Friday, December 9, 2011

Agricultural Development: Bustan Qaraaqa

Bustan Qaraaqa (Arabic for the Tortoise Garden; is a community permaculture farm located in the village of Beit Sahour, on the eastern edge of Bethlehem, Palestine. Established in 2008 by British ecologists and activists and local Palestinian partners, Bustan Qaraaqa is based in a one-hundred-year old stone house on fourteen dunums of land situated in Wadi Hanna Saad. The purpose of the farm is to catalyze a grassroots agroecological movement in the occupied Palestinian territories that responds to severe problems of food insecurity and ecosystem degradation. Such problems stem from humanitarian and environmental crises that are often instigated and exacerbated by the ongoing Israeli military occupation. Palestinians have endured extreme loss of land and lack of water access because of settlement construction and the establishment of the separation wall, which strengthens Israel’s monopolization of natural resources. Furthermore, the occupation has intensified soil and water pollution, habitat destruction, territorial fragmentation, movement restriction, and economic isolation. These effects aggravate population growth, species decline, desertification, and climate change.

In close collaboration with local neighbors, Bustan Qaraaqa serves as a model farm for experimentation and demonstration of permaculture designs and techniques for communal living through simple and inexpensive projects. The farm is also an education center that trains and assists local farmers throughout the region, as well as facilitating ecosystem restoration, species rehabilitation and conservation, food production for people in the midst of economic crises, and cultivating communal interdependence and pride as a form of resistance to military occupation. Ecological, economic, and social aspects are clearly embodied.

Permaculture is an important asset-based community and agricultural development strategy, because its methods “focus on the opportunities rather than the obstacles” (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4). Rooted in “ecological science and systems theory” (ibid, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)”; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1).

Bustan Qaraaqa’s permaculture projects reverse deforestation, enliven degraded soils, nurture biodiversity, collect and reuse water, and minimize negative consequences of human footprints on the earth by composting waste, recycling old material, and efficient design. The farm’s current projects include a tree nursery, water conservation and reuse, green building, and fish farming.

The free tree nursery harbors native and adapted plants in order to ameliorate environmental degradation through re-habitation and reforestation. Making adapted and native trees, some of which had gone extinct in the region, available to local communities is a vital step to reforesting the region into an edible landscape. The nursery contains over fifty species that provide food, fuel, building materials, soil restoration and remediation, landscaping, ecosystems restoration, and resistance to land confiscation. Bustan Qaraaqa’s workers have widespread experience in agroforestry projects.

Water conservation and reuse is another major project. Water shortage and lack of access is a rampant problem in the Palestinian territories. Israeli settlements consume twice the amount of water that Palestinian communities consume (Palestine monitor, 2009, p. 46); the World Health Organization states that a decent standard of living implies 100 liters per person each day, while the average West Bank Palestinian barely drinks 70. Israel also controls 80% of the West Bank’s depleting groundwater sources and the Jordan River, which is channeled to taps in Tel Aviv and farms in the Negev; such diversion has severely diminished the ancient waterway and has made essential aquifers extremely vulnerable to salinization and raw sewage (Faris, 2011). Over 200,000 people in rural villages are disconnected from the water network, and those who are connected rarely receive an uninterrupted supply due to military stoppages and rerouted pipes. The situation may worsen in light of climate change and population growth. Bustan Qaraaqa develops rainwater harvesting systems for rooftop and road runoff, which is stored in cisterns and tanks for household and irrigation use. Additionally, the farm utilizes swales (ditches dug along the contour of a slope) to retain water, build up soil, and prevent erosion. Bustan Qaraaqa also practices and demonstrates water conservation and recycling with a humanure toilet (which is also a form of waste management) and an elaborate graywater reuse system.

The farm’s green building program includes rainwater catchment, humanure toilet, showers, kitchen, and a greenhouse. The greenhouse embodies four design principles, each achieved through a variety of methods: reduced material consumption (multifunctional architecture, using salvaged materials, and using local materials for eco-construction); water conservation (rainwater harvesting and storage, water recycling, and graywater biofiltration); climate improvement (carbon-neutral winter heating, solar passive winter warming, and efficient design for summer cooling); and food production (winter fruits and vegetables, summer fruits and vegetables such as tropical crops, and an aquaponics system).

The aquaponics system, which is the first one in the West Bank, is also part of Bustan Qaraaqa’s fish farming project. The project was pioneered by the BySpokes crew ( and has been replicated in numerous urban and rural sites in Beit Sahour and the Jordan River Valley. The aquaponics system uses cheap and locally-available (mostly reclaimed) material and effectively works with the high alkalinity of the West Bank’s groundwater. This system grows plants that require copious amounts of water even during the long dry season, and is capable of growing locally-adapted and exotic plants.

Permaculture projects like Bustan Qaraaqa are extremely transferable. Even though permaculture, as a form of agroecology, is highly contextual, the principles and design methods are applicable in any setting. Permaculture’s co-originator David Holmgren’s twelve principles testifies are: observe and interact; catch and use energy; self-regulate and accept feedback; use and value renewable resources and services; produce no waste; design from patterns to details; integrate rather than segregate; use small and slow solutions; use and value diversity; use edges and value the marginal; and creatively use and respond to change (2004, p. 7-18). Permaculture started in Australia and has been used in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. With Bustan Qaraaqa as an example, permaculture design and development simultaneously addresses scientific, economic, and social factors.


Faris, S. (2011). Holy water: A precious commodity in a region of conflict. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from Orion Magazine.

Holmgren, D. (2004). Essence of permaculture. Retrieved June 30, 2011, from Holmgren
Design Services Website.

Palestine monitor 2009 factbook. (2009). Ramallah: Palestine Monitor & HDIP.

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