Deer
Deer at the Carmel Hai-Bar Nature Reserve. Photo by Doron Nissim
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The Environmental Protection Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature launched the Israeli program for protecting biodiversity at a conference last week. A few minutes before the conference, a man who lives in the Judean lowlands called me to report that work had begun on a new community in an area scientists have defined as an ecological corridor, an area that allows animal and plant species to traverse the country. Meanwhile, at the conference, participants described how the program was to protect such areas from building projects.

More than five new communities are now being put up in areas of prime importance to the ecology and landscape, and natural assets are being ground up under bulldozers' treads. That's just one example of the great gap between the programs that are being promoted by nature protection groups, sponsored by the government and society, and reality, which the government is perpetuating. The new biodiversity-protection program is based on the assumption that protecting nature reserves is not enough. Among other things, ecological corridors and biosphere areas must be preserved where development will be based on existing infrastructure and communities, while preserving most of the open space. Such will be the status of areas like the Lachish hills, where three communities are now being built, or the Judean lowlands, where another community is being put up.

The program's authors and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan rightly emphasized that the process involves not only protecting cute animals or pretty flowers, which is important itself. Biodiversity performs services that are essential for a flourishing economy and quality of life, from moderating flooding, withstanding climate change and natural purification of pollutants, to food production, protecting soil and ensuring recreation areas for densely populated zones. It can be said that there is a direct relationship between society's prosperity and the population's health on the one hand, and the health of the ecosystem on the other.

In the coming two decades, Israel will double its built-up area and the population will grow by dozens of percentage points. To ensure the biodiversity that provides its essential services, the government must conserve land and infrastructure and surrender its addiction to yet another new settlement and detour road.

But that is not enough. Further actions must be taken, some of which the new program ignores. Israeli society will have to stop encouraging, both economically and in terms of values, unending population growth. It will have to develop habits of thrift in energy, food, water and transportation. Otherwise, all the other measures will only slightly delay Israel's transformation into a cementosphere that will hardly be able to meet its population's needs.

Speaking at the conference, Erdan said with disappointment that the head of one of the television stations he approached to interest him in the subject said the topic was bizarre. The minister knows full well that the problem is more serious than that because the cabinet wasn't really interested either.

In this, our situation resembles that of most countries, as can be seen by the UN report on biodiversity that was released this month. Actions to promote biodiversity "receive a tiny fraction of funding compared to activities aimed at promoting infrastructure and industrial developments," according to the report. Abundant examples show the truth of this statement in Israel, where a state-sponsored committee for national infrastructure approves expensive projects for building power stations and expanding ports. But projects to preserve and rehabilitate ecosystems that are far less costly and no less necessary don't cross its desk.