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Good Things are Blooming in the Desert

Wadi Attir in the Northern Negev Brings New Opportunities for Bedouin

March 19, 2015
Adam H. Brill, Director of Communications
212-879-9305 x222
Wadi Attir in the Northern Negev Brings New Opportunities for Bedouin
       By: Patricia Golan

JNF Wire Wadi Attir Ibrahim.jpg

Founding member of the project, Ibrahim Alatrash, in the newly constructed animal pens. Photo by Wolfgang Motzafi-Haller

The herd of 100 unusually clean hybrid of the traditional Awassi and local Assaf sheep breed are standing tightly together in their brand new enclosure bleating at the VIP visitors and photographers. They seem to be wondering what all the excitement is about. Unbeknownst to them, the party involves them too, as this small herd of sheep are actually woolly pioneers in an extraordinary ecological farm just established by Bedouin residents of the Negev desert. 

The event on Jan. 27 was the official inauguration of the agricultural facilities at Project Wadi Attir, located on a 100-acre hilly site some 10 miles east of Be’er Sheva in the northern Negev Desert. The project sets up the first sustainable eco-farm that combines Bedouin traditional skills and experience with modern renewable energy technology and farming techniques.

Seven years from conception to launch, the revolutionary project is establishing an eco-village intended not only to benefit the local community by creating economic opportunities, but – if successful – be applied to other parts of the region and arid regions around the world.

Many Bedouin families derive their livelihood from small herds of sheep and goats. Those slightly star-struck sheep are Awassi, a breed of fat-tailed sheep native to Israel, known for their high milk production. The production of organic dairy and meat products from sheep and goats is one of the anchor operations to be carried out at Project Wadi Attir.

The radically innovative desert farming operation was initiated by the mayor of the nearby Bedouin town of Hura, Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, and founder of The Sustainability Laboratory, Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, who were joined by researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and others. The ambitious project is the outcome of a new vision of sustainable development.

Ben-Eli explains that The Sustainability Laboratory had been looking for a project to demonstrate its principles of sustainability and approach to development when he came on a visit to the Negev in 2007. “I suddenly saw these scenes of poverty and shanty towns all around the area, especially the unrecognized villages,” he relates. “It didn’t seem right to me that in Israel there would be citizens living like this. Yet, there’s all this fantastic modern technology available and the university nearby, and no one is putting the two together. We thought that if we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”

Altogether, Project Wadi Attir will require an investment of about $10 million. Jewish National Fund (JNF-USA), as part of its Blueprint Negev campaign, is a major supporter of the project, along with the Israeli government, the Arnow Family and other funders. Financed largely by JNF-USA, Keren Kayemth Le’Israel in Israel performed the bulk of the site preparation work. 

“We’re here to make the Negev a better place, and this goes for every aspect of life,” says JNF-USA’s Israel Operations Executive Director Alon Badihi, explaining the connection between JNF and a massive project for the Bedouin. “The Bedouin are part of the Negev, so we have to do what we can to develop possibilities to help the community grow, to be part of a flourishing Negev.” 

The Israeli government decided to also support the ecological-agricultural community for Bedouin, in 2011, forming a consortium led by the Ministry for Development of the Negev and the Galilee.  

For a variety of reasons, including the influences of modern life, the Bedouin Arabs’ extensive knowledge of the desert has gradually disappeared. The Wadi Attir project’s primary objective is to preserve and nurture traditional Bedouin agricultural know-how. The backbone of the model community project comprises three areas: sheep and goat herding, growing medicinal plants, and raising indigenous vegetables based on seeds from the area. All the agriculture in the project will be organic. The project also includes a Visitor, Training and Educational Center, which will double as an eco-tourism destination.

The farm, when completed, will include composting facilities, solar and wind energy production, a wastewater treatment system and a bio-gas production facility. Already the rehabilitated lands for the project have attracted a variety of wildlife. “We thought it would take at least 10 years to regenerate this area. But today where there were only scorpions, there are birds, foxes, and other wildlife one has not seen for decades,” says Ben-Eli. 

