Permaculture is often associated with agriculture, but now a global network of environmentalists, development professionals and entrepreneurs aims to combine the power of human connections with sustainable design to help rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip
The Gaza Strip was subjected to its heaviest bombardment in nearly two years during the summer of 2014. The 50-day-long conflict between Israel and Hamas left more than 2,100 Palestinians – mostly civilians – 67 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians dead, along with thousands wounded.
Alice Gray, a permaculture teacher and consultant, has spent much of her time working in Palestine over the past eight years and witnessed the latest attacks from the nearby West Bank. “There’s just no way to describe how horrific it was,” she says. “I’ve seen Gaza bombed four times and this recent one was the worst.”
Although the fighting ended with a ceasefire in August, the devastation remains, and it’s the aftermath that now concerns Gray most. Approximately 20,000 homes were heavily damaged or destroyed, adding to the territory’s already acute housing shortage and as winter approaches an estimated 100,000 of Gaza’s citizens are homeless.
“There’s going to have to be a rebuild and how it’s done is really important,” says Gray.
“If I had one word about permaculture it’s empowerment – It’s about taking back control.”
As founder of Grassroots Environmental Action Network (GREAN) Palestine, a coalition of farmers, activists, development professionals, students and entrepreneurs, she aims to apply permaculture concepts to networking in order to help local people rebuild their lives and become more resilient in the face of ongoing conflict and environmental problems.
“If I had one word about permaculture it’s empowerment,” she says excitedly. “It’s about taking back control.” An attitude that’s perhaps not surprising considering that the majority of her experience has been in a place where farmers worry more about being forced from their land than they do about the latest compost loo.
“Palestine is the ultimate disempowering situation,” says Grey. “People are disconnected from the environment and denied access to life-sustaining resources so that their self-reliance is undermined and they can be controlled.” As a result she admits that her methods are a little unconventional. “My practice is quite sort of lairy and resistance-based,” she says. “And doing stuff in a way that doesn’t cost very much money, just using what you’ve got.”
Gray’s approach is in stark contrast to the top-down approach of conventional aid, which following an international conference in Cairo in October is now beginning to trickle into Gaza. Governments worldwide have now pledged $5.4bn (£3.4bn) towards the rebuilding effort and the first truckloads of building supplies have been allowed into the region.
But progress is sporadic. A seven-year-long Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip limits the intake of such supplies, claiming that they could be used by Hamas for military purposes, and critics claim that much of what has been donated will not be used to directly fund construction. The uncertainty surrounding the funds reflects the global state of international aid, a problem highlighted by the Aid Transparency Index 2014, which after rating 68 global aid agencies gave an average ‘overall commitment to transparency’ score of just 39%.
Gray’s own scepticism about large aid projects comes from personal experience. In 2006 she quit her ecology PhD at Bangor University to work in Palestine and became a consultant for a water development agency, but quickly became disillusioned with what she sees as the often short-sighted and wasteful approach of aid organisations. “It’s not all completely corrupt, a lot of it makes sense, but it’s very open to corruption,” she says.
“You realise how good your network is when you try and use it for something.”
As a result Gray is doubtful that the recent influx of aid money will have lasting benefits. “The rebuild could be done really badly; they might just put up huge cement monstrosities with no consideration of energy or water availability or ambient temperatures, with no heat storage, no water storage and no reference to the surrounding environment, which would make them black holes for energy and extremely uncomfortable if not impossible to live in. There’s a huge design issue there.”
And that’s where she feels permaculture can play a vital role. Though arguably still predominately thought of as being about agriculture – it was after all a concept originally developed in the 1970s as a reaction to the increasing industrialisation of farming – permaculture design can be used much more broadly.
One of its core principles is maximising the useful connections between components of a system, which author Juliana Birnbaum Fox describes as: “the working relationships and connections between all things.” This can be applied to anything from companion planting – for example planting garlic near tomatoes to deter aphids – to passive buildings that maximise the energy of incoming sunlight through the careful positioning of windows.
It can even be applied to the role humans play within a particular system and again it was through personal experience that Gray discovered how people can be equally as important as plants in any permaculture design.
After leaving her job in development in 2008 she turned to permaculture as a grassroots alternative to aid and helped set up Bustan Qaraaqa, a demonstration farm situated in the West Bank, which hosted volunteers and ran skill-share workshops for local farmers. The farm disbanded in 2012, which Gray puts down to people management issues: “In permaculture we know about gabions (wire baskets packed with rocks to combat soil erosion) and food-forests (farming based on the ecosystem structure of woodlands), but often some of the most important elements in a system are human elements,” she says.
But after four years of building human connections, what remained was something she considers far more valuable: a global network of people, the basis for GREAN Palestine.
“GREAN Palestine is a completely zero overhead, volunteer-run umbrella,” she says. “It’s not even really an organisation, just a network of individuals. It can be used as a funding mechanism and as a contacts network. It’s about enabling people just to get on with it really.”
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Through networking, Gray is tackling problems by bringing people together as elements of a system, rather than relying on external aid to fix things. So far the connections within GREAN Palestine have enabled local people to organise tree-planting events on contested land, install rainwater harvesting systems where water was denied, facilitate tool-swapping between farmers, and help set up Resign, the first professional upcycling project in Bethlehem, to help tackle the region’s waste problem.
“Networking is so much of what you actually do in permaculture,” she says. “It’s not about you personally having all the skills, it’s about bringing people, ideas and resources together and focusing that energy.”
Now, after Gray watched the aftermath of the latest conflict unfold, GREAN Palestine is being used to help Gaza’s housing crisis.
“I was sitting there thinking: ‘It’s too much, the situation’s too big’,” she says. “And then thought: I’ve got contacts in Gaza, I’ve got friends who know how to get across the border, I know eco-builders, I can do fundraising. And then you realise you’ve got all these skills and you’ve got an idea and you just have to do it.
“It’s a grassroots-funded, citizen-funded development project. It’s not from the Department of International Development, it’s from us – we’ll sort it out.”
“We’re appealing to global sustainable communities and the eco-building community because they have the skills and they need to share those skills with people in Gaza. There needs to be knowledge transfer,” she says. “It’s a grassroots-funded, citizen-funded development project that we can get behind and that actually represents us. It’s not from the Department of International Development, it’s from us – we’ll sort it out.”
As well as transferring knowledge to Gaza’s citizens remotely via the online network, GREAN Palestine aims to send a small delegation of skilled eco-builders to the region by April 2015 to create at least one demonstration eco-building. These will then be used as template designs to be replicated and act as a base to host volunteers who can then share their skills directly with local people. “It’s early days yet, but with commitment and hard work, we can make this project happen,” says Gray.
The enthusiastic response from those in the network has surprised Gray. Already 30 people have offered to be part of the organising team, including architects Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari who won the Aga Khan Award for their work in the West Bank in 2013. Several community development and green building organisations also have offered support including Byspokes, Transition By Design and Eco-Beam International. “You realise how good your network is when you try and use it for something,” she says. “What was striking was that so many people came on board and were like: thank you so much for putting this out there because we need it, we can’t watch this anymore.
“When you actually start doing something to address this chaotic situation you just feel a lot better. It doesn’t make it go away or make it okay, but the next time you see the news and it’s something truly horrific, at least you can say: ‘I’m on this!’.”