The news from Palestine is almost always about the Israeli occupation and its terrible impact on all aspects of Palestinian families daily lives. However, the following interview addresses a different set of issues in the West Bank, the region’s richness in biodiversity, and the impact of Israel’s occupation and colonialism has had on the area’s environment.
Mazin Qumsiyeh is a Palestinian-American professor who has taught genetics at a number of U.S. universities, including Yale, before moving back to Palestine in 2008. He’s currently a professor at Bethlehem University, the first university founded in the occupied Palestinian territories and founder of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability. He and his wife invested in the Institute’s creation and professor Qumsiyeh serves as its volunteer director.
The professor was recently on a summer speaking tour in the U.S. to talk about his work and the latest political developments in Israel/Palestine. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with him about what makes the West Bank such a unique biodiverse ecosystem and the serious challenges the region now faces.
MAZIN QUMSIYEH: Palestine sits at the intersection of continents. So, even humans migrated out of Africa to the rest of the world through Palestine and this is why all humans except those remain in Africa, have passed through Palestine. Our ancestors, collective ancestors of Europeans, Chinese, native Americans are all Palestinian essentially in origin. But Palestine is also rich in biodiversity for another reason, which is that it is geographically and geologically interesting as the lowest point on earth. For example, near the Dead Sea, Jericho all have high mountains and have diverse climates within a very small area, so you get richness in biodiversity. This is why also Palestine is part of the first fertile Crescent where humans first developed agriculture around 12,000 years ago. Domesticating both wild plants and wild animals in our area.
MELINDA TUHUS: How have these different factors impacted the biodiversity, like climate change and also I guess the occupation by Israel of the lands there and the military occupation and also the settler occupation?
MAZIN QUMSIYEH: Of course, threats that impact the environment globally, including climate change, pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, habitat destruction, invasive species. These are global threats that affect every country, including Palestine.
In our situation, of course, we can add the sixth threat, which is settler colonialism. And settler colonialism does impact the environment. These six major threats are interdependent. So there’s climate justice issues, there’s over-exploitation of natural resources that’s uneven and so forth.
But let’s give a few examples of how these things impact our environment. If I take for example, the Palestinian villages and towns that were depopulated in 1948 when Israel uprooted over 500 Palestinian communities, resulting in the largest post-world War II ethnic cleansing, now 8 million Palestinians are refugees.
But anyway, when they did this in 1948 and ’49, they also uprooted the trees around these villages, whether domestic trees like olives, figs, and almonds and also wild trees like oaks, hawthorn and carobs. And in place of all these trees they uprooted, they made a monoculture of pine trees, European pine trees and this was devastating to the Palestinian environment. This is one example.
Another example is diversion of the water from the Jordan River to the west that dried up the Jordan River basin. So it’s no longer a river. Actually, the Jordan River used to flow at 1,350 million cubic meters per year. Now it flows at about 20 million cubic meters per year, which is basically a small stream, not a river.
The third example is the draining of the wetlands and the lake of Hula in the north, which resulted in the loss of 219 species of animals. In addition, of course, to the removal of the Palestinian native indigenous communities around Lake Hula, around the wetlands. This is what they call draining the swamps, so to speak. I hate the word “swamps.” It’s wetlands. It’s important for ecosystems.
One could cite many, many other examples, but these are three examples for shortness of time.
MELINDA TUHUS: So do a lot of students work with you, and if so, is it just totally as a volunteer or can they do it as part of their coursework? And do you get help with the institute that way?
MAZIN QUMSIYEH: Yeah, so our institute serves the community children, students at universities, not just Bethlehem University, but other universities who come and work with us. They do research projects with us. They do internships with us. They can also volunteer with us and it’s a lot of fun.
We also welcome international volunteers by the way. We offer room and board for international volunteers and international students, interns who come and work on environmental issues or agricultural issues — issues like food sovereignty, seed banking, other things that help the local people, women cooperatives, children from kindergarten to high school. So we have a lot of activities that need a lot of volunteers.
For more information, visit the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability on FaceBook at Facebook.com/PIBS.PMNH.
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