Permaculture in Palestine

Jul 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles

Defying drought, limited resources and occupation, Bustan Qaraaqa is building an ecological oasis in a wadi outside Bethlehem.

bustan qaraaqa house

The farmhouse. All photos by Jesse Fox.

For a group of British ecologists working in development organizations in the West Bank, researching the sorry state of the Palestinian environment became, at some point, rather unsatisfying.

“We wanted to move from writing reports on environmental destruction and stagnating development to actually doing something about it,” says Alice Gray. Over two years later, the group, along with a handful of volunteers, is creating an ecological oasis in almost impossible conditions.

Doing More with Less

“When we first started building this place, a little over a year ago, everyone around here told us we were crazy,” says Tom, another resident ecologist. “How are you going to grow anything here without water, they asked us. But for us that’s exactly the point – using what we have to show other people what can be done here.”

Founded in April 2008, Bustan Qaraaqa sits in a quiet valley on the outskirts of Beit Sahour, a town near Bethlehem. Alice, Tom and a handful of foreign and local volunteers live here in a century-old stone house (the oldest house in the valley, according to their landlord, whose father built it), surrounded by 14 dunams of land.

bustan qaraaqa greywater system

Greywater system: water from the sinks and shower is filtered, then used to irrigate a vegetable garden.

It may sound idyllic, but the challenges are immense. Sparse rainfall, creeping desertification, lousy soils and rocky, sloping land, just to name a few. Making matters worse, the region is in the middle of a prolonged drought, and the past couple of years have seen record low rainfall here (although, to my astonishment, I woke up one morning to a light drizzle falling on the farm – quite an unusual experience during the dry Middle Eastern summer).

After just over a year of work on the farm, the place is beginning to take shape. A water cistern, meant to collect the winter rains for use irrigating trees in the summer, sits half-full at the bottom of the valley. Soon it will host a school of tilapia. Swales have been dug in preparation for trees and vegetable gardens on the slopes. A composting toilet, greywater system, and a compost heap are all functional. There was even a chicken coop for a while, until a pack of dogs managed to break into it and eat all the fowl.

Trees for the Community

In the dry heat of the late afternoon, I find Tom, a tall, lanky Brit, lovingly tending to his pet project. The farm’s tree nursery, nestled under a burlap overhang, contains some 120 species of native trees, as well as a few exotic species. Tom collected all of the seeds himself, during his travels through seven different countries.

bustan qaraaqa tree nursery

The tree nursery.

Kneeling down to pick out a weed, Tom lists the benefits that the trees will eventually provide: improved soils, a home for wildlife, a source of animal feed, reduced erosion, medicinal uses, and the list goes on. The trees, among them oaks, carob, acacia, pecan and pistachio, are destined to be planted on the farm’s terraces, and on neighboring farms.

One of Bustan Qaraaqa’s primary goals is to engage and empower the surrounding community. The farm conducts tree-planting workshops, helps local farmers during the olive harvest and is always looking for new projects. One potential project would involve setting up roof gardens and greywater systems in refugee camps, where food security is a serious issue.

“Individuals and communities have more power than they believe,” says Alice. “The idea here is to turn our lives into an experiment, to explore what people can achieve using simple methods and the basic resources at hand.”

Another big plan involves building constructed wetlands for sewage treatment. As in most of the West Bank, sewage in Bethlehem is not treated in any way. Instead, raw sewage flows into valleys, eventually making its way to the Dead Sea – contaminating the land and water, and destroying the ecosystem along the way.

Bethlehem’s sewage happens to be dumped into two valleys not far from the farm. Using little more than a clever combination of purifying plants and graded terraces, Tom envisions a method of treating the city’s sewage without the need for treatment plants.

While Alice hopes a local farmer will eventually take over the farm, she adds that this is not essential. “The project is much bigger than this site,” she says. “Bustan Qaraaqa’s role is to serve as a demonstration site and to pass on knowledge.”

From the look of things, they are off to a very promising start.


The other side of the story: This story was originally published at, where I am not supposed to delve into the morass of Middle Eastern politics. Understandably so, I guess, as even some of my distinctly non-political posts on that site can provoke an avalanche of politically-inflamed comments that often have little to do with the content of the posts themselves.

