Impressions from the Middle East: Updates from Our Partners in Palestine: Part I
Grassroots International Board Member Marie Kennedy and staff member Salena Tramel visited partners and allies in the West Bank and Israel prior to joining a delegation to Gaza, co-sponsored by Code Pink. This entry is from Marie’s notes from her meetings in the West Bank.
Feb 26th, 2009 – Meeting with the Union of Agriculture Work Committees (UAWC)
In a meeting with Abu Jameel, Khalid Hidmi, Dr. Taha Rifaie, and Omar Tubukhna of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, we discussed the work that UAWC has done in Hebron, Tulkarm, Jenin, and Gaza. Started in 1986 with a handful of volunteers, the UAWC, which focuses on education for small farmers in these regions, has grown to include hundreds of members organized into local farmers’ committees. Currently the UAWC’s largest program is focusing on land development, land reclamation and water harvesting, though they are also working on marketing agricultural products and supporting farmers through seedling programs and small economic projects, especially for women.
We visited a few of UAWC’s sites in the field, including Bait Reema where, as part of land reclamation and economic development efforts, the UAWC farmers’ committee has distributed lemon, orange, and almond tree seedlings to the surrounding community. The Farmers’ Committee of Bait Reema was started with 20 members a year ago and has since more than doubled in size, and includes both men and women. When asked what the advantage of having such a committee is, one member explained that, besides increasing solidarity and facilitating the fair distribution of resources, “when we work together it provides a good example and helps to defend against the occupation. We are stronger together to standup for our rights and to defend against the occupation.”
Land reclamation – planting and working the land – is especially important as land that is not worked is frequently seized by Israel. Elya Mammoud Barghouti, one of 75 Beit Reema farmers who received seedlings from UAWC, proudly showed us the land he has been able to reclaim and greatly improve. He is now working on a second plot of land.
The bottom-up planning that is a hallmark of the UAWC was vividly demonstrated by the Kufr ‘Ein Farmers’ Committee. The first project that they chose to undertake was not the planting of productive trees, but rather 320 shade trees in the cemetery – not at all what the central UAWC staff would have chosen. But, it turned out to be a brilliant choice and demonstrates the power of local knowledge. By providing something for the whole village, the farmers’ committee won the community’s trust and grew from five to 23 members in just six months.
Since then, Kufr ‘Ein farmers have gone on to plant many almond and fruit trees. One of their main focuses right now is access to water. Israel controls access to the water coming into Beit Rima and hold authority over who can dig wells. Water is very scarce, usually coming only once a week. While a few residents have water catchments, most have to purchase water from an Israeli company. Other priorities that the committee would like to promote include childcare for the women in the community, and small scale projects that would produce income, such as honey production and building a small factory to produce soap from olive trees.
Our last field meeting near Kufr ‘Ein was with Afeet Said Barghouti, who had discovered Israeli settlers picnicking on his farm land at night – the first step to seizing the land. As a result, he has built a house on the land and moved his family from town to better protect his land. With UAWC’s help he has also intensively planted his land to prevent its seizure.
Altogether, between the two villages, over 2500 UAWC seedlings have been planted. In addition, UAWC has provided training to farmers in improved planting techniques and in how to advocate more effectively for their rights.