KKL-JNF hosted the FCD - Forests to Combat Desertification Conference, where international participants were given the opportunity to visit firsthand sites in the northern Negev, particularly Yatir Forest, the focus of several lectures presented at the Conference.
Conference participants started at KKL-JNF's Gilat Nursery, where Pablo Cherkasky, director of the Gilat nursery, explained how flora was prepared for planting in this semi-arid region, where annual precipitation averages only 200-250 mms. "We experiment with plants from all over the world and I'm sure we have some trees or shrubs that originated in your home countries. Our work begins with seed germination and continues until the plants are successfully acclimated. We specialize in plants with low water requirements so our work is of great significance for semi-arid areas affected by desertification."
We traveled on to Yatir Forest, Israel's southernmost forest and the largest one planted by man. At the Yatir Research Station, a joint project of KKL-JNF, the Weizmann Institute, Hebrew University, the Vulkani Institute, and the Technion, we entered the "Flux Tower," containing instruments to measure rainfall, air temperature, radiation, carbon dioxide uptakes and outputs, soil content, water content and more. Na'ama and Kadmiel, research students at the site, described the accomplishments, "Yatir Forest flux tower is one of a network of about 200 such towers worldwide, most of them in Europe and North America, whilst ours is one of a handful in semi-arid regions, making our research on climate warming very significant. The site was chosen with KKL-JNF, which helps us with whatever we may need - a mutual arrangement because we provide KKL-JNF with data for managing the forest. There is no doubt that the forest controls runoff, sediment deposits and erosion. On the other hand, it causes a decrease in natural vegetation that may be better suited to this region and climate. It is a complicated matter, because if the forest wasn't here, the land would be used for urban development or degraded by farming and uncontrolled grazing."
We moved on to what was a rather surprising sight in this desert forest - Yatir water reservoir, built with the help of KKL-JNF Germany. It is KKL-JNF policy to open the forests to the public and to make nature part of their life-style.
Dr. Antoine Kalingarie of the World Agro-forestry Centre is an Australian expert on domestication and biodiversity who has been working in Mali in the Sahel region of West Africa. "The techniques developed here are very interesting for me, although the land and the vegetation are quite different. I am wondering in particular, how we can use terracing and your water retention methods in the regions where I work. The opportunity to exchange ideas and discover new methods are what I appreciate about this conference."
No visit to the Israeli outdoors is complete without an archaeological site, so it was no surprise when our bus stopped by the remains of an ancient synagogue, apparently from Byzantine times. Tali of the Israel Antiquities Authority told us that there was evidence for extensive Jewish settlement here during Roman and Byzantine eras, in addition to remains from the Israelite monarchy and indeed, two of King David's warriors came from Yatir (II Samuel, 23:38). We also climbed down into an ancient, perfectly preserved water cistern, which gave us an idea of how water was harvested in this region in olden days.
Although Yatir Forest is comprised mainly of Aleppo pines, in recent years, KKL-JNF has been planting a variety of trees, taking advantage of the minimal rainfall by building Limans and contour planting. This technology is very important for semi-arid lands, which is one of the reasons that KKL-JNF is planning to build a center for the study of afforestation as a means of combating desertification, here at Yatir Forest.
The problem of overgrazing was discussed extensively at the Conference and the herds of sheep grazing in the forest demonstrated KKL-JNF's efforts to find a sustainable solution to this issue. A visit to a Bedouin encampment in the forest, where a shepherd and his family received us with Middle Eastern hospitality - and delicious coffee! - illustrated the relations between and KKL-JNF and the local population, which certainly may be cited as an example of true coexistence. The Bedouins pay KKL-JNF a token sum for the right to graze in those areas of the forest that KKL-JNF permits, at the times of the year when grazing is the means to remove brush that is a fire hazard.
Our last stop was at Meitar Forest, a community forest not far from Yatir. Meitar is one of three large towns not far from Beersheba, the capital of the Negev. The idea behind urban forestry is that this forest creates a green belt around Meitar, and the community is involved in all the planning stages of the forest, just as we at KKL-JNF are involved in city planning. There is an intensive green corridor between the town park and the forest, and in fact, 50% of the residents visit the forest at least once a year. We also take the town's future developmental needs into consideration - for instance, we are planting trees in the valleys around the forest, since some of the hilltops are slated for building. This is an example of 'sustainable development'.
Working closely with KKL-JNF on urban forestry is Ms. Nerys Jones, Strategic Greenspace Consultant from Wolverhampton, UK. "Not everyone has a car, so part of the idea of community forests is that there should be forests that people can walk to. Of course your situation is different than that of the UK, where we have a lot more humidity. One of the things that I find most interesting and unique about KKL-JNF is that it is a non-governmental organization. In most countries of the world, KKL-JNF's functions are the responsibility of various government ministries. I am somewhat envious of you, because an NGO can make things happen in a way that governments often cannot - not to mention that it is much more personal."
Dr. Durgadas Mukhopadhya, Professor of Anthropology and Forestry at New Delhi University. "I find the unique methods KKL-JNF has developed here extremely interesting I am thinking how they may be applied in my region in India, where desertification is first and foremost a human problem."
Most of the participants agreed that the gap between words and reality had narrowed considerably after having spent the day with KKL-JNF in the northern Negev.