In any case, since this is my blog and I can write here about whatever I want, I will tell the other side of this story here.

The frame story here, which I could not mention in the original article, is the occupation. As of course we all know, things are exceedingly difficult in the Occupied Territories. This is now new – development has been actively stifled there for quite some time. Life in Beit Sahour, where 1,000 Shekels/month (around $250) is considered a good salary, is apparently made possible by the money sent back to their families by Palestinians living abroad.

(I was surprised to wake up one morning to the sound of a tractor working nearby. I rushed outside, certain I was about to witness a house demolition. Instead, someone was actually building a house. My hosts explained to me that the farm, located in Beit Sahour, is just inside the borders of Area A, where building is allowed.)

The way Alice explained it to me, the Olso framewok set up all sorts of obstacles to development in the West Bank. Sixty percent of the land there remains under full Israeli control, which means everything needs permits from the Israeli authorities. From my experience with the planning system in Israel (which I would say doesn’t exactly guarantee equal rights and adequate protection of the public interest), I can only imagine what it’s like to try to request a permit for something in the Occupied Territories, where the authorities are not accountable to the population in any way.  Thus $270 million, meant for investment in Palestinian sewage projects, is floating around looking for projects, while in practice all the projects are stuck.

Reminders of the occupation are everywhere: in the separation wall which cuts through Bethlehem, in the Bedouin village on the hill whose houses are demolished from time to time, in the raw sewage that flows through the wadis. Tom explained to me that the water system was designed such that the main lines run from Israel to the settlements, with secondary lines providing water to Palestinian locales. Thus, when the water pressure drops in the system, the Palestinians are automatically cut off. It often happens that people in Beit Sahour are forced to go for weeks without any running water. And some 200,000 Palestinians, mostly those who live outside the cities, are not even connected to the water delivery system.

However, as Tom arguesin an interview in the Guardian, impossible circumstances make people more receptive to unorthodox solutions. Palestinians live in what is still largely a traditional, agricultural society. With the occupation making water and land scarcer every year, solutions like Permaculture are an essential part of helping Palestinians reduce their dependance on the occupation authorities and become as self-sustaining as possible. “The Cuban model,” they call it on the farm.

Of course, many would argue that you can also fight the occupation, and I don’t think the folks at Bustan Qaraaqa would disagree. Alice, acknowledging the dilemma, told me that every development issue raisies the same question: Do we deal with things as they are, or as they should be? Do we fight for better top-down water service, or collect rainwater and reuse greywater? For the return of land cut off by the separation barrier, or for more intensive agricultural models that make better use of the land at hand?

With the proper distribution of labor, society could probably manage to fight for both. But Bustan Qaraaqa’s ecologists are convinced that, without the clever solutions offered by Permaculture design methods, the West Bank will in short order come to resemble Gaza: a water supply made unusable by contamination, runaway urbanization, overpopulation, collapsed infrastructures and a shortage of agricultural land and open space.

For all their focus on sustainability, these foreign ecologists cannot even be sure that they will still be here in a few months. All are here on 3 month tourist visas, and they are entirely dependant on the goodwill of the Israeli Interior Ministry for their visa renewals. One member of the founding group has already been deported.

Still, their message seems to be slowly catching on. They are forming partnerships with Israeli organizations, such as Bustan, that are working toward similar aims. And ideas like constructed wetlands (which, by the way, may be Greater Bethlehem’s only choice as, requiring no heavy construction, it does not technically require a permit) seem to be catching on. Last month the Jerusalem Post reported on an initiative to build constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment in Palestinian villages.

One can only hope that the folks at Bustan Qaraaqa will succeed in spreading their message of concern for the land, wise use of resources, living modestly and making the best of what we have.

Follow their progress and adventures on Bustan Qaraaqa’s blog, Green Intifada.

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  1. hey
    i would like to visit the place if possible please where is that place exactly and how can i visit because nowadays i am in Bethlehem for a while .
    please send me a contact such as cellphone or an ” adress” in beith sahour .

    my cellphone is 050 5223670
    my name is awni naddaf ( a friend of jesse fox -)

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