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 Seed bank to save Palestinian farming heritage in the Holy Land’s hills

 Vivien Sansour: “There is an old Palestinian idiom: “‘He who does not eat from his own adze cannot think with his own mind.’”

In the rocky hills of the Palestinian West Bank, farmers learned long ago how to adapt to extremes of climate that make spring the shortest season.

In a part of the world where agriculture was first practised, they found crops that could survive even if watered only by the occasional rain storm.

But a form of farming that informed both Palestinian culture and identity – seeping into the language, songs and sayings – has increasingly come under threat from a combination of factors, including manmade climate change, the incursion onto Palestinian land by Israeli settlement, and agricultural companies’ marketing of hybrid varieties to farmers.

Now, an initiative is being launched to save Palestine’s agricultural plant heritage, with the first seed bank dedicated to preserving traditional varieties used by farmers for generations – before they vanish for ever.

The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library – to be formally launched in June – is part of an effort both to educate Palestinians about traditional forms of agriculture in the Holy Land, which are in danger of being forgotten, and about the culture associated with them.

The seed library will preserve “heirloom” varieties particularly adapted to the West Bank.

Supported by the Qattan Foundation, the project is the brainchild of Vivien Sansour, who studied and worked abroad before returning to the West Bank city of Beit Jala.

She was inspired to launch the library after her experiences in Mexico and after working with farmers in the West Bank city of Jenin.

“I was away from Palestine for a long time,” said Sansour. “While I was away, what I remembered were the smells and tastes. When I came back, I realised that what I remembered was under threat and disappearing.

“That threat came from several things. From agri-companies pushing certain varieties and farming methods and from climate change. Places, too, where people would forage for edible plants – like the akub thistle – have come under threat because of issues like the spread of Israeli settlements.

“I realised that what was also under threat was something deeper – the connection to a sense of cultural identity. The songs women would sing in the fields. Phrases, even the words we use. So it is about preserving the local biodiversity, but it is also about the importance to Palestinian culture of traditional agricultural methods.”

Typical for many Palestinian villagers were allotment-style garden plots, known in Arabic as “pieces of paradise”, and the traditional multi-crop planting season known as ba’al.

“They are vegetables and herbs you plant at the end of the spring rains and usually before St George’s Day. The varieties were ones that became adapted over the years to work well in the West Bank’s climate and soil,” said Sansour.

The project, she hopes, will preserve strains including cucumber, marrow and watermelon, once famous throughout the region, that are in danger of dying out. “There is a kind of huge watermelon, known as jadu’i, that was grown in the northern West Bank. Before 1948, it was exported around the region. It was famous in places like Syria. It has almost disappeared. One of the most exciting discoveries so far is that we found some seeds for it. They are seven years old, so we need to see if they are viable.”

Andrew Bossone shared this link
In the birthplace of agriculture, traditional crops are dying out. But one woman has a plan to preserve them| By Peter Beaumont

Part of the project – which Sansour hopes will eventually be housed in a new science centre, the Qattan Foundation, in Ramallah – has seen teachers being trained in a pilot project to reintroduce students to old agricultural practices. One of these is Inam Owianah, who teaches 12to15-year-olds. “I am a science teacher,” she said. “Part of the curriculum is the growing cycle. I was invited to a workshop of the seed library.

“I wasn’t even sure what an heirloom variety was. And then I understood! It wasn’t just about the seeds, but about an intimate connection to our heritage. And the students started to understand that civilisation is not just about buildings but about a way of life. It was why my grandmother would save the best aubergines and courgettes for seeds for the next year,” said Owianah.

“I started asking my students to ask their grandparents and parents about the stories and sayings associated with the plants.”

On Sansour’s patch on the outskirts of the village of Battir, next to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railway line where she will plant her own ba’al varieties in the coming

days, fennel, mallow, chard and mint are growing wild. On the stone walls she points out edible herbs.

Other plots around have already been cleared for the growing season with a glyphosate-based weed-killer. “You can see the difference,” she says, disapprovingly picking a handful of wild fennel from her own untreated plot to eat. “You can see how wild and lush it is, even before it is cleared for planting.

“There is an old Palestinian phrase,” she adds: “‘He who does not eat from his own adze cannot think with his own mind.’”

