Time for a Reckoning

At the heart of the argument over the Hatzeva Maarav plan are the importance and value of the unique and pristine area of which a private company wishes to make use.

For decades, Israel has systematically destroyed its natural resources in almost every region. The state allowed the mining of the desert and initiated the draining of Hula Lake. It transformed the rivers into sewage channels and the southern part of the Dead Sea into industrial pools.

Some of the destruction was necessary, because it allowed for the construction of essential infrastructure and industries that provide livelihoods for thousands of workers. But now the time has come to conduct an environmental reckoning, to rehabilitate whatever is possible, and to save as much as possible of what has not yet been ruined.

The planning and construction council in the southern region will need to do this type of reckoning tomorrow when it discusses objections to the Hatzeva Maarav [West Mine] plan initiated by the Rotem Amfert Negev company. This is a 15-year plan for mining phosphates in the heart of an impressive wilderness area, adjacent to an ancient trade route.

Officials at Rotem Amfert Negev claim that there is no economically feasible alternative for the high-quality phosphate at the Hatzeva Maarav field. They argue that cancellation of the plan would lead to layoffs of workers who live in the Negev, an area that does not offer many employment possibilities, and that the plan would only harm a very limited area that would later be rehabilitated.

On the other side, environmental groups opposed to the plan argue that there are many contradictions in the data Rotem Amfert Negev presented on alternatives to phosphate mining, and that the damage would extend far beyond the mining site. The environmental groups cannot present to the public all of the information pertaining to the plan because the company insisted that its report on phosphate reserves remain confidential for commercial reasons.

At the heart of the argument over the Hatzeva Maarav plan are the importance and value of the unique and pristine area of which a private company wishes to make use. The company will not be able to restore it to its current condition, even with the best of intentions and most creative of landscape architects.

Rotem Amfert Negev officials argue that the desert is not a museum and that people live there with various needs. They are entirely correct, and among these needs should also be included desert tourism (which provides jobs) and the preservation of the uniqueness of the Negev's landscape and ecology. A long-term view should accord these needs more weight than considerations such as the shorter route and less expensive transport of phosphate from the Hatzeva Maarav field to the company's facilities - the reason the phosphate company prefers this site to an alternative site that is also available for mining, but is 15 kilometers away.

Quite a few experts have expressed their opinions about the Hatzeva Maarav plan. Tel Aviv University Professor Amotz Zahavi, one of the top zoologists in Israel, who has conducted research in the Arava for many years, provided a good description of the importance of the area designated for the Hatzeva Maarav plan and the impact of mining activity.

In the document of objections to the mining plan, Zahavi wrote: "When the northern region in Israel, as well as the Be'er Sheva area and Dimona, and the Eilat and Arava area will be densely settled, the mountainous and desert Negev will comprise the only nature area of a scope worthy of being called a national park. It will provide millions of citizens a large expanse for outings without residents and without causing damage, but, on the contrary, contributing to Israel's economy. Each additional injury to this area would diminish its value for generations. It will also be the only area in which leopards, wolves, vultures and other animals requiring expanses will be able to survive.

"The damage to the flora and fauna from mining activity is not confined to only one kilometer," Zahavi added. "It will also affect the adjacent areas and make them sterile from the perspective of the desert's special world of life."