Palestinian farmers reap the rewards of land reclamation in Hebron


Mahmoud driving his tractor by his terraced fields of fruit trees in Beit Ummar, West Bank

A small tractor is ploughing along a terraced field on a steep hillside north of Hebron. The neat lines of the retaining walls rise from the valley floor like steps and contrast to the rock and scrub on adjacent hillsides.

 

This plot of 208 dunums is about to yield its second crop of fruits and nuts after seven years of work to transform rock and scrub into fruit bearing orchards.

 

Mahmoud Alqam, the tractor driver said that he had worked on the land for five years before the trees were mature enough to produce a viable crop. 

 

“Before there was a road this was completely impossible. Even before the land was reclaimed it was only good for grazing. The first five years were hard but now we can make a living. Last year we had our first harvest and this year should be better, “he said.

 

Mahmoud is one of the farmers who work this plot of land, which was reclaimed by UNDP and its local partners.

 

The first step was the building of a two-kilometre road, which allowed access to the valleys that had previously been used for grazing goats and sheep.

 

Next, the land was cleared of rocks and vegetation and then the slope was “terraced” divided into horizontal strips held up by retaining walls. The terracing prevents soil erosion and prevents water from seeping to the bottom of the valley. In addition, twelve cisterns were built to harvest rainwater to irrigate the crops at the height of summer.

 

The Hebron area receives around 650 millimetres of rain per year so crops can grow from ground water alone for almost all of the year.

 

26 families, consisting of 180 people, own the plot. Each family nominated one member to manage the family plot for 11 years after which they will decide who will take on the work.

 

The work was funded by a grant of USD150,000 from by the government of Japan and USD50,000 from the landowners. On average, reclamation costs USD900 per dunUm, way beyond the means of the residents of Beit Ummar.

 

Mohamed Alqam, a cousin of Mahmoud, like thousands of his fellow villagers who have lost their principle jobs due to revoking their working permits in Israel, was forced to return to agriculture to make a living. It is very difficult to make a living from growing vegetables because markets are full of local and Israeli produce.

 

Hebron is at an altitude of 900 metres and has colder winters than low-lying areas. As a result, the crops arrive late at the market and fetch low prices.

 

Agriculture in the occupied Palestinian territory acts as a “shock absorber”. When travel is restricted and work permits are denied, around 60 percent of Palestinians live in rural villages where there is potential access to farming to survive.

 

UNDP’s work in agriculture is centred on land reclamation and improving land and product management. An important component is also controlling brucellosis, a disease that effects goats and sheep and can infect humans.