Farming a desert - and bulldozing a habitat

Nature activists concerned Negev expansion is hurting wildlife.

IDF bulldozer, road 298 (photo credit: AP)
IDF bulldozer, road 298
(photo credit: AP)
David Ben-Gurion's old dream of "making the desert bloom" lies at the very hub of Zionism and the collective spirit that gave birth to the State of Israel. Even today, as Tel Aviv scratches the clouds and Jerusalem adorns itself with a transit system worthy of the 21st century, the Negev remains, in the mind of most Israelis, a virgin frontier yet untainted by the heavy hand of industrialization. But an official report released Tuesday by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) tells a vastly different story. The report details the extent of recent agricultural development throughout the Negev and the underestimated impact of this development on the local ecology. Over 25,000 acres of land have been allotted to various southern farming communities by the Agriculture Ministry since 2004 alone, according to the report. Much of this land has come at the expense of treasured natural landscapes, home to dozens of species of wildlife unique to Israel and, in some cases, on the brink of extinction. A visit to the region known as "Holot Agur" in the Western Negev reveals a biosphere in retreat: little by little, the dunes, which support a declining population of over 100 Negev Gazelles (of the 500 or so left in Israel), are shrinking, all to make way for nearly 10,000 acres of fields and what will soon be the largest agricultural water reservoir in the country. "We do not oppose the allotment of land to the agricultural sector in principle," explained Itamar Ben-David of SPNI. "Agricultural development is inevitable and necessary. But local habitats need to be taken into account, and as of now, they aren't." Tuesday's report highlights the current methodology for the allotment of land marked for development. As it turns out, the Minister of Agriculture holds the final authority in the matter, and is aided by the "Programs Committee," which reviews specific requests from farming communities around the country and determines the total areas to be allotted. The main concern expressed by the report, however, is the fact that the committee includes only representation sent by the Moshavim and Kibbutzim themselves and includes no impartial voices who would keep industrial interests in check and bring the issue of nature preservation to the table. What's more, this committee can claim very little transparency to the public; it took SPNI over six months to receive a copy of its protocols. A particularly troubling trend stressed in the report is the rising size of lots granted to farmers by the ministry. Whereas the standard lot was roughly five to ten acres in the year 2000, since 2004 the "Programs Committee" has been giving out lots 20 acres a piece. "Under current Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon and his predecessor, we've been seeing an effort to accelerate the process of land allotment," the SPNI's Amir Balaban remarked. Of the 25,000 acres allotted since 2004, according to the report, over 90% were granted to no more than four southern farming communities: Tamar, Arava Tichona, Eshkol, and Hevel Eilot. With the assumption that more communities will follow the lead of these four and demand land as well, the Society expects those 25,000 acres to double in the next few years. People like the society's Ben-David and Balaban are fighting to preserve these indispensable national assets, and hope to see the public follow suit. "If we don't do something soon, we ourselves will be responsible for the destruction of these dunes," Balaban warned as in the distance a legion of tractors was seen carrying quarried sand off to the future site of a nearby potato field.