Helping the desert bloom

For Tu Bishvat, the Adopt-an-Acacia program is planting hundreds of trees in the Arava

Arava digging (photo credit: Adi Rappaport Collection)
Arava digging
(photo credit: Adi Rappaport Collection)
The clusters of moshavim and kibbutzim that line Highway 90, from the Dead Sea to Eilat, are easy to miss; in this region of the central Arava the landscape stretches undisturbed to the horizon, save for maybe a tree or two.
That tree, the acacia, is at the center of a project aiming to minimize the damage of human development on the area and rehabilitate the ecology.
In honor of Tu Bishvat, the Adoptan- Acacia project is pushing to plant between 400 and 450 trees and to continue efforts to preserve and replant this star of the desert.
“I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive,” reads Isaiah 41:19.
“The acacia tree is actually the symbol of the area because it is the center of the ecological system,” Adi Rappaport, manager of the Adopt-An- Acacia project in the central Arava, told Metro. It is a tall, dry, shrub-like plant that has its branches extending from a slender trunk, creating an umbrella to offer a shade in a vast and unforgiving environment. The small shade the acacia provides is the only shelter for the mammals, birds and insects of the desert.
“The Adopt-an-Acacia project started from people who live in the Arava, most of whom work in agriculture, feeling in a way that every place human beings live, damage is done to the environment,” Rappaport said.
The acacia is the only tree in the area, and as more agriculture fields developed, it was the trees that suffered, she said, either drying out from a diverted water supply or being uprooted to make space for fields, roads and settlements.
“We want to minimize the damage and make the agriculture as green as possible.”
The project is partnered with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s Australia and Canadian branch, which raises money abroad and then invests in collecting acacia seeds, starting to grow small trees in greenhouses, and then planting them in the Arava. In five years the project has helped plant 5,000 trees.
The relationship between the central Arava and KKL-JNF Australia came out of Partnership 2000 – a collaboration on educational programming among different communities; and an emphasis on environmental consciousness and improving the landscape of Israel.
“A few years ago we were approached by the local municipality and we were asked to help, to revive the acacia trees that were lost because of the settlements [as trees were cut down and water diverted],” said Ze’ev Kedem, director of development for KKL-JNF. “With the support with our friends in Australia, [KKL-JNF] helped replant new acacia trees in the Arava and to educate the young generation to love and maintain those trees.”
The youth, Kedem continued, were responsible for collecting seeds of the acacia trees, which were then grown in nurseries managed by KKL-JNF for almost a year. They were then brought back to the Arava and replanted.
The “adoption” of a tree is a donation that funds its growth and replanting. The project works with schools to adopt trees and educate pupils about the ecology of the surrounding area. It also looks to the support of local farmers, adopting them privately and planting the tree at the end of their fields or in their yards. “Every community in the Arava at least knows about [the project]… the awareness of the damage that is done is much higher now.”
A concerted effort began to plant trees around farmers’ fields and homes and in open areas of the desert.
An educational component was introduced to inform the population and the younger generation of the importance of the tree on the environment, as well as minimizing the damage caused by a human presence.
“Because I am a farmer, I notice the damage we inflict and I want to fix it,” she says.
I first met Rappaport in the summer of 2012, where I worked as a volunteer on her organic farm. The selling points of the moshav were that it boasts “a pool and a pub,” not something to be taken for granted at the height of the August heat. But what ended up being more impressive was how easy it was to fall in love with the desert.
It’s a peaceful environment with rewarding work. Dinner is shakshuka with tomatoes from the fields and dessert is fresh dates that have just fallen from the trees. Children are given space to be free spirits, running around independently and learning about the land by being involved with it.
“Being a farmer, being connected to the land, having the open space around us, I cannot imagine living in the city,” Rappaport says.
She and her husband started their organic farm in 2000. Fourteen years and five children later, their business produces all-organic tomatoes, mangoes, dates, goat cheese and milk.
The Arava is an unforgiving locale.
For four months, the temperature in this southeast desert stays at a blistering 42º. In the brutally hot and dry environment, the agriculture focuses on growing summer vegetables in the winter months.
Sixty percent of the yield is exported; its biggest sellers are vegetables and cut flowers.
Settlement in the Arava began in the late 1950s, as it was important for Israel to settle its borders. The area was a prime example of the success prime minister David Ben-Gurion prophesied: that the key to Israel’s durability will be in its cultivation of the desert.
In 1966, a group of Nahal boys and girls set up an encampment of army tents in Hatzeva, a small moshav within the Central Arava Regional Council just off Road 90, four or five kilometers from the border with Jordan. An article published in The Jerusalem Post in April 1968 remarked that the settlers moving to the periphery “maintained a security chain and peopled the map,” but nonetheless “spoke more of tomatoes and irrigation.”
Politically, this area does not usually find itself at the center of debate. A peace treaty with Jordan was signed in 1994, which involved compromises on relations, land and water disputes, and cooperation in tourism and trade.
Near Hatzeva is the Yair R&D station, a nonprofit science center set up by the government in 1991 after an upsurge in “protected agriculture” in the Arava during the 1980s. Dr.
Gidon Winters is head of the Central Arava Branch, and works with a team of 20 researchers specifically studying the acacia tree. “Acacia trees are the only type of tree you can find in the Arava,” he tells Metro, adding that their decline in the region would be dramatic for the environment.
“All the animals are dependent on the acacia, whether directly or indirectly.”
On January 15 and 16, the Adoptan- Acacia project and the Yair research station will be among 200 exhibits at Arava Open Agriculture Day, an annual event held around Tu Bishvat. The international agriculture exhibition and conference, now in its 23rd year, is a joint project between the regional councils, R&D stations, KKL-JNF and Agriculture Ministry.
The free event was developed to showcase breakthroughs and successes in cultivation technology.
Around 350,000 visitors attended last year.
Speaking at the conference in 2011, President Shimon Peres said that “the Arava is a natural laboratory of the greatest importance, and the knowledge acquired here should be shared with our neighbors.” Of the exhibition, he remarked that it is “proof of how people can learn how to make the most of very little.”
Those that live and work in the Arava have contributed greatly to the research on how to successfully cultivate such a harsh environment, which includes high solar irradiation during most of the year and low relative humidity. They have developed technology and education to expand production beyond the traditional growing seasons. The development of greenhouses allowed for experimentation with climate control, irrigation and fertilization.
“Agriculture gives us life, which is impossible in the Arava,” Rappaport says.
Yet what must be remembered is to take care of the land, which is giving so much.
“I hope to find a balance between the development and the fact that they [the government] want to attract more people to come to the Arava,” Rappaport says. “Protecting nature that is all around us, such as the trees and the animals. It is a very special habitat.”