Palestinian farmer Khaled Mukarker used to have 20 workers in high season and 4 all year round, now just he and his wife alone work his land. Believe it or not, by the standards of the village he calls home, Al Auja, Khaled is somewhat of a success story. Al Auja rests in the Jordan Valley, a land rich with abundant water reserves and natural springs. However since the Jordan Valley was occupied in 1967 and Israeli settlers started to move to the area and take land, the fortunes of local farmers have worsened. Not least in their access to water.
Wadi Auja, the local spring in Al-Auja, and a site of natural beauty that attracts thousands of visitors a year, used to run all year round. Now, suffering from over extraction from settlements it averages 3-4 months of flow a year, severely undermining the local capacity for agriculture. According to Khaled there used to be 300 active farmers in the village whereas now there are just 18. This has resulted in a lot of migration and the subsuming of most men still in the village into the workforce of the local settlements.
The area was famed across the Occupied Palestinian Territoriesand farther afield for its banana crops, which according to Khaled were first introduced in the 1930s and by 1992 accounted for 12,000 Dunums (square kilometres) of Al-Auja land. Now, due to the shortage of sufficiently high quality water since they lost the local spring in 2004, local farmers have been forced to abandon bananas in favour of less lucrative vegetable crops.
By contrast settlements across the Jordan Valley produce a rich range of produce over thousands of kilometres of seized land. This includes large quantities of dates that will be shipping to European markets just in time for Christmas. In fact the EU, which calls the settlements ‘illegal under international law.’ imports 15 times more goods from settlements than from Palestine . There is one 1 settler in land adjacent to Al-Auja who alone has 100 employees and more land under cultivation than the all of the Palestinian families in Al-Auja put together according to Khaled. This individual is independent of the two major settlements that flank Al-Auja. All of this profitable endeavour requires massive amounts of water.
It is estimated by OCHA, (the UN agency responsible for Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories), that the average settler uses 6 times the amount of water on a daily than the average Palestinian .90% of the water reserves in the Jordan Valley are now diverted at source for use by settlements. The settlements also produce massive amounts of waste, much of which is pumped directly into the River Jordan.
In addition to pumped water available from a private Israeli provider, some local Palestinians still have access to their own private wells. Khaled is one of them. Though the Israeli military check and limit his annual water consumption and prevent him from tapping the water table below 70 feet deep, he is able to maintain a steady all year round flow of irrigation to his crops. Last year he planted his first Banana Tree in 8 years, the only one visible in the whole village. A symbol of hope in the face of increasingly difficult odds.
Another symbol of hope is the Auja Environmental Centre. Launched in 2010 , the centre has started a number of projects to support the local economy, focussing on three areas; environmental education that supports local families to best use the scarce available resources, new farming activities that help farmers diversify into more viable crops, for example herbs that can be irrigated from the salt water that is more plentiful in the remaining wells, and eco tourism activities that help educate visitors about the region and its current environmental situation. While the latter also generates income for the centre, it’s reach and it’s capacity to affect the underlying socio-political causes of the challenges the Al Auja community faces are both limited.
In the mean time farmers like Khaled do the best that they can with the resources at hand. His well is currently threatened by the growth of roots from a gigantic tree that sits on his property. He has applied to the Israeli military for a permit to undertake the necessary maintenance work to ensure his water supply. As with so many things in the occupied Palestinian territories the process demands limitless optimism and faith in higher powers. When I ask Khaled if he thinks he will obtain the necessary permission the answer is the same as to a bigger question about the potential for liberated Palestine and a plentiful Al Auja full once again with Banana trees to join his lonely sapling. A word I’m already very used to out here
“Inshallah” (God Willing)
NB.Those of you reading at home in Europe and elsewhere can consider helping expedite the process by calling for a ban on the trade of settlement goods. Christian Aid UK has advice on actions you can take and more resources including the new ‘Trading away Peace’ report about EU Trade with Israel. http://www.christianaid.org.uk/whatwedo/middle-east/take-action-to-ban-israeli-settlement-produce.aspx . Get involved and push for justice for Khaled and thousands of disenfranchised farmers like him!
To find out more about Auja Environmental Center visithttp://foeme.org/www/?module=projects&record_id=174