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In what is seen as a major victory for environmentalists, the Southern Regional Planning Council decided on March 20 to reject a proposal to mine the western Hazeva region of the Negev desert.
Representatives of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which headed a public campaign against the proposed phosphate mine, said that a greater achievement is the apparent change of heart within the planning council.
"This decision set a precedent for the Negev in stating that protecting the landscape, nature and history takes precedence over legitimate commercial interests," said Raanan Boral, director of SPNI's Environmental Protection Division.
On July 17 last year, UNESCO board members agreed to preserve the ancient Spice Route and the adjacent area within the western Hazeva region as a World Heritage Site. At that time, a phosphate mining proposal for the same site had been tentatively approved. This region, known as Genesis Land, is part of the Spice Route and noted for its unique canyons, springs and vast untouched stretches of land.
SPNI argued that the Negev's massive phosphate reserves negate the need for this particular mine, as hundreds of thousands of acres of the Negev's low valleys are already being mined. Resources found in the Negev include copper, iron, manganese, phosphates and uranium.
In December 2004, SPNI organized a massive public demonstration during which hundreds of children created an SOS message at the foot of Mount Zin. Some 1,500 teenagers from SPNI orienteering courses, a jeep trip association and the Hazeva field school, local residents and hundreds of civilians from all over Israel participated in the event.
That day, the multinational phosphate group Rotem Amfert closed its Negev production plant and took its workers to their own counter-demonstration, adjacent to the environmentalists.
Several days later, the Knesset's environmental lobby adopted the SPNI's position opposing the proposed mine and called for a governmental and public dialogue about the future of the Negev. SPNI then petitioned the judicial system to oppose the planning council's attempt to approve the mine.
The council's final decision - which refers to the Negev as "crater land" instead of "mining land" - acknowledges the legitimacy of mining natural resources while declaring that irrevocable damage may be inflicted only in the rarest exceptions. Nature, the landscape and tourism, which will allow for long-term economic development, will be favored over mining limited resources that leaves a wounded landscape.
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