A model for grass roots agricultural and community renewal

Setting and Background

In the early nineties, the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture proposed drainage and water storage system for the Bet Netofa valley, an area of 40,000 dunams, which are flooded annually. The water in the proposed system would be used for agricultural irrigation in the valley. Most of the inhabitants of the valley (predominantly Arab) are supportive of this measure, which they see as a way to improve their economic situation through more intensive agriculture. In fact, the local farmers are willing to forfeit about 6% of their land for the purposes of the irrigation and water storage facilities. They regard the project as a rectification of the events of the 1960s, when the government confiscated Arab lands for the purposes of the National Water carrier, which was used for national purposes, and for irrigation by the local kibbutzim, but from which Arab farmers were barred.

At the same time, the Ministry of Environment and the Nature Parks Authority are opposed to this project. They anticipate that the changes in drainage will precipitate ecological changes that will harm endangered plant and animal habitats in the Valley, cause salinization and degradation of soils, and that the use of fertilizers and pesticides will contribute to nitrification and other ecological damages.

The Bet Netofa model, developed by the Arrasid organization, a registered local environmental NGO, attempts to chart a sustainable future for the region that negotiates these tensions.

The Arrasid/Bet Netofa model

The model attempts to increase the Valley’s sustainability, independence, and economic viability. The main vehicles for this are the encouragement of traditional and organic agricultural methods, the establishment of an agricultural cooperative to educate, organize, and market the products of this agriculture, and the cultivation of the Valley as a destination for eco-tourist travel.

Sustainable agriculture. This would considerably lessen the threats posed by the more intensive irrigation posed by the proposed agriculture scheme. It is also labour intensive, and would provide employment in the area, where unemployment stands at 15%. Composting and mulching techniques would reduce the need for artificial fertilizers, and reduce water losses. The need for chemical herbicides would also be lessened.

The environmental agriculture cooperative. This would enable a more stable basis for farmers growing a range of crops (fruit, vegetables, herds, bees, etc.). And it would sere as a platform for the more effective marketing of the organic agricultural products. Finally, it would be a knowledge and training center for developing and passing on traditional and organic agricultural techniques that are suited for the area. Membership in the cooperative is through the tithing of 2% of profits (or the equivalent in produce) to local needy families or to a Cooperative fund that is used for the cultivation of produce for these families.

Ecotourism. The unique landscape of the Bet Netofa Valley already constitutes a draw for tourists, and the establishment of a predominantly traditional and alternative agriculture would enhance this experience. The Arrasid initiative hopes to develop a range of activities (bike and horse rides, archaeological and heritage tours, etc.) that would, over time, develop the area into a known eco-tourism destination, thus diversifying and strengthening the local economy.

Work plan and achievements

The Arrasid group’s work is still in its early stages of community building, awareness raising, and coalition building. Considerable strides have been made, and some of the first steps toward sustainable agriculture and the establishment of an agricultural cooperative have been. For example:

  • In January of 2004 an extended seminar on sustainable agriculture was held with 14 farmers from the Sakhnin, Arabe, and Boiena-Nojeidat villages. In the wake of this effort, 50 farmers have signed up for future seminars.

  • Various donations to the communal agriculture efforts have been made by local farmers. Thus, one farmer has pledged $2000 of work on communal projects, five other farmers have offered the free use over ten years of a total of 40 dunams for experimental crops and other joint projects. In addition, Dr. Elaine Soloway, a prominent developer of organic agricultural techniques has donated 400 saplings for experimentation in the Bet Netofa Valley.

  • Through a lengthy process of negotiation within the community and between it and the authorities, a promising land-exchange arrangement is emerging. Under this arrangement, farmers would be given government lands to compensate for their lands that would be flooded by the new irrigation projects. If accepted by the government, this would be a breakthrough against a background in which lands were taken in the past without adequate compensation.

  • December 2004, Sakhnin’s municipality confirmed Arrasid’s request for using the educational farm school’s infrastructure. The compound includes two greenhouses and 13 dunamds. The greenhouse will be used to demonstrate organic agriculture methods. The greenhouse will service the junior school students from Sakhnin who study in the farm area. Our estimation is that over 1600 pupils will participate in this project.