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Little Israel has only a few natural treasures that are of international value. One of the them, the phosphates in the rocks of the Negev, has become an important source of income, used to manufacture fertilizer exported by Rotem Amfert Negev, Ltd.

But the Negev is also a natural treasure because of its landscapes, its singular variety of flora and fauna, the archaeological heritage of settlement in the desert and the ancient trading routes there. This treasure is not only economically important in terms of tourism, but is also of emotional, scientific and spiritual significance. There is an internal contradiction between the conservation of the Negev and the mining of phosphates that damages the landscape and turns large areas into an ecological wasteland.

Today the southern region's Planning and Construction Commission is to discuss a plan to permit Rotem Amfert to expand its mining operations to an area known as the west Hatzeva field. The company, which is obligated to rehabilitate the land after it finishes mining it, noted that the area has already been slated for mining, according to approved master plans.

The Israel Nature and Natural Parks Protection Authority has stated that this action will damage an area of great significance, and it therefore opposes approval of the mining operation.

Other ecological organizations do not oppose mining in every case. They did not put up a fight against some sites that were to have been nature reserves - among other reasons because they were in more concealed areas, where the damage to the landscape by mining would have been smaller. However, they do note that this canyon-cleaved region is wild and pristine.

It seems that the time has come to raise our eyes from this or that particular plan, and to examine the wider implications of mining in the Negev. A comprehensive planning policy is a must to determine where to permit mining and how much to permit. Such a policy does not exist with regard to mining in the Negev, even though the potential areas for this activity are extensive there.

The decisions of the planning institutions are dictated these days by the needs of a commercial concern seeking to mine phosphates in a location that is convenient because it is close to its fertilizer-processing facilities, or because it contains the most valuable phosphates. A company like this does bring jobs to the Negev, but its basic consideration is making a profit.

The need for phosphate mining can be examined by means of an overall plan, from which a master plan can be created. Such plans will examine alternative sites and evaluate the cost to the economy as opposed to the cost to the environment. This cost manifests itself not only in damage to the landscape, but also in air pollution - the reason the residents of Arad recently opposed the establishment of a Rotem Amfert mining site near their town.

For these reasons, the southern region planning commission must oppose authorizing mining in the west Hatzeva field until such time as the government initiates a comprehensive plan in this area. Existing master plans do designate the area for mining, but they have not examined the question of phosphate mining in depth.

A comprehensive policy is also needed because in the past, the Negev has been hard hit by mining and excavations of various kinds of rock. Other large areas, used as training grounds by the army, have suffered severe damage to their landscape and habitats.

Comprehensive investigation, including the proposal of alternatives, is essential even if Rotem Amfert's pledge to rehabilitate the region is taken at face value. Landscape rehabilitation does not reverse the deeper damage done to the ecosystem and the changes in its appearance. It does not bring back the functioning of the earth's upper crust and the rocks that were the foundation for the flourishing of flora and fauna.

The Negev is home to particularly vulnerable landscapes that are unique from a global geological perspective. The Hatzeva region and other mining areas are part of these landscapes. They should be conserved, not rehabilitated.