Seed bank aims to protect world’s agricultural inheritance from Syria war

Lebanon project aims to recreate Aleppo collection of 150,000 seeds representing knowledge of generations of farmers in Middle East

in Baalbek. February 24, 2016

The wild wheat seed had travelled from Aleppo to the Arctic circle in northern Norway. It has now come almost full circle to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where an effort is under way to save the world’s agricultural inheritance from the ravages of the Syrian civil war.

Mariana Yazbek, who runs the gene bank at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (Icarda), held up the specimen. “Think how much potential is in this seed,” she said. “Humanity is in our hands.”

The return journey from the Arctic to the Middle East was not one the seed had been expected to make.

The Svalbard global seed vault, buried in a Norwegian mountain, contains hundreds of thousands of native seeds from around the world, preserved in the event of a doomsday scenario to help humanity rise from the ashes and help feed a broken world.

The war in Syria, beginning in 2011, changed the calculus.

Icarda’s Aleppo facility, which held a collection of 150,000 seeds representing the knowledge of generations of farmers in the Fertile Crescent, where agriculture began, is now all but inaccessible to the organisation’s staff so out in Lebanon’s agricultural hinterland a grand project is slowly coming to life to recreate it using samples from the Svalbard vault.

Go back 10,000 years, all the farmers that worked in this region and on those crops, there are varieties you cannot find anymore in the field,” said Yazbek. “The only place where you can find them is in the seed bank.” The specimens sent from Svalbard were the first ever withdrawals from the bank.

The young men and women at the Icarda building in the town of  Torbol, Lebanon, methodically go about their business in silence, separating the hay from the seeds, counting and recounting them, treating the fragile little plants for disease with a pink dye meant to ward off fungi.

Their sternness matches the gravity of the task at hand. “What we are losing is the history of these thousands of years represented in crops, and you’re losing your safety net for the future,” said Yazbek.

The aim is to recreate the whole collection that existed in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital before it was devastated by war, in seed banks in Lebanon and Morocco using the samples from the doomsday vault and other replicas that had been sent to seed banks around the world.

About 85% of the Aleppo collection had been replicated in Svalbard, a process that accelerated when the war began and inevitably reached Aleppo in mid-2012. A third of those samples have now been sent to Lebanon and Morocco.

Many of the wild varieties no longer exist, and those seeds that have been saved represent decades and centuries of genetic selection by local farmers that contributed to humanity’s collective knowledge of agriculture.

Maintaining them is crucial in order to preserve the broad genetic base and diversity of plant life in the region – biodiversity is already under threat as a result of droughts and climate change, over-exploitation and urbanisation that has eliminated the natural cover for much of the region’s plant life.

Icarda, which holds seeds from the Middle East and other dry regions of the world, conducts research to improve the livelihoods of local rural communities, providing technology that local farmers use, improving and breeding plant varieties to make them resistant to harsh climate, and working on land and water management and animal health.

Biodiversity – maintained by the seed banks – offers a form of insurance policy, as it allows local farmers to grow plants and produce that is resistant to extreme weather conditions and disease, proving resilient to diseases that may severely impact mass-produced crops that have high yield but are genetically nearly identical.

A short drive away, in a centre owned by the American University of Beirut, are two cold rooms, one at -20C and another at 4C.

In them are black boxes labelled “Syria” that came directly from the Syrian government, as well as other black boxes containing thousands of silver packets filled with seeds, meticulously labelled, that made the journey from Svalbard.

“It is wonderful to see the vault is already proving its worth and that we have been able to help our friends in the Middle East to continue their vital work,” Árni Bragason, director of the NordGen government agency, which helps to manage the Svalbard seed vault, said. “This is proof that the global system is working.”

Recreating the Aleppo seed bank is a major undertaking.

First they will be planted and allowed to germinate, then they will be replicated, and

second, new copies will be sent back to the doomsday vault for safekeeping. It is a task that keeps Yazbek and her team up at night.

“It’s a burden, the responsibility is immeasurable,” she said. “We have to make sure we give them everything, to make sure they germinate and multiply.”

“We are the keepers of this history and knowledge,” she said.




February 2023

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