatar," informed the former mayor of Farkha, Baker Qambaz.

More recently, Qambaz works for the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees and the organic olive oil cooperative of Farkha village.
Since the beginning of 2015, Farkha, a village of 1,700 inhabitants located south of Salfit in the West Bank, has begun converting into an ecovillage. By aiming for self-sufficiency (energy and food especially), an ecovillage seeks to develop an alternative economic model and working on the respect of ecosystems, particularly through agroecology and permaculture.
For Farkha, everything began in the early 2000s.
"The market did not permit us to live off the sale of our olive oil," recalls Qambaz.
"Throughout time, in the West Bank, we had olive oil imported from Turkey and Jordan, where production costs were less."
“The prices of the olive have gradually dropped to seven shekels per kilo, but it costs us 14 shekels to produce," added Baker.
From agroecology to ecovillage
In 2008, when olive oil farmers found it more difficult to earn their living, nine of them in Farkha and the surrounding villages decided to gather in a cooperative to share production expenses. Their strategy was to distinguish themselves by producing a quality olive oil.
"That same year, I met a worker from the association Terre & Humanisme, he was the first to talk to me about agroecology," said Baker.
After a trip to France where he met Pierre Rabhi - one of the cantor of agroecology - and the village of Tamera in Portugal, Baker started to be convinced of the relevance of this method of cultivation.
Replacing chemical fertilizer with compost, hand-work rather than machine-work, using local seeds rather than hybrid seeds or GMOs and collecting rainwater are some central principles of agroecology set up in Farkha. After obtaining an ecological certification (issued by the Egyptian Arab Institute) the nine farmers were able to sell their product internationally.
In 2014, the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) organized a conference in Tulkarem. The association was looking for a pilot village to convert it into ecovillage, the goal being to lead by model. It’s at this time that the village, with the support of Sa'ad Dagher - considered by some as the father of agroecology in Palestine - became an ecovillage.
In early 2015, the organic olive oil cooperative opened, accompanied by a women's cooperative and a cultural center for young people.
Baker Qambaz is delighted.
“Since 2015 we have not sold the kilo of olives at a price lower than 30 shekels.”
Now in early 2019, the cooperative is made up of 18 farmers who cultivate about 400 dunums. Their oil is exported to over 10 europeans countries.
However, the economic model of the cooperative is not yet stable and requires the financial contribution of some organisations such as the Arab Agronomist Association, the olive oil campaign of Switzerland, GEN and Terre & Humanisme.
"But it's not just about gaining money, it's about sharing a philosophy," remarked Qambaz.
Saleem Aqd, an English teacher at the school village described they try to slowly teach the children to not take more from the land than it’s able to give them.
These words are supported by the former mayor of the village who proclaimed loudly; "we want to change the state of mind of peasants, engineers and students."
After having established a partnership with the An Najah University of Nablus in 2018 to send volunteer students to work in Farkha, one of the main goals for 2019 is to work with Birzeit University.
Reaching the autonomy and fighting colonization
For Sa'ad Dagher, agroecology is eminently political. According to him, fighting for self-sufficiency through the decentralization of production (mainly food and energy) allows villagers to recover a higher degree of autonomy and finally of freedom.
"With agroecology, there is no need for chemicals and there is less need for water - 70% less on average - and energy." He argued that today these three industries are highly centralized, in other words, relying only on few suppliers or even just one.
"These three areas are largely under Israeli domination, so we are very controllable," lamented Dagher.
For Baker Qambaz, there are also three other issues: land, employment and health. Counting with his fingers, he begins by asserting that if the land is not cultivated, Israelis can easily seize it. He continued by saying that the jobs created here [in the West Bank], is one more Palestinian who will not work in Israel and pay Israeli taxes.
He ended by emphasizing the health problems caused by polluted food, including the risk of cancer.
Four years after the conversion to an ecovillage, private gardens with no chemicals flourished in Farkha, rooftop solar panels multiplied and rainwater recovery systems intensified.
According to Maher Rezqallah, secretary of Farkha village council, "we are now producing 25% of our energy from solar energy." He will not venture to deliver an estimate of water and food sustainability.
Qambaz stresses that the changes in the village make sense.
“Young people from all over Europe visit us and help us, we are contributing to a [local] change of mentality.”
Now, he would like to see the Palestinian Authority become aware of these questions and to conclude the importance of establishing a national agricultural policy.
"The fight for the future must be based on a simple way of life, which requires nutrition and self sufficient energy in a bid to fight the occupier with more force."
Farkha is a stone of a larger resistance that has been built in Palestine for many years.

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