Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Planting trees to combat erosion in Palestine

By Martin Leeper - February 27, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [agriculture]

The city of Bethlehem sits on top of a rippled land. Soft hills, that fold together for miles. In February these hills are green, filled with short grasses and sporadic patches of yellow wildflowers—good eating for the occasional herd of sheep passing through. In the summer, these lands are dry, dusty, brown, and barren. 

This is normal for the transitional climate in Bethlehem, just north of the Negev desert. On the outskirts of the city, looking over the hills, there is one thing that stands out; there isn’t a tree in sight. In the valley floors, where runoff water collects, there are intermittent olive groves but the hills are bare.
On February 22nd, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Palestine Museum of Natural History, the Land Life Company, and a group of volunteers came together for a reforesting project. The collective was tied together by Adrian Fadil, a Palestinian-Jewish-American who has spent the better part of four years living in Israel and Palestine.
Harrie Lovenstein explains to volunteers how to plant using the cocoon.
After reading about Land Life’s new tree planting technology, Fadil contacted both the company and the Museum of Natural History asking if they would like to collaborate together. Land Life Company was founded in 2013 in the Netherlands. Their goal was to create a low-cost, sustainable and scalable solution to plant trees in dry and degraded soils all over the world, bringing back life to ecosystems and communities. 
Land Life planting “cocoons” are already being used in 20 different countries, but due to the inherent variations in trees and soil, they were enthusiastic to learn how they could work in Israel-Palestine. They agreed to partner with the museum and the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture in order to plant 200 donated cocoons in Palestine.
On a piece of government provided land, the collective planted 166 trees. In order to compare the survival rate, 79 of those trees were in cocoons and 87 were not.
Harrie Lovenstein leads Product Development for Land Life and has a long background in arid climate agriculture. He was on the ground in Bethlehem in order to teach the planters how to use the cocoons. “The function of a tree is multipurpose,” Lovenstein told Palestine Monitor. “It’s not just the products, like the fruits or the firewood.”
The hilly land outside of Bethlehem has been grazed and farmed for millennia. The steep, rocky slopes mean that rain runs fast over the hills, leading to high rates soil erosion, which then makes it more difficult for larger plants to take root. This means it is a perfect place to experiment with the cocoons. “We are really excited to be doing this here,” Lovenstein said. Reintroducing trees is a multifaceted way of revitalizing the land and soil. The “tree is like a kickstarter.”
The trees roots help the soil retain water, they keep the soil in place and combat erosion. It also “changes the micro climate,” Lovenstein said. “The tree is cleaning the air, providing oxygen, and providing habits for animals,” as well as making the soil healthier. “People take that for granted.”
Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh is the Founder of the Palestine Museum of Natural History. “We are trying to recreate the habitat as it was,” he said. “Palestine used to be much greener than it is now.” The hills around Bethlehem used to be forested, but “200 to 300 years ago the Ottomans cut down a lot of forests.”
Dr. Qumsiyeh pointed out they “are planting native trees that are adapted to the climate and soil.” This is in contrast to the Israeli policy of replanted large swaths of land with the European pine tree. The pine tree is adapted to much different soil, and in such an arid climate, the tree is very susceptible to wildfires. Similar to California’s pine forests, this is a consistent threat, particularly in the summer months.
Harrie Lovenstein and Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh fishing planting a cocoon together.
The Negev desert is slowly expanding and Dr. Qumsiyeh chose to plant at the “margins of the expanding desert” for a very important reason. Climate change threatens to take this deforested, bare and eroded landscape and turn it into a full blown desert. This small project therefore, is part of a greater need to rebuild the Palestinian landscape and hold the desert back. Replanting, Dr. Qumsiyeh thinks, can “hopefully be a mitigation to climate change and habitat destructions.”
“The cocoons are a very old technology,” Lovenstein said, but in the past there were clay pots. Now the cocoon is lightweight and made out of a waxed paper that decomposes. The cocoon is a protective bowl that slowly wicks water to the tree sapling as it begins to plant its roots. Trees, like most organisms, are most vulnerable when young. So many things need to be just right for a tree to grow that each tree we see, Lovenstein says, “is a lucky bastard.” The bowls protect and water the trees when the need it the most, in hopes they have to “be less lucky.”
The cocoons, however, do take quite a bit more time and labor to plant. Dr. Qumsiyeh therefore weighs the benefits with the upfront costs of the cocoons and labor. He said, “it needs to be studied economically” before he can see them being used on a large scale. The day, for him, was a success. “I’m tired, but it was good. A great workout.”

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