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Land & Nature

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Natural Heritage in Palestine
submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Dr. Ramzi Sansur

In 1972, UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the Cultural and Natural Heritage. Natural heritage refers to the living things and natural systems that share our neighbourhoods. Attention has focused on the concept of natural heritage because it has become increasingly apparent that many elements of that heritage are being degraded or lost. In addition, alternative views regarding the real value of biological resources have emerged. Data from a multitude of sources indicate that assigning true value, rather than simply short-term economic value, to natural systems and their components will provide long-term, sustainable benefits to humans. Failure to plan development wisely and to conserve an adequate number of significant natural areas in a county or a region will, as development proceeds, result in a less attractive place to live in or visit.

Natural heritage is closely tied to the concept of biological diversity, or as it is commonly known, biodiversity. Biodiversity is simply the variety of all kinds of living organisms. The diversity of life on earth is extremely complex. In an attempt to simplify this complexity, ecologists distinguish various types of biodiversity, for example, genetic, species, population, natural community, ecosystem, and landscape.

A natural community type is a distinct and reoccurring assemblage of populations of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi naturally associated with each other and their physical environment. Conserving exemplary natural communities is important because it can result in preservation of the surrounding community, its component species, and the species interactions and physical conditions that maintain the community, in addition to protecting rare species populations. Ecosystem integrity is an essential element in environmental preservation of natural heritage areas.

Palestine is known for its unique natural heritage. Its location in proximity to three continents, Africa, Asia, and Europe, and its location on the Mediterranean Sea provide it with a rich biodiversity and outstanding geological and topographical formations despite its small area. The Palestinian environment is composed of various ecological zones such as the coastal area, the eastern and western slopes, the desert in the south, and the Dead Sea region. Each zone has its unique species, landscape, and ecological communities, which come together to provide a heritage that is rich in natural beauty and biodiversity. Due to the unique location of Palestine-as the central point of three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa-this land has become, over millions of years, the route for many migratory birds heading towards Europe and Asia from Africa during the spring season, and back to Africa during the fall. This reality requires that special local and regional legal provisions be developed in order to protect these important and ever-declining bird species during their stopovers in Palestine to rest and feed. In addition, other legal provisions must be developed to protect the natural floral heritage, especially flowering plants, as Palestine is one of the richest countries in such flora. The richness in natural heritage has greatly influenced Palestinian cultural heritage in many ways, ranging from rich Palestinian embroidery to exotic cuisine to architecture to music, and the list goes on.

The richness in biological diversity is translated into the number of species that inhabit the land. Various sources estimate that the number of flora species is between 2,780 and 2,953. These species belong to 126 families. This is considered to be outstanding for an area the size of Palestine. Land-based fauna include 730 species that can be divided into mammals (116), birds (511), reptiles (96), and amphibians (7). This is in addition to the large variety of insects, fishes, and other marine fauna. Biodiversity has been affected by population expansion, agriculture, and urbanization. Israeli policies that have seriously affected natural heritage include the building of settlements and bypass roads in the Occupied Territories. Israeli environment policies are infantile compared to those of industrialized nations and have led to significant damage to natural sites and biodiversity. The clearest example is that of Al Huleh Lake and wetlands, which were drained in the early 1950s, causing an ecological disaster. There is a program now to rehabilitate that area, but it will never be returned to its past glory. At one time, Palestine was home to the Persian lion, the Syrian bear, the onager, the Syrian ostrich, the Nile crocodile, the cheetah, and a variety of deer. During the past 100 to 150 years, these animals have become extinct due to deforestation, hunting, agriculture, and urbanization.

Of particular interest to bird lovers throughout the world is the biyearly migration of over 500 million birds that travel from Africa through Palestine in the spring and into Europe and Asia and back to Africa in the fall. The number of these birds has been affected by the loss of ecosystems in locations where they stop over to rest and feed. In addition, excessive use of pesticides has affected adult birds that ingest pesticide-contaminated foods, which affects their capability to reproduce by causing thin-shell syndrome.

Natural heritage also means genetic diversity, and Palestine is recognized as the cradle of most of the cereals and pulses that were domesticated by early humans, including wheat, barley, and lentils. There is a move to conserve this genetic diversity-especially floral diversity-through the creation of seed banks and the propagation of some of these plants as a means to maintain their viability.

Some remarkable features of the Palestinian landscape are the mountain ranges with their hilly terrain, rock formations, and wadis (valleys) that meander through the hills in both directions-west towards the Mediterranean Sea and east towards the Dead Sea. The wadis are dotted with freshwater springs around which Palestinians settled thousands of years ago. It was often here that they built their villages and fought their battles to ward off invaders who have always been attracted to this remarkable land, which they called the land of milk and honey, obviously in recognition of the existence of a sophisticated culture of people who raised cattle and bees and cultivated the land. Many of these springs dry up during the summer due to excessive pumping of underground water, largely by Israel, which utilizes over 80 percent of Palestinian water. Israel’s water extraction greatly diminishes the water supply for Palestinians. At one time, most of Palestine was rich in forests, but due to human activities and climatic changes over millennia, the forests have receded to what they are now. In some of the regions in the north and, in particular, the Galilee, one can see the rich oak and pine forests that cover the hilltops.

An especially unique natural heritage site is the entire area ranging from the eastern slopes of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley. This semi-arid wilderness area blooms in the spring with flowers of all colours, including some medicinal herbs such as wild chamomile, red poppies, and colourful flowers. This area is one of the few remaining shelters for wild animals such as ibex, wolves, hyenas, and rare leopards. Unfortunately, this region is overwhelmed by Israeli settlement activities, including industrial projects to bottle water from its springs, thus depriving wildlife of the few freshwater sources for their survival. Other industrial projects, such as mining the Dead Sea for minerals and the diversion of water that feeds the River Jordan and flows into the Dead Sea, have caused this unique lake to shrink in size by a few kilometres, thus lowering the Dead Sea level to approximately 425 metres below Mediterranean Sea level. And sadly, this ecological disaster continues. Grandiose plans to create a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal may not materialize, and the environmental impacts of such a project are too complicated to determine even by the best professionals. After all, who could have predicted, at the time, that the Aswan High Dam in Egypt would negatively impact the marine biodiversity and seashore sand in Palestine?

An interesting, yet little-known, natural/cultural heritage fact is the impact that the Dead Sea has had on human mobility due to its effect on rainfall in what is now Jordan. Moisture that evaporates from the Dead Sea gets deposited as rain in the Moab Mountains. During a drought in Palestine, inhabitants used to move east to better grazing lands in Jordan and vice versa, one reason that many families have links on both sides of the border. Of course, this also genetically enriched the populations of both sides. Alas, the Israeli Apartheid Wall and regulations are curtailing genetic exchange among Palestinians, an issue to be left to another article.

But what kind of future looms for natural heritage in Palestine? Not a very bright one! Continued settlement activities are threatening biodiversity. Biodiversity is dependent on ecosystem integrity. When ecosystems are shredded due to settlement activities, roads, and separation walls, biodiversity will rapidly start to disappear. Biota will either move to a different area, if possible, or gradually die off. Thus it is very important to launch campaigns to save this beautiful and rich land from the evil of bulldozers and the selfish interests of those whose vision of this rich environment is very narrow. The environment knows no boundaries, and what affects us will affect others. There is no escape!

Dr. Ramzi Sansur is the Director of the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at Birzeit University. He can be reached at rsansur@birzeit.edu.

This Week in Palestine
December 2006

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