In my waking nightmare, I see a company of adrenaline-fueled Israeli soldiers breaking into the seed bank established by the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees. Against my will I see them shattering and breaking, scattering seeds of baladi (heirloom) crops a moment before they are distributed to the farmers, burrowing into the deep freezer where they are being preserved so they will last for another 70 years. I see them destroying the equipment in the laboratory and kicking at the sabra plants on the steps. And whatever they don’t destroy – they steal. Or “confiscate,” in army jargon.
This nightmare was sparked by Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s recent announcement declaring six Palestinian NGOs to be terror groups, among them the agricultural union. Already earlier, before the declaration, the army broke into the offices of the organizations, stealing computers and documents, and it closed the main office of the agricultural union for six months.
The bitter experience of several decades indicates that ignorant soldiers, who are fed with fake depictions of Palestinian society, are certainly capable of destroying within an hour or two the years-long labor of dozens of agronomists and the cumulative knowledge of the many farmers with whom they worked. Our soldiers are programmed in such a way that they have no problem eliminating an agricultural heritage that goes back hundreds if not thousands of years, which the Union of Agricultural Work Committees is working to rescue from extinction.
The seed bank is one of the magnificent projects of the UAWC, a not-very-large Palestinian NGO established in the 1980s operating in Gaza and the West Bank. Its employees locate farmers who are still growing baladi crops. They collect and improve the seeds by natural means, augment their quantity and distribute or sell them and seedlings to other farmers at a token price, on condition that at the end of the season the farmers bring in a handful of new baladi seeds. And so it goes.
The idea of a seed bank was ignited by chance, in the early 2000s. “That was a tough period of military incursions, strict closures and poverty,” recalls Fuad Abu-Seif, director of the UAWC. “We noticed that the small agricultural plots, which only a year or two before had yielded crops, were not being sown. For years the farmers bought seeds from commercial companies (Israeli firms or Palestinian contractors), on condition they buy new seeds from the same companies every year. Anyway, they discovered that the seeds produced didn’t yield a good crop.”
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Due to the army’s incursions, the farmers couldn’t buy new commercial seeds. Baladi seeds – heirloom seeds whose collection and preservation involve a long and expensive process – were no longer available. The UAWC picked up the gauntlet around 16 years ago and since then it has been improving and expanding the seed bank project.
Heirloom seeds are “open” seeds, meaning they are pollinated by wind and bees. The seeds purchased from the agro-industry are hybrid seeds – created through supervised manual crossbreeding, in order to improve their resilience. As Ronit Vered wrote in Haaretz a few years ago, “the crossbreeding creates unstable genetic material, and there is no guarantee that the traits of the first generation will be transferred to the second generation. Dependence on the large seed companies created uniform crops – in which taste was the least important parameter – and has led to the disappearance of a variety of local species.”
In Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as worldwide, agro-industry and the hybrid seeds it produces guarantee profits and large crops – but at the cost of losses of a different kind.
“Our parents sowed baladi, but our generation no longer knows what that is,” Abu Seif says. “When we began to meet with farmers in order to find baladi seeds, it was mainly the older people who took an interest. The young people had either left agriculture and were engaged in commercial activity, or were interested in making profits.”
A few years ago his organization’s staff began to lecture in schools. “We felt that there was a change, the children were eager to hear more, even when the lesson was over,” he continues. “What’s strange is that they have no agricultural background, knowledge was not transmitted to them, in particular when it comes to farming.”
Besides the fact that baladi plants produce seeds that are being collected, most of them thrive without irrigation. Thus, unlike the hybrid plants, these unwatered crops are more suited to global warming and to the reality by which Israel withholds water from the Palestinians. As opposed to hybrid seeds, which usually require the use of chemical fertilizers, heirloom seeds do well with compost. Eco-friendly, in short.
The UAWC also helps farmers rehabilitate soil that has not been cultivated for a long time, which is near the separation barrier, or in areas that suffer from settler violence (moreover, a gigantic highway that Israel is paving for settlers has destroyed already 300 of the 1,300 dunams – or 225 acres – that the union rehabilitated in the Halhul region, near Hebron).
The union also restores and builds stone terraces, encourages farmers replace ordinary and widespread crops with more attractive ones in small plots, and markets their high-quality, olive oil abroad. It also supplies seeds from wild plants, such as aqub (gundelia, a thistle-like plant Arabs use for healing purposes). The seed bank laboratory is staffed mainly by young, enthusiastic female agronomists. The union offers stipends to students – mainly women – whose research is connected to the rehabilitation and development of traditional farming. Thousands of Palestinians who cultivate small plots of land benefit from the services of the UAWC.
Is this terror? Israeli society and the international community must not let the IDF, the Shin Bet security service and the defense minister destroy this important human, social and environmental project.