Plant Biodiversity in the Palestinian Territory
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.01.2008:
By Mrs. Roubina Basous Ghattas
Biodiversity encompasses all biological entities that occur as an interacting system in a habitat or ecosystem, and plants constitute a very important segment of such biological systems. Plant biodiversity is an irreplaceable resource, providing raw materials for introduction and domestication as well as improvement programmes in agriculture and forestry.
Palestine is a treasure chest of biodiversity that hosts a large variety of plants. As part of the Fertile Crescent, it has been identified as an important centre of genetic diversity for the life-sustaining crops of wheat, barley, vines, olives, onions, and pulses, which all originated within the geographical land of Palestine. Palestinians have used these natural resources to respond to various needs in their lives. It is worth adding that Palestine is characterized by its unique variable ecosystems that encounter various floral associations. This location also nurtures Palestinian biological diversity, through which climatic zones, desert, steppe, Mediterranean woodland, and even oases, join one another in this compact geographical area.
Despite its small size, the Palestinian Territory (PT) comprises approximately 3 percent of the global biodiversity1 and contains a high density of species and a large number of endemic species (endemics are only found in restricted regions and therefore harbour unique genetic information), reaching up to 5 percent (120 endemics) of the total number of plants that grow in PT, such as caper, Palestinian sea blite, majoram, iris, fluellen (photo 1) and others.2 It is also known for its unique forested areas, which comprise 4.45 percent of the total area of PT.3
According to a recent survey done by a specialized ARIJ (Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem) team in the year 2006, it was found that 2,076 plant species inhabit the West Bank and Gaza Strip alone (75.5 percent of species in Mandate Palestine4), where 1,959 species in 115 families are growing in the West Bank and 1,290 species in 105 families are growing in the Gaza Strip, of which 117 species grow only in the Gaza Strip. These numbers were ascertained during a comprehensive study to assess the status of flora only in the geographical area the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
PT’s landscape of flowers and plants changes abruptly with its various geographical regions. The richness of the flora as a whole is partly explained by the uniqueness of the Palestinian climate, which appears to favour great regional variations in plants – such as the oak, carob, pine, pistachio, olive tree, cypress, rhamnus spina-christi, calotropis, acacia, tamarisk, eucalyptus, and other plant groups such as rockrose, iris, lily, tulip, cyclamen, crocus, bulb, orchid, and hyacinth (photos 2a and b), and others are all distributed throughout the country and form a unique potential for sustainable utilisation.
However, the plant genetic resources of PT have been declining constantly over the years. The Palestinian context offers a unique case where the sustainability of its natural and human systems is not only threatened endogenously – i.e., by the development process from within – but it is also impeded exogenously by the political conflict it faces. The landscape, ecosystems, and vegetation of PT, in particular, have been subjected to changes on a large scale. The rate of natural destruction in PT is much higher nowadays with the appearance of new challenges that face biodiversity. Habitat destruction comes from a broad range of sources that include unplanned urban expansion; overgrazing; over-exploitation; deforestation and unplanned forestry activities; desertification and drought; invasive alien species; and pollution and contaminants, in addition to the political status, which includes the division of Palestinian accessible areas, land confiscation, and fragmentation of habitats mainly as a result of the Segregation Wall. These factors all serve to affect genetic exchange and, as a result, will weaken species composition in the future, thus precipitating the loss of this valuable heritage.
Of the surveyed 2,076 plant species that grow in the West Bank and Gaza, 636 are listed as endangered (photo 3), of which 90 species are very rare. It is also contended by experts that urgent conservation measures are required for more than 40 species.5 As a result, it is predicted that in Palestine, a number of species will disappear within the next ten years unless urgent measures are taken to protect, preserve, and develop their utilization.
A comparison between the floral surveys over the past 20 to 40 years was done by a specialized ARIJ team, where it was found that 370 species have changed their status and become rare or very rare in the West Bank and Gaza during the last 30 years6 (Figure 1). Such results indicate that the plant species growing in PT are subjected to pressures of various types, which cause a reduction in number and dramatically threaten their existence. Thus, if the root causes for such changes are going to continue, the existence of those species and others is threatened with un-sustainability and lack of viability for the long run.
These problems are causing drastic changes and have left deep traces on the landscape, the natural resources, and the natural vegetation of the area. At the moment there is hardly any natural, undisturbed vegetation in the area. In addition, such pressure on the integrity of ecosystems and stability of natural resources increases the risk of losing the livelihood as well as the historical, cultural, environmental, and economic value of Palestinian biodiversity, despite the fact that these costs are difficult to quantify, or may indeed be immeasurable and irreplaceable.
In conclusion, the continued pressures on the Palestinian indigenous plants will inevitably impair the rights of future generations if sustainable utilization measures are not implemented. As a long-term research endeavour, it is necessary to increase Palestinian knowledge concerning how human and natural systems interact; whereas in the short run, approaches for monitoring and forecasting human impacts on Palestinian ecosystems must be developed. Criteria and indicators for social, economic, and biological components of plant ecosystems are the core of current sustainability initiatives. This is in addition to biodiversity conservation and better management, legislation and regulation, public awareness and training, research, protection of intellectual property rights, gender role, indigenous knowledge, improvement of ecotourism, local institutional co-operation, international and regional co-operation and co-ordination, and improvement of livelihood and community development – all important issues to be tackled in order to reach a state where the utilization and conservation of the Palestinian biological resources are well shared and protected within Palestinian society.
For further information, see “Biodiversity” in the book entitled, Status of Environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, http://www.arij.org.
Mrs. Roubina Ghattas graduated from Birmingham University, UK, with an MSc degree in the “Utilization and Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources.” She is the Biodiversity Specialist at the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ). She has extensive experience in research, project coordination, fund raising, and teaching.
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