Teresa Berninger spent three months as an intern at FoEME Auja Environmental Center. Here is her entry to the International Ecotourism Society titled “Al Auja: Experiencing Palestine’s multifaceted cultural, environmental and political issues”.
Scouting new trails for ecotourists
It is a warm night and I am sitting outside on the terrace of the Auja Environmental Center, located in the small villageof Al Aujain the Jordan Valley in Palestine. The Center has been initiated by Friends of the Earth Middle East. Here, I have been volunteering for about one month, and tonight, as usual, some local people come to socialize at the Center. Hearing stories of their daily lives from the Palestinian people in this region, what you see on the news back home suddenly becomes very real, very personal and very touching. The Israeli occupation and ongoing environmental degradation are a heavy burden and concern every single person in several ways.
Al Auja Environmental Center and Guesthouse
In Al Auja, water scarcity is a major challenge. Until recently, the Auja spring provided enough fresh water to allow agriculture to flourish in the area and the production fruits and vegetables served as the main source of income for the local people. Today, the spring has run dry, the fields are barren and the greenhouses abandoned, with only 2.5 % of the local people relying on farming as a source of income. This is due to a variety of factors such as careless drilling of wells, drought and unequal allocation of resources. Many Palestinians are forced to spend large amounts of money to buy water in tanks, hardly managing to meet their basic water needs, and have to seek employment outside of Al Auja.
Another factor that is further tightening the situation is water pollution. Infrastructure for municipal waste management and waste water treatment is largely non-existent and everyday huge amounts of sewage from Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements are discharged, often close to fresh water sources.
These are the conditions that generate the stories I get to hear about this evening.
“I used to cultivate 450 dunams of land. Now there is no water, I had to give up all farming”
“My brother used to have a flock of sheep in Al Auja, but they cannot find food here anymore, so he moved to Nablus.”
“Eight years ago I grew my own dates, now I am employed by an Israeli farm.”
The green patch is a flourishing Israeli farm amidst the barren Palestinian fields
Back in my room, I find it hard to fall asleep. Facing such a variety of intertwined challenges it is hard not to despair, especially when they affect people you have come to consider friends.
However, projects like the Al Auja Environmental Center give hope, by increasing people’s independence and resilience by promoting water management strategies and water saving techniques. One such example is our grey water recycling systems. Waste water is collected, treated, and reused. Since this type of waste water system was installed at the local mosque and people realized how beneficial it is, many private households have started using the system, leading to a large amount of water being saved.
In addition to environmental education and training projects, we also aim to create new job opportunities for locals through ecotourism. The unique ecology of the Jordan Valley and the incredibly hospitable people make a stay here an unforgettable experience