Bustan Builds a Model of Desert Sustainability


The Bedouin village of Qasr Al-Sir: on the verge of momentous change (photo by Daniel Cherrin).

After a volunteer accidentally burned down its office, Bustan, an environmental justice organization based in Israel's Negev desert, decided it was time to make some changes. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Bustan Director Ra'ed Al-Mickawi. With the help of a strategic planning consultant, the organization embarked upon an intensive soul-searching process. "We had to figure out what our role was in the community," says Al-Mickawi.

The process led Bustan to the Bedouin village of Qasr Al-Sir, an informal settlement in the process of being formally recognized by the state. Together, Bustan and Qasr Al-Sir are planning to create a new model for Bedouin settlement in Israel, one that sets a new standard for sustainability while empowering the community to shape its own future.In early 2009, Ra'ed Al-Mickawi conducted a series of interviews with people connected to Bustan's work, in order to get a sense of the organization's impact. He concluded that, while Bustan had been making headway, it needed to better focus its efforts. "The choice was between concentrating on one specific field, like agriculture or Permaculture," he says, "or choosing one model village and working on a variety of projects there."

Bustan chose the second option, and started looking for a community that might be interested in building such a model. Eventually, the village of Qasr Al-Sir was chosen. With participatory democratic structures already in place and a population eager for change, it seemed like a natural fit. And, as the village was no longer considered an informal settlement, building there did not carry the risk of demolition by the authorities.

With redevelopment on the horizon, Bustan understood the potential to influence the rebuilding process and steer it in a sustainable direction. It's first big project will be the construction of a large community center, built using a combination of traditional and modern green methods. The construction is scheduled to begin later this month.

Qasr Al-Sir today still looks like an informal settlement. Located in a windswept basin, the village lacks basic services such as electricity, paved roads and water. However, the first signs of new development are already beginning to appear. A new complex of schools was built a couple of years ago, and other public buildings are also going up.

Ra'ed sees great potential in the field of green building. The new community center, he says, will be built by a handful of young people from the village, who have already taken a course on green building methods. In the future, he hopes, the villagers, who will all be rebuilding their homes as part of the redevelopment project, will chose to do so using sustainable materials and methods.

He plans to set up a committee, comprised of a green architect, a social worker and an engineer, to help residents rebuild. Green building, he says, will also be an economic solution for the villagers, providing at once a more affordable option for their own homes, as well as new employment opportunities for the youth.

Bustan hopes to leverage the construction of the community center in order to develop a series of other projects, including attracting solar energy companies to the village and setting up an indigenous tree nursery, run as a women's cooperative.

The people I met in Qasr Al-Sir, whom seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the changes planned for their village, said they hoped the process would help revitalize their society by restoring the place of the village's elders and women, bringing back lost values and traditions and providing a positive horizon for the village's young people.

Asked about the dramatic changes in store, Atiya, who lives next to the future site of the green community center, grinned. "I would be happy living in the desert, but my children can't tell the difference between a horse and a donkey. I'm looking forward to the future here. I think everything that's happening here is for the best."

Bustan, which defines itself as a Bedouin-Jewish Israeli organization, will hold workshops, tours and conferences as the project progresses to share the lessons of their work and spread the word about ecological initiatives in the Negev. Construction of the community center is expected to last between 3-4 months.

Tags: Construction | Deserts | Israel | Permaculture