Most areas of Israel's Negev Desert are profoundly degraded, characterized by poor soil quality, high soil erosion, lack of perennial plants and trees, and ongoing deterioration due to continuous soil tilling and overgrazing. Meanwhile, the Bedouin community who makes up a significant population in the Negev, have suffered profoundly from transition to modern life, the degradation of the surrounding ecosystem, and marginalization from Israeli society and government. The community has a high rate of unemployment, lack of access to service and infrastructure, and a tense relationship with authorities over land rights.
In 2008, we launched a model sustainable development project in the Negev called Project Wadi Attir, in partnership with the Hura Municipal Council, a local Bedouin township, and members of the community, wherein a new generation of Bedouin leaders from different tribes, men and women working side-by-side, committed themselves to a shared vision and a powerful set of guiding sustainability principles, intending to focus on systemic change as opposed to addressing the symptoms with issue-specific initiatives. The resulting project, an experimental, sustainable farm and education hub, was launched on 100-acres of severely degraded drylands. It implemented a strategy for expanding collaboration, employment, and economic opportunity that leverages Bedouin entrepreneurial spirit, cultural traditions and agricultural experience with modern science and cutting edge green technologies.
The core of the project includes an organic farming enterprise involving animal husbandry and the production of dairy products; cultivation of medicinal plants and the development of a related line of health products; and the reintroduction of nutritious, indigenous vegetables to common use. The project also includes a Visitor, Training and Education Center with a focus on ecology, sustainability innovation, and entrepreneurship. The project site will soon be completely supported by an integrated infrastructure of green technologies, including solar energy and bio-gas production; the production of compost from organic waste; advanced irrigation management; wastewater treatment and recycling; and a soil enhancement and ecosystem restoration program.
It is for the latter initiative, the Ecosystem Restoration Initiaitve, that we now seek funding for a significant scale-up of activities, though this expansion will also involve many of the other economic, educational and social activities described above. Based on the results of multi-year, interdisciplinary research led by our close associate, Dr. Stefan Leu, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, our Ecosystem Restoration Initiative has also demonstrated rapid and effective rehabilitation methods onsite. (Methods and results are outlined on the project’s dedicated Ecosystem Restoration educational website.)
We now plan to replicate and modularly scale up our ecosystem restoration approach on an area of approximately 3,000 acres, applying similar methods and technologies, specifically rangeland restoration and sustainable agroforestry techniques using local and native plant species; low interference watershed protection measures; and rain harvesting.
Through the creation of a representational Design Team, the group of stakeholders responsible for directing the project, Bedouin community members—men and women, representing different tribes and different segments of the community—as well as academics and researchers, members of local and national government, and others will be responsible for all aspects of the project’s design and implementation, including the procurement of the land. As with Project Wadi Attir, the local Bedouin community will also be the primary stewards of this land, and the rehabilitation of the land itself will provide major benefits to the community in the form of enhanced agricultural productivity, a framework for cultural preservation, and opportunities for economic development and entrepreneurship in the form of high-quality, organic product development and ecotourism programming. The scale-up will be significant enough to create the opportunity for other communities in the Negev to actively participate in the process. This will improve relations with Israeli society as well as with the outside world by creating myriad opportunities for encounter and shared education, by bringing resources to the Bedouin community itself and reducing social and economic societal stressors, and by putting the Bedouin community at the forefront of sustainability innovation in the Negev. Parallel to these community benefits are also restored biodiversity and a significant contribution to the mitigation of issues related to climate change by restoring soil quality and carbon, and enhancing biomass cover to provide for significant carbon sequestration.
We believe that Project Wadi Attir has demonstrated valuable proof-of-concept, and that scaling up from 100 acres to 3,000 will have an untold multiplier effect. Not only have we demonstrated a very effective approach to reversing desertification and restoring productivity to drylands, but the process of developing the project has already completely redefined what can be achieved in the Bedouin sector, dissolving long held stereotypes by achieving results. It has grown to represent a sizable investment in the Bedouin sector, bringing together members of the Bedouin community, local NGOs, kibbutzim, academic institutions, professional organizations, government ministries and private sector companies to forge an unusually pluralistic partnership.
In record time, the project team navigated government bureaucracy to secure 100 acres of land from the Israeli Land Authority, as well as upwards of $3million in matching funds, effectively covering half the project's capital costs. After recent meetings with the Israeli Land Authority, we have received an enthusiastic commitment from them to help us secure access to 3,000 acres for our ecosystem restoration scale-up. This in itself is almost unheard of, particularly in light of the economically dire and politically polarized atmosphere in the Bedouin sector, and the conventional wisdom that said a project like this was simply impossible. Though we plan to approach this land and the accompanying community development process modularly, the opportunity to seize this large parcel of land all at once is one that cannot be overlooked.
Thank you for considering our proposal. A summation of the objectives of our scaled-up Ecosystem Restoration Initiative in terms of planet, prosperity and peace are offered below:
- Restoring degraded land to productive farmland for sustainable, largely rain-fed farming, grazing and agroforestry
- Implementing soil conservation and restoration, erosion control, and watershed protection
- Improving rangeland through silvipasture and agroforestry
- Restoring and maintaining nutrient and soil organic matter (SOM) pools and biological productivity
- Restoring natural ecosystems on part of the Negev’s remaining marginal lands
- Reintroducing locally extinct plant and animal species
- Protecting natural habitats and biodiversity hotspots for overall enhancement of flora and fauna
- Contributing to the mitigation of climate change-related issues by achieving carbon sequestration into soil and biomass of 3 – 6 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, per year
- Providing a model for an effective low-cost, low-impact approach to combatting desertification that will be applicable in the region as well as in desertified drylands worldwide
- Establishing the conditions for the production of honey, medicinal plants, oils and resins, biomaterials, and renewable fuels
- Building capacity in the Bedouin community to produce and sell high-quality, organic products produced onsite, many of them based on traditional methods and recipes, thereby providing large-scale opportunities for employment, especially for women and youth
- Developing infrastructure for recreation, ecotourism, camping, hiking, and naturalism and building capacity in the Bedouin community to serve as eco-tourism rangers and guides
- Changing the community’s marginalized image in the eyes of Israeli society and cultivating and strengthening fruitful partnerships with Israeli Government and civil society
- Easing the impoverished conditions of the community, thereby reducing crime and government reliance, and improving relations with other members of Israeli society
- Becoming a hub for "shared society" encounters, using educational programming and workshops to bring together Jewish and Bedouin students and professionals
- Strengthening the foundations for coexistence between Arab and Jewish citizens of the country