One critical aspect of the project, according to Ben-Eli, is that residents of villages throughout the Negev have been directly involved in shaping it. The association operating the community will employ people from the entire Bedouin sector, and will disseminate know-how learned there to neighboring villages.

The Bedouin are keepers of some extraordinary knowledge that is unknown to western medicine. Knowledge of natural remedies used for generations by Bedouins for their health care system is not widely understood by scientists and is fast disappearing. Thus the medicinal plants project will involve the cultivation of 15 government-approved medicinal plants to be used in a range of healing and body care products, including infusion teas, a line of cosmetics products and a variety of soaps. These plants include, for example, Salvia (Sage) used for fevers and stomach ailments, Roman Nettle and Citrullus colocynthis as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory cures, Mallow leaves with pain killing properties, and Origanum dayi for its essential oils and fragrances.

Most Bedouin women in the Negev are still bound by conservative societal traditions, often not allowed to leave the boundaries of the clan or tribe unaccompanied by a male relative. Given the lack of work opportunities within the village, they often remain unemployed. Some 70% of Bedouin women over age 40 are illiterate, and thousands of girls are forced to end their education upon completion of elementary school.

One of the chief aims of this remarkable project is to create job opportunities for Bedouin women and ensure their integration into the work force.

Naifa Alnabari, chairperson of the Hura Women's Council and a founding member the project, says the Project Wadi Attir team has already begun training women in the production of dairy products as well as a training program for raising and preserving indigenous vegetables. This involves cultivating native vegetables on family-managed plots. There will also be a seed bank and processing facility as part of the project.

“It’s hard to believe,” she says, pointing to acres of green fields covering the area. “This was nothing but desert, and now look at it: wheat and barley that won’t disappear with the summer. 

Naifa, who acts as the vocational coordinator for Rayan Center for the Advancement of Employment in the Negev Bedouin Community, says she has a pool of women from many villages who are eager to begin working. She acknowledges the importance and uniqueness in the Bedouin community of women playing critical roles. “We’re returning to our roots in this project,” she declares. “I believe this will really help empower women.” 

“When we first started this project, it was a period of profound distrust between Bedouin and the state authorities,” states Mayor Alnabari. “The Bedouin said ‘we don’t believe anything you promise,’ the government representatives said ‘nothing will come out of anything with this population.’ But our approach was really a different way of thinking. We have a goal and a carefully studied way of achieving that goal. We’ve developed a language that we can share.”

Mayor Alnabari believes the secret of their success in dealing with the government was that, rather than going to the relevant ministries with a long list of complaints, they came with a carefully honed strategy in place. They presented the sophisticated plan to Silvan Shalom, Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee. The minister was won over. 

Alnabari adds that the direct involvement of JNF-USA from the beginning was essential in implementing the project on the ground. “This was a real turning point in our relationship with donors from abroad. JNF’s help financially, and in spreading the word, was crucial to moving the project forward.” 

“This is something really new and unique,” Ben-Eli declared in his remarks at the inauguration ceremony. “We’ve linked the glory of the past with the strength of the future.”

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JEWISH NATIONAL FUND (JNF) began in 1901 as a dream and vision to reestablish a homeland in Israel for Jewish people everywhere. Jews the world over collected coins in iconic JNF Blue Boxes, purchasing land and planting trees until ultimately, their dream of a Jewish homeland was a reality. JNF gives all generations of Jews a unique voice in building a prosperous future for the land of Israel and its people.

JNF embodies both heart and action; our work is varied in scope but singular in benefit. We strive to bring an enhanced quality of life to all of Israel’s residents, and translate these advancements to the world beyond. JNF is greening the desert with millions of trees, building thousands of parks, creating new communities and cities for generations of Israelis to call home, bolstering Israel’s water supply, helping develop innovative arid-agriculture techniques, and educating both young and old about the founding and importance of Israel and Zionism.

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