Palestinian ‘seed library’ salvages agricultural heritage from Israeli occupation

Illegal settlements and military occupation have destroyed traditional crops and devastated farming in the occupied West Bank. Now a Palestinian agriculturalist is turning the tide.

Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian agriculturalist, planting a rare variety of watermelon called Jadu’i at her family property in Beit Jala, Bethlehem on April 21, 2016. The Jadu’i strain of watermelon used to be grown by Palestinian farmers but has now disappeared. Heidi Levine for The National
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

BEIT JALA, WEST BANK // Light green almonds — still unripe — dot a giant old tree on one of the few terraced plots left in Beit Jala, near Bethlehem.

“I call this tree Karima, the generous one — because it gives so much,” says Vivien Sansour as she reaches up into the trees branches and holds the crop between her fingers.

Trees like this have increasingly come under threat because of the Israeli occupation, with water supplies restricted to Palestinian farms and settlement building encroaching on traditional agricultural plots.

In response, Ms Sansour, a Palestinian agriculturalist, has spent the last year collecting seed varieties used for generations by Palestinian farmers with the aim of preserving them.

The Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library will be unveiled in six weeks in Ramallah. The seed bank intends to save seeds from crop species that are fast dying out and maintain traditional forms of agriculture — while educating young Palestinians about their agricultural heritage.

Local growers will be able to come and take out species from the library, but will have to return seeds the following year.

“The Israeli military occupation is not just a threat, it’s part of a strategy to literally destroy the Palestinian farmer and transform the Palestinian producer into becoming a day labourer who has no autonomy over their lives,” said Ms Sansour.

“If you drive down the Jordan Valley — there are farmers who used to have lush, diverse, eco-friendly farms but are now working as labourers in huge agribusiness farms, on the properties of Israeli settlers who produce mono-crops that are destroying the environment.”

Ms Sansour has been collecting heirloom seeds and running workshops once a month with teachers in the Bethlehem area. She has encouraged the students to carry out an oral history project — recording stories on video with their elders about their growing methods and the diversity of crops they grew in the past, while also collecting heirloom seeds discovered during the process.

With help from the AM Qattan Foundation, an independent development organisation focused on culture and education, Ms Sansour will launch the seed library in June, with an exhibition of heirloom seed varieties at the foundation’s headquarters in Ramallah.

The library will be in addition to another seed bank that was established in 2008 as part of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees to help small, lower income farmers save and document seed.

In the process of collecting the seeds, Ms Sansour has gathered hundreds of stories and photos from Palestinian farmers about the destruction of their land as a result of the Israeli military occupation since June 1967.

While documenting these stories, she came across some seeds from a rare watermelon called the Jadu’i that used to be widely grown in the fertile crescent running through the Palestinian city of Jenin in the northern West Bank — but is now nearly wiped out.

Palestinian elders talked about how big the Jadu’i watermelon grew, some recalling that they used to be transported in trucks to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Some women even told Ms Sansour, they used to seek refuge in the melon fields in 1948 during the Nakba to hide from Israeli forces; others gave birth in the melon fields.

“We have a few seeds that we’ve found and we now have to grow them and see if we can get two melons — it would be a great national achievement, the seeds are seven years old. For seeds to be vital, you usually have to grow them within three years,” she said.

Ms Sansour also met a taxi driver who grows heirloom barley.

“He thought I was crazy, wanting to ask him about it. He said his family also thought he was crazy growing it,” she laughed.

During a workshop run by Ms Sansour in Battir — a West Bank village about 6km west of Bethlehem — one of the teachers she worked with shared a video clip with the others. Hayat Nabtiti showed the children in her class interviewing their grandparents and elderly relatives about how food used to be grown, compared with how food is grown today.

A young Palestinian girl from Bethlehem is seen asking her grandmother how she used to grow crops. Her grandmother waves her walking stick in the air, talks about crop rotation and demonstrates how the land was traditionally ploughed and seed spread in the ridges to a certain depth and then covered.

In a separate video another young Palestinian schoolgirl asks her grandmother about genetically modified plants. She wanted to know why there is less seed rotation and less seasonal growing today.

“Why do we have tomatoes all year now?” she asked her grandmother.

Ms Sansour spent time with growers in Uruguay and Honduras and enrolled into a PhD in Agriculture and Life Sciences in the US. However, she decided to leave during the first year of the programme and return to Palestine to learn more about her ancestors’ ways of growing instead.

“I was in a class on botany — they put aside a slide show of zaatar, the plant they said some cultures eat. Something in me felt upset and offended. I thought I don’t need to be here, I can go back to Palestine and learn,” she said.

Ms Sansour said that while Israel has claimed as part of its history to have turned the desert green, the reality is that it has been responsible for “massive desertification” and the degradation of land.

The major challenges faced by Palestinian farmers were land confiscation, Jewish settlement expansion being built on agricultural land Palestinians used to grow food, a lack of water supply, the growers told Sansour.

“Israel has a clear agenda to ‘modernise’ the Palestinian farmer. They would say to farmers, ‘You don’t need your heirloom seeds. We will give you seeds that will make you have more yield’. It’s the same lie agribusiness have told farmers all over the world, but in the context of Palestine, we have become more dependent,” she said, indicating that the occupation has left Palestinian farmers with few other choices.

Large-scale commercial farming has spread like wildfire in the occupied West Bank. However, the diversity of plants that Palestinian farmers now grow have become very limited and most of them are now grown for the Israeli market.

Back in Beit Jala, looking up the hill, one of the last remaining terraced plots stands out in the landscape.

It’s here that Ms Sansour’s family home and garden stand. She remembers when most of Beit Jala used to be full of orchards. Now, she calls Beit Jala a mini “concrete jungle”, because the skyline is dotted with buildings, instead of greenery.

In her dining room, Ms Sansour sits peeling the outer layers off an heirloom artichoke, and slicing it up.

“For me the journey of going back to land, soil and seed has been a healing process. I wanted to heal my longing, my loss and what we are still losing with the occupation. I think other Palestinians feel this too — healing our soil and seed and bringing them back to life is part of healing our community.”