Interviewer: Mohammed M. Aljamal
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons (Afaq magazine):
Environmental activism might seem difficult, time consuming, or even troublesome. However, only those who appreciate mother earth and what she gives us are the ones who realize that the effort given for her sake is almost nothing compared to enjoying a stroll in the forest, hiking on a trail, or jogging by a stream of fresh water.
Since her childhood, Dr. Bettina Marx learned the value of a clean and safe environment, as she lived to appreciate its beauty and grew up defending it on numerous occasions throughout her rich and eventful life.
Dr. Marx’s love for the environment has also taught her to sympathize with other people, the Palestinian people, and observe the inequality committed by the strong against the weak, which has awakened her sense of justice to become not only an environmental activist, but also a voice for the voiceless and subsequently the Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation- Palestine and Jordan.
In this interview, Dr. Marx shares with us some of her profound experience in environmental and human rights activism, especially in Palestine.
- Firstly, thank you very much for your time and we appreciate giving us, at Afaq Environmental Magazine, the opportunity to hold an interview with you, Dr. Marx. Secondly, I would like to ask how did you acquire such passion towards the environment, and when did you start focusing such attention towards it?
I would like to give a twofold answer: my first answer is that I was born in a region in Germany, the south-western area on the border with France, called Palatinate. This area is almost covered in forests and vineyards and is close to one of the main rivers in Germany, the Rhine. I grew up feeling very attached to the forests of my childhood that really shaped my life when I was growing up. In the 80s, the forests in Germany were threatened by what was at the time called “sour rain”, rain that was contaminated by pollution. We feared that the forests would die as a consequence of this rain and this topic roused many young people to get interested and to fight for a healthy and clean environment. Fortunately, at the time, measures were taken to improve the situation and save the German forests. Today, the forests in Germany are threatened once again. This time by climate change.
Another important experience of my youth was the pollution of our rivers. Growing up very close to the Rhine, I experienced the pollution of the German rivers first-hand. As a student, I was a member of a rowing club and we knew that we must absolutely not capsize and fall into the river because of the deadly pollution. Nowadays the situation has improved by far and it is even possible to swim in most German rivers and lakes.
My second answer is that I was drawn to the environmental movement through the fight against nuclear power. In 1979, there was a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, USA and I clearly remember the panic we felt at the time about nuclear contamination. In 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was even worse and much closer to home. Suddenly we were asked not to eat vegetables and fruits and to avoid the nuclear fallout in the rain.
Later, when I started my journalistic career I was assigned the environmental portfolio and this was when I first heard about the dangers of climate change. Since I am not a scientist – I come from the humanities – this was all new to me. I mean the connection between carbon emissions and climate change. I remember that I did an interview with one of the leading German climate researchers and a very famous professor at the time, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber. This interview impressed me deeply, but it also disturbed me deeply. I was convinced at the time and I am even more convinced today that climate change is the most pressing issue of our time.
- When you came to Gaza as a journalist, what were the aspects that caught your attention and what topics did you cover?
I was a radio journalist for ARD, the German Broadcasting Association, from 2003 to 2008 and was based in Tel Aviv. I and my colleague covered Israel and Palestine for 65 public radio stations all over Germany. During this time, I developed a deep interest in the Gaza Strip. I visited there as often as I could and covered as many aspects of life there as I could. I also developed friendships in Gaza that I cherish until today and that helped me understand Gaza better and feel a deep connection to the people there. You could say that I lost my heart in Gaza and one of the most painful things for me personally about the occupation is that I cannot visit Gaza as freely as I choose and might not be able to visit after I leave my current post.
In the Gaza Srip I was most interested in the daily life of people: how do they cope with being confined to such a small space, how do they cope with the lack of energy, with the recurring military confrontations, with the needs and insecurity. How do they face all these difficulties and still not lose hope? It is a mystery to me how whenever I visit Gaza, I meet people who are so full of life and energy, so full of creativity and courage and friendliness and warmth. Take our own partner organizations for example: They never give up. They come up with new ideas constantly. They have been badly affected by the last war and have even lost employees and family members. Still, they continue their important work to strengthen women and protect the environment and by that to strengthen civil society in Gaza.
- As the Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation – Palestine and Jordan Office (hbs), which is affiliated with the German Green Party, could you elaborate on the aid and assistance your organization offers the Palestinian people? and what is the focus of your work in Gaza and what achievements are you proud of?”
We at hbs - Palestine and Jordan work mainly in three areas: Environmental Justice. Democracy and Hman Rights and Policy Analysis and Advocacy. We have numerous partner organizations and have maaged over the years to create a network of NGOs that work with us. Our main motive is to improve the life of Palestinians and to help Palestinians achieve their rights. Our vision is a free and democratic Palestine, committed to the rule of law and the principles of equality. Therefore we work on many levels to achieve this goal, or, more precisely, to support Palestinian civil society to achieve this goal. For example, in Jerusalem we support research on the situation of Palestinians in Jerusalem, we support partners in endangered neighborhoods that face the full brunt of the occupation, like home demolitions, evictions, child arrests and neglect. In Gaza, we work on women´s rights, for example to improve the rights of female academics or to combat gender-based violence. We also work on environmental topics, for example on the question of food sovereignty. When I say “we work”, I mean of course, we with our partners. We also work on advocacy and try to get the Palestinian voice out to an audience in Germany and Europe.
- You already mentioned that you lost your heart in Gaza and you've even covered the 2014 war on Gaza in addition to writing a book on your experience in Gaza. What lessons could you share with us on that hard time you spent?
I have covered the last days and the aftermath of the war of 2008/9 and the war of 2014. I had a first-hand opportunity to see the devastation these wars have brought to the people of Gaza in the first place and to the environment in the second place. In 2008/2009 I was particularly struck by the use of white phosphorous against Gaza. When I entered the Gaza Strip after the end of the war I could still find the smoldering remnants of phosphorous. I also had the opportunity at the time to interview the great doctor Ghassan Abu Sitta from Great Britain who treated the victims of these attacks and until today I cannot forget what he told me about the horrible burn wounds caused by this ammunition. I met and interviewed him again during the 2014 war and got first-hand information about the wounds and traumas this war caused. I also had a chance to meet my own friends, who lost their homes and properties in these wars and who were deeply traumatized.
Before these two wars, I have also covered many Israeli military operations in Gaza. But if you are asking about my hard times, I must tell you that the people of Gaza suffered through these horrible times, not me. I came as an outside witness and tried to bring the story of the Gazans out to an international audience, in my case to a German audience. Of course, it is heartbreaking when you see people suffering and the environment being devastated. It is more heartbreaking when you feel attached to the place and the people this happens to.
- What are the most crucial environmental priorities in Palestine that require special attention, especially when it comes to Israeli malpractices?
I don´t even know where to start. As the UN has stated, the Gaza Strip is in reality no longer livable. There is no drinking water, there is no electricity, there is no freedom, no adequate healthcare. And of course the environment is severely impacted by the recurring rounds of violence, but also by the occupation and the siege. So what is the first thing that comes to mind? The overcrowding and the lack of water and other natural resources. Gazans have no water that is fit to drink and there is no chance to reverse this situation due to the overcrowding. So, this surely is one of the main environmental problems and I don’t really see how it can be solved, unless the siege is lifted and Gazans are freed. The situation is not sustainable and no one should be forced to live this way. Another topic that is really important is waste management, plastic pollution and wastewater polluting the sea along the shores of Gaza, and which threatens the marine environment and poses risks to public health. People cannot even swim in these waters.
Then there is the chemical spraying of agricultural fields along the border by Israeli planes. While we don’t fully know what chemicals are being used, we must assume that these are potentially dangerous herbicides that may impact the health of the population. In my view, it is unacceptable that Israel is destroying the crops in Gaza for the convenience of its security needs and at the expense of the health and income of Gazans.
6. How do you evaluate environmental journalism in general and the Arab world in specific and what efforts should be put to bring this sector from lingering in the sidelines to become a major topic?
Since I unfortunately don’t read Arabic I cannot answer this question. Generally, I think that there is a need for good environmental journalism everywhere and probably also in the Arab world in general and in Palestine in particular. I know that our partners at MA’AN Development Center are doing a tremendous job through the production of Afaq Environmental Magazine for many years now and through many other activities related to environmental journalism. Our partners in Jordan likewise. Still, I think more investigative reporting is needed. In this context, I think that corruption needs to be addressed, not only in Palestine, but everywhere. Corruption, greed, the interests of the powerful and a lack of transparency, these are in my opinion the main reasons for environmental disasters worldwide. In the Palestinian context, you cannot ignore the impact of the occupation on the environment. Plus, more scientific reporting is needed. We see this now, in times of a worldwide pandemic, when conspiracy theories spring up everywhere. There is not enough scientific reporting, not enough reporting on scientific research and not enough translation of science into a language that the wider population can understand.
- In terms of environmental journalism, Germany seems to have a significant amount of attention towards it. What contributions did you, Bettina, make and feel proud of the most?
I don´t think I did any major contributions to environmental journalism. My part is really very modest. I worked as a political journalist with a special focus on the environment only for two years and then I switched to foreign policy. So, I cannot claim any praise here. But speaking more generally, we have seen in connection with the climate catastrophe and also since the beginning of the pandemic, a new interest in scientific journalism and in environmental questions. In Germany, we have witnessed recently a new upsurge in scientific reporting and in fascinating new formats to reach out to young people and to disseminate knowledge on science. This has been interesting to see and I would hope that Palestine will follow suit and also develop new formats of reporting on the environment and on scientific questions.
- What are strictures that may conceal the truth from people and jeopardize their lives when discussing environmental issues?
As I said above, it is mostly corruption and economic interests that try to hide the facts from people. Consider for example the climate catastrophe. It is not some remote scenario. It is already here. We are witnessing it first-hand: the flooding in Germany recently for example, the wildfires all around the Mediterranean right now, the melting of the polar ice caps, the extinction of diverse species. This is not happening in some distant future but right now in front of our eyes. So, it needs to be addressed and highlighted. And those who benefit from climate change and fight against any measures to stop it have to be named, be it the carbon industry or governments.
- If convenient, I would like to ask one last question, if convenient; what message would you like to give to the younger generations especially when it comes to the environment and the struggle for rights and freedom in conjunction to this important aspect?
Honestly, I think there is no message I can give the younger generation when it comes to the struggle for the environment. On the contrary, I can learn and I am learning from the younger generation worldwide. Their struggle, their activism and their conviction that we absolutely have to halt global warming and the resulting climate change is an inspiration for me.
Although I am already older and will probably not have to suffer the devastating consequences of the climate catastrophe, I feel responsible for what is happening and I am marching side by side with the younger generation and supporting their struggle. Young activists like Greta Thunberg in Sweden and Luisa Neubauer in Germany and Vanessa Nakate in Uganda are examples and inspirations for me and my generation. In the Middle East, I am deeply impressed by the Arab youth climate movement. What is especially inspiring to me is to see young climate activists in Gaza who are confronted with so many challenges and hurdles and who are still fighting against climate change.