Sustainability in the Shadow of a West Bank Settlement

In the final installment in a three-part series on Palestinian organic farming, Murad Alkhufash practices permaculture while also staking a claim to the soil he loves.

Yuval Ben-Ami
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Yuval Ben-Ami

Marda is a small village nestled at the foot of a tall hill. For generations, its villagers grew wheat and barley on the plateau at the top of the hill. Then came 1967 and the Israeli occupation. The land was confiscated and Ariel, one of the West Bank's most populous Jewish settlements, was built on the same flat bed of fertile land.

This wasn't the only blow dealt to Marda's farmers. Israel began pumping an underground aquifer running beneath the village, rendering its spring dry for much of the year. Sewage from Ariel pours down the slope into its backyards and arable plots, destabilizing the foundations of houses and killing off olive trees.

In the midst of all this, one enthusiastic farmer finds not only hope, but a determination to plant his own future in the soil.

"I want to spread awareness," says Murad Alkhufash, the developer of Marda farm, "and also to inspire those who left the land to come back and use it."

Alkhufash, 42, stands in the middle of a flourishing greenhouse. Some of the plants, among them basil, chili peppers and tomatoes, appear to have been trampled. Alkhufash sometimes lets his chickens wander the green in order to scare away pests.

Marda Farm isn't merely an organic one. Permaculture is a progressive approach to agricultural design, one that incorporates many concepts of environmental sensitivity and sustainability. The farm growing in Ariel's shadow is a showcase of inventive approaches to growing and raising the food we eat.

This is exactly how it is meant to be. While Gelato Farm near Jenin, the first to be featured in this series, is a farm per se, and Hosh Jasmin in Beit Jala is intended to serve as a haven from this chaotic world, Marda Farm is a place of education.

Approximately once a year, permaculture enthusiasts from around the world congregate here for a fortnight, to learn about concepts including spiral gardens, Hügelkultur and worm farms.

But Alkhufash is not the permaculture pioneer of Marda. Back in 1994, the Maan development center in Ramallah selected Marda as the site of the first permaculture center in the West Bank. Alkhufash worked on that project as a laborer, and during his work he fell in love. He took his first permaculture design course that year and eventually earned a diploma is applied permaculture design.

That center was later abandoned, an Alkhufash found work at an Israeli grocery store. An invitation from Albert Bates, director of the Global Village Institute, allowed him to travel to America, and he passed five years working at a fast food restaurant in Chicago while frequenting Bates's farm in Tennessee.

The dream of having a farm of his own on the soil of his homeland eventually took over. In 2006, he returned to the West Bank and set to work tilling his family's land.
In 2008, when the farm's bounty was limited to two apple trees and one apricot tree, Marda welcomed its first permaculture course.

For the next few courses, politics proved as vexing a factor as the prolonged summer droughts.

On one occasion, an American guest speaker was held for two days in Ben Gurion Airport, having been found to have volunteered previously in the West Bank. She was ultimately deported, forcing Alkhufash to scramble to find another expert who was visiting Jordan at the time and could come to the farm.

In another incident, a curfew was placed over the village in the midst of a course. An Israeli student attending the course helped Alkufash bring food from his house to the students stranded in the farm.

Chuckling, Alkhufash describes how he and the Israeli student snuck between the houses, food in their hands, scurrying along based on reports from neighbors about the army's positions.

Israeli activists have helped in other ways, as well. It was they that lined the farm's trails with car tires, which Alkhufash calls "dew traps" since the rubber's temperature shifts between day and night, producing dew.

Today, Marda farm is green and blossoming, and serves as the Global Village Institute's official Palestine branch. But its future is uncertain.

Alkhufash has four children and receives no outside financial support. "I hope he can hold on to it," says his friend Lina, who came to visit from Nablus on a sunny September afternoon. "Murad believes in it so much, and our culture is not really receptive to it yet. People think of him as different."

Here, then, is the third of three different men visited in this short series. They stand out, both from their surroundings and from each other, but they are tied by their love for their land and their faith in making it into something better.

At the end of the visit Alkhufash asks for the phone numbers of both Mazen Jerbawi and Mazen Saadeh, the other farmers from this series. The three men are networking, knowing that they already share a vision, the one that is summed up by Voltaire's Candide in his concluding words: "We must cultivate our garden."

'I want to spread awareness,' says Murad Alkufash, the developer of Marda farm, 'and also to inspire those who left the land to come back and use it.'Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami
Israeli activists have helped in other ways, as well. It was they that lined the farm's trails with car tires, which Alkufash calls 'dew traps.'Credit: Yuval Ben-Ami



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