Permaculture in Palestine: Bustan Qaraaqa Greens the Hills Outside Bethlehem

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. Bustan Qaraaqa (literally "Tortoise Garden") is a Permaculture paradise in the making.Doing More with Less

Building a solar oven.

"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.


Greywater system: water from the sinks and shower are filtered, then reused to water 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

The tree nursery.

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.

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.


Swales follow the contour lines of terraces. Trees from the nursery will be planted in the thin lines, just below canals where water will collect. In between the rows of trees, vegetable gardens will grow.

One of Bustan Qaraaqa's primary goals is to engage and empower the surrounding community. The farm conducts tree-planting workshops, help local farmers during the olive harvest 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.

All photos by Jesse Fox.

Tags: Agriculture | Permaculture

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