By: Shatha Mohammad al-Azzeh
Agro-ecology is characterized by a variety of crops on the rooftops of Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem district
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
The refugee condition inside the Palestinian camps is in direct correlation with the consecutive years since the Nakba, due the duress of a settler colonial condition that systematically persecutes its oppression against the people as well as their environment. The perpetual machine of confiscation and the settlements expansion that is ever continuing, has created a state of political, social, and economic instability, through bulldozing, closures, confiscation of land, building the Apartheid Wall, water looting, the dispossession of national food sovereignty and control over food security. All this happens under the umbrella of Palestinian-Israeli protocols, such as the Paris Economic Protocol signed in 1994, which only affirmed the economic dependence that of the colonized on the colonizer’s, as the latter turned the agricultural lands of the colonized into a market for its own benefit.
All of the above has led to the absence of sovereignty over food, which is based on the foundations of national local agriculture, aiming to achieve self-sufficiency in food production, and for all people to have the right to determine their food production and consumption patterns in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner which is consistent with local heritage and culture, all while achieving the welfare of the farmer and the consumer, rather than the mercantile and its monopolistic agricultural companies.
In this the wider context of how the economy is encumbered by the occupation’s feed-famish practices, and is relying on conditional foreign aid, and clinging to fragile economic proposals and policies, including the PA’s commitment (without implementation) to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations in 2015, among which is poverty elimination and ensuring peace and prosperity to all peoples by 2030. The second goal stipulates "completely eradicating hunger, achieving food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030".
Aida Camp and the Resistance Economy
This continuous deprivation has led local people and their economy to total dependence on the colonizer, which lead to the decline of Palestinian agriculture. In fact, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, agricultural imports from “Israel” have reached an average of $1.2 billion per year during the past two years.
Under these circumstances, grass-roots initiatives are emerging to promote national resistance economy and strengthen refugees’ resilience inside Palestinian camps. One such initiatives is a project to plant on house rooftops in Aida refugee camp, located north of Bethlehem and spanning an area of 0.07 km2. It is a camp surrounded by six military towers, and according to studies conducted in 2017 by researchers at the University of Berkeley California, it is the world’s most exposed area to tear gas.
Refugees in Aida camp are originally from 41 displaced villages. According to UNRWA statistics, there are currently six thousand people living in the camp, suffering hardships to access natural resources such as agricultural land, especially after the construction of the Apartheid Wall which cut off dozens of dunums of agricultural land that was a source of olive, fig, and hawthorn fruits, as well as being an access to other lands to Jerusalem.
The occupation has also created a suppressive environment that deprived the camp’s population from attaining enough quantities of water to meet their daily and agricultural needs. In this context, the average amount of water received by the camp’s population is estimated at 51 litres per person per day; an amount significantly less than the 100-150 litres per person, the allocation which the World Health Organization (WHO) considers sufficient to ensure human survival. This scarce amount is disproportionate –in such a way that reveals the discrimination that the Palestinians are subjected to– with the amount that the Israeli settlers receive in “Gilo”, a settlement adjacent to the camp, reaching 300 litres per person per day.
Back to the Roots
This oppressive environment, which has great consequences of harshness for the refugees and their environment inside the camp, has led to establishing an environmental unit in Lajee Center that deals with various environmental issues and bracing refugees’ relations with their land. The unit sought agricultural independence for 40 families, by providing planters on their house rooftops which, in turn, creates a basic state of self-reliance, to reach a state of national sovereignty over food, hence providing the family with its food needs while making use of small holdings in overcrowded areas. Beneficiary families of this agriculture project are of fellahin (peasantry) origins, who have been deprived of hundreds of agricultural dunums, which lay only a few kilometers away from their place of residence. This is one way of how agriculture embodies the Palestinian national identity with its agricultural symbols and its associations with the land.
The project adopts the multi cropping eco-agriculture approach rather than the mono cropping. In addition to being free of chemical pollutants, the method relies on organic fertilizers and compost, which improves the diet and the health of the beneficiaries, especially those with chronic diseases, as the project grows different types of vegetables and fruits. "We buy diseases at high prices" said one beneficiary who stopped buying several agricultural products from the market, especially because he was unsure of their source and the way they were produced.
A Source of Income and Other Benefits
The project encourages the beneficiaries to work in agriculture as a daily physical activity that contributes to spreading knowledge of the national agricultural heritage for future generations. It also strengthens the social fabric and leaves a positive environmental footprint. Furthermore, it strengthens the inherent relationship that links man with green life systems, and improves the psyche and the immune system. One beneficiary commented “I forget my worries when I see my crops grow, and I am also discharging my negative energy through my agricultural work".
Those house gardens are grown by female fellahin whom chapped hands are the native inheritors of harvests, soils, and awns of wheat. Through home farming, women are providing part of the needed income, albeit small. Such income serves as a backdrop in times of crises, saving them the setbacks luring in the haste of consumption, but also encouraging them to self-develop when it comes to production and savings. The project also ensures achieving some sovereignty over food –the right to food production as foundation to resistant economy. It is one project that celebrates the right to open air: back to nature in spite of the Wall and the armed watchtowers. The breeze will always carry pollen back to the displaced villages from where the refugees originally came.
Translated by: Carol Khoury