The winners of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Know Israel contest held in 13 Latin American countries were in high spirits as they spent a full day touring KKL-JNF environmental projects in southern Israel, as part of their four-day whirlwind visit to Israel to learn about the country's achievements in the fields of environmental preservation and technology.
In its fourth year, the Know Israel project holds a nation-wide contest in the participating countries to test the applicants’ knowledge about Israel. The top contestant from each country is flown to Israel to experience for themselves the reality of Israel. This year, the theme of the contest was Green Israel, and KKL-JNF was a partner in the project.
The participants, who ranged in age from 19 to 30, came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile. All were students and young professionals, some working in the fields of environmental conservation, agriculture and forestry. The participants come from a variety of religious backgrounds.
“I am very excited to see all this,” said an enthusiastic 19-year-old Communications student Yesica Galdamez, from San Salvador, El Salvador. “Israel is a union of religions and regions. El Salvador and Israel are about the same size and the results are so different, even though we have so much more water, Israel could be an example for us of the proper use of natural resources. From nothing they can grow good things.”
Over the course of their tour, the group visited Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth, as well as the Dead Sea, the Masada fortress and Yad Vashem. They also received briefings on Israeli history and current events from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, visited the Weizmann Institute of Science, and had some time to enjoy the social scene of Tel Aviv.
Liri Eitan, from the JNF-KKL South American desk, accompanied the group on Dec. 6, their second day in Israel, to highlight some of the environmental projects that KKL-JNF is involved with in the country's south.
The first stop was at the Nir-Am Water Reservoir, one of the 220 water reservoirs which KKL-JNF has built, which together have a capacity of 150 million cubic meters of water and provide an average of 270 million cubic meters of water per year for agriculture. Many of these reservoirs are multifunctional and are used for irrigation, river rehabilitation, replenishment of water aquifers and for recreation, Eitan told the group.
She noted that the KKL-JNF reservoirs provide 66 percent of all the recycled water used for agriculture and almost 30 percent of all water provided for agriculture.
“Our goal for 2020 is to provide 600 million cubic meters of recycled water for agriculture,” she said. “Water is an important issue in Israel and this water is crucial for the water economy in Israel. Without this water the National Water Authority will continue to reduce the amount of water provided to farmers in the country, which would be a sad end to the amazing successes of Israeli agriculture.”
Coming from countries with abundant water, the group wondered at Israel’s ability to take advantage of the meager resources it has to become a leader in agriculture.
“We have to remember that all this would be desert if Israel and the KKL-JNF didn’t do what they do. They do here what they don’t do in other countries with much more water resources,” noted Cinthya Catalde, a 25-year-old attorney from Asuncion, Paraguay who said she has always been interested in Israel, especially after learning in her history class the role Paraguay played in the United Nations helping in the creation of the State of Israel.
At the Research and Development Station in the Besor Strip, the group saw the latest research and technology used for improving the growing process for crops such as tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and flowers. They visited the various greenhouses where the plants were grown and saw the different growing methods for each plant.
The R & D station began its first pilot project in 1970, and today it receives two-thirds of its budget from KKL-JNF.
“We learn to be more efficient with our use of water supply and in the conservation of water, and how to reduce the usage of pesticides,” said Haim Linar, a research assistant originally from Peru who met the group at the station. “We would not be able to do any of the work we do without their help.”
He said the station grows 48 different varieties of flowers on 80 protected hectares of agriculture land, 75 percent of them in greenhouses, most of which are exported to Europe.
“In Israel we have many different types of climates and it gives us the opportunity to grow many different kinds of plants including tropical plants such as mango, prickly pear and passion fruit. We try to provide answers to growers about the best specific dates on which to plant plants, about fertilization, and how to lower growing costs,” explained Linar.
One new project they are working on, he said, was the affect on crops of the use of different colored netting which cover the greenhouses on insect control and growing patterns. Using colored netting helps keep the plant virus free, he noted, which one of their major concerns is.
“We have to avoid passing viruses from plant to plant,” he said
“I was very impressed with the high quality of the environmental management here,” said Manuel Fernando Restrepo, 24, a forestry engineer from Medellin, Colombia. “It is a difficult zone for agriculture, with a shortage of water and high level of salinity. It is very difficult to manage the soil and the plants for the plants not to be intoxicated by the high salinity of the water. But Israel has learned how to deal with those issues.”
Ecuadorian agricultural engineer, Claudio Sanchez, age 27 from Riobamba, said that he was highly impressed with how Israel takes advantage of whatever little resources it has at its disposal through its technology—including the low-tech method of using a mulch made of dried brush to help keep in the moisture in at the roots of living plants.
“In my country, we just burn dried plant matter as useless but here they use it as a resource. I will take this idea home with me,” said Sanchez. “It is a wonder how they have made the desert green. In Latin America we have done the opposite, what was green we have made into deserts. We have much to learn from Israel, especially in regard to the respect they have for nature and the environment.”
The group also saw the development of the Haluzit settlement in the northern Negev, where KKL-JNF is helping the Gush Katif evacuees resettled there by preparing the infrastructure and providing the machinery needed to build greenhouse and prepare fields for crops such as carrots, lettuce, potatoes and artichokes.
The sounds of young kindergarten children playing rang out, as the group toured the settlement, its paved roads lined with the newly finished homes constructed over the past five years.
"The backbone of the settlement is its agriculture," said resident Israel Steinmetz, who spoke to the group.
“If it wasn’t for KKL-JNF's assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to do all this. It would have been too expensive to do on our own. They have helped create a new flourishing town and have also helped the farmers with their livelihood,” he said.
Digging down into the sandy earth as they helped harvest some of the settlement’s carrot crop, the group was able to experience the exhilarating sensation of uprooting vegetables from what used to be desert. They smiled as they snapped pictures of each other holding the bright orange carrots in their
hands, wiping off the sandy soil and taking bites into the crisp freshness of the vegetable.
“With so much hunger in the world here they are showing that it is possible to grow food even in the difficult conditions of the desert,” marveled Angel Dalmazzo, a 24-year-old modern literature student from Cordoba, Argentina.
At the end of their visit, the group had the opportunity to plant saplings in the KKL-JNF Yatir Forest, the largest man-made forest in the Middle East. They were greeted at the forest by forester Abed Abu el Kean, who told them that there were 40,000 dunams (approximately 1,000 acres) of trees in the desert forest, which was begun in the 1960’s. The forest area encompasses 40,000 dunams of settlements, ten park areas, and also fruit tree orchards, such as nectarine and cherry, as well as vineyards which produce award winning wines. Because of the danger of forest fires under such dry conditions, there is a watch tower in each recreational area.
“There is only 250 millimeter of rainfall here per year,” he said. “Without the trees here, the desert would continue to expand.”
As the sun began to set over the distant sand dunes, each group member planted a pine sapling to help the forest continue to grow.
“Planting a tree in Brazil is an ordinary thing,” said 24-year-old International Negotiations student Rodrigo Mota from Ilheus, Bahia, Brazil. “But planting a tree here reaches into the future. It as if Brazil is here through me, helping Israel build its future through a tree that will bear fruit the coming generations.”
“Planting a tree in Israel is very important,” agreed Sanchez from Ecuador. “To plant a tree in the desert is to go from the impossible to the possible. It is to give life where supposedly there is none.”
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