Tevel b'Tzedek brings sustainable agriculture to Nepal... and back again

Program alumni hope to create center for Jews and Arabs near Nahariya.

nepali women 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
nepali women 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There's a new pioneering spirit among some Israeli youth, and this time the blue and white is tinged with green and infused with an international flair. Jewish service organization Tevel b'Tzedek (The Earth - In Justice), which has been sending volunteers to Nepal to work with local communities, recently began teaching sustainable agriculture to 1,000 women. After a stint overseas, alumni of the program have begun planning initiatives here as well. "In Nepal, the men have been forced to go to the cities or even abroad to find work, and the women weren't able to farm enough to feed themselves. We've begun training 1,000 women to grow serious organic kitchen gardens using natural fertilizer instead of pesticides," Tevel b'Tzedek's director Rabbi Micha Odenheimer told The Jerusalem Post this week. With 50 people on the ground now after two years in country, Tevel b'Tzedek brings in fruit trees, two Japanese persimmon and two citrus per garden, and teaches the women how to make a natural pesticide out of their animals' urine and local herbs, as well as composting techniques. Tevel b'Tzedek's volunteers are taught by Bishnu Bogati, a young Nepalese agriculture expert from a farming family who received a bachelor degree's from Nepal's finest agricultural college and an master's from the Hebrew University's Faculty of Agriculture in Rehovot. Guest lecturers from the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv are also flown in. "Mixing urine from buffaloes or cows with local bitter grasses and roots in a 'urine pit' produces a biological nonchemical pesticide. We're trying to help get them off chemical pesticides because it's both harmful and expensive," Odenheimer said. They've also recently started a one-month program where they teach composting, as opposed to the four-month program in Nepal for US and Israeli volunteers, Odenheimer said. He founded the organization more than two years ago in an attempt to provide a meaningful Jewish social justice and environmental experience to post-army Israelis and college-age Americans. After eight months on the ground in the Suspa region working with a local NGO, ETC-Nepal, they've already begun to see results, according to Odenheimer. In addition to the gardens, Tevel b'Tzedek volunteers have begun teaching agriculture in the schools. With the proper education, local residents can remain on their family farms and make them successful rather than gravitate toward urban slums in search of work. The organization also pushed the Foreign Ministry's MASHAV-The Center for International Cooperation into sending two Israeli water experts to Nepal for a short visit to meet with local organizations. The two experts, Avraham "Joon" Zilberman and Dov Tzafrir, focused on rainwater collection and drip irrigation. "It's true that there is a lot of rain in Nepal, but it all falls during the four-month monsoon season. If water can be collected, then they could plant another crop," Odenheimer said. Nineteen local and international organizations attended the four-day workshop including representatives of the UN's World Food Program and GTZ (German Technical Cooperation), the German equivalent of the United States Agency for International Development. The workshop was set up with the aid of the Israeli Ambassador Dan Stav. "It was a big deal," Odenheimer said. "The Israeli ambassador spoke at the opening, as did the Maoists who are currently in control [of Nepal]." The workshop was held in a rural area rather than in Kathmandu to bring expertise right to those who work with those who need it. Tzafrir and Zilberman were given a tour of the area beforehand by Tevel b'Tzedek members to familiarize them with the region's water issues. Leora Resnick served as a counselor on the latest trip and was a part of the first group to travel to Nepal two years ago. "By the end, we got to know the community and they got to know us. As an outsider, there is always the question of how exactly to contribute, but overall it was a very successful experience," she told the Post. Resnick believes the techniques the volunteers were teaching were successful, because "these weren't new techniques. These were local techniques, like how to build a urine pit, which were perhaps forgotten over time." While Tevel b'Tzedek's focus is outward - for now Nepal and perhaps adding Ethiopia in the future - it has also been creating environmental programs for their alumni who have returned to Israel. "Over Pessah we had a two day workshop in grey water recycling, to which 35 alumni came," Odenheimer mentioned. And in true pioneering spirit, the organization has entered into an agreement with the organic settlement of Klil, near Nahariya, to develop seven dunams (.7 hectare) of land. "We're not sure yet exactly what we want to do with the land, but we'd like to build a center for sustainable agriculture," he said. The idea would be to include the neighboring Arab villages as they develop models of environmental good practices. Two alumni are already living on the land, one of whom is Resnick. In between her trips to Nepal, she spent a year studying at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura with Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians and Americans. "We started to develop the idea for Klil in Nepal because one of our volunteers comes from Klil. There's a lot of knowledge among the residents of Klil that we'd like to tap into," she said. "It's definitely a continuation of our experiences in Nepal. It's hard in Nepal, where you are an outsider. [At some point] you feel like you want to do things in your own natural place focusing on our own issues. So we have come back and we would like to work on the Jewish-Arab issue and environmental models," she said.