Bedouins fight serious environmental injustices

May 1, 2008

Ra'ed Al-Mickawi of Bustan

On Tuesday, the Boston chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace sponsored a talk by Ra’ed Al-Mickawi, director of Bustan. Taking its name from a word meaning "fruit-yielding orchard" in both Hebrew and Arabic, Bustan is an organization fighting for environmental justice in the Bedouin communities of Israel.

Having cultivated low-impact agricultural practices over several generations in Israel’s Negev Desert, Bedouin culture has long been centered around self sufficiency, communal autonomy, and a deep connection to the land. In 1962 the Israeli government began a relocation program, forcing the Bedouins from rural and agriculture rich areas into small, contained urban townships.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, explained that the goal of this forced relocation program was to eventually clear Bedouins out of the Negev completely, "in order not to disturb development plans." Today, most of Israel’s nearly 200,000 Bedouin reside in seven "recognized" townships constructed by the Israeli government. The rest live in about 45 "unrecognized" villages subject to regular house demolitions and forced relocations.

Those seven "recognized" townships make up what is known as the "Bedouin Triangle." Directly adjacent to the "Bedouin Triangle" are 22 agro and petrochemical factories, an oil terminal, closed military zones where the Israeli military tests new weapons, quarries, cell towers, a power plant, several airports, a prison, two rivers of open sewage. Also adjacent to the Bedouin communities is Ramat Horav, an enormous toxic waste incinerator about which Ben Gurion University epidemiologist Batya Sarov, formerly a specialist at Chernobyl has commented, "The environmental monitoring at Chernobyl was better, and the health risks no more severe."

As a result, the Bedouin community is plagued with extremely high rates of acute and chronic conditions such as asthma, cancer, lung diseases, sleep apnea, miscarriages, and an infant mortality rate three times higher than the national average. Additionally, Bedouins are routinely denied access to basic resources such as water access, municipal garbage removal, or health care. Despite approximately 72,000 Bedouins living alongside high voltage power lines, few have access to electricity.

Bustan aims to address these injustices while promoting sustainable development alternatives. According to their mission statement:

Bustan logo

Bustan cultivates sustainable and replicable models of fair allocation of clean public resources as a healthy paradigm of development serving both Jewish and Bedouin communities. To address the degradation and systemic appropriation of public resources, our proactive programs aim to raise awareness of the political aspects of "development," the subsequent disappearance of the rural landscape, and document and resist the impact on local land and culture.

Some of those "proactive programs" include "Negev Unplugged" tours of "recognized" and "unrecognized" villages, chemical plants, nearby developments, a three month course on the theory and practice of permaculture, and The Children’s Power Project, which connects the homes of chronically ill children in unrecognized villages with solar energy panels.

According to Al-Mickawi "these programs are more than just humanitarian projects. We are doing more than just filling the gaps left by the government’s neglect. We are demanding a policy change." He also sees his work as part of a larger movement. He concluded with "What we do at Bustan is only a small step toward a global vision of social and environmental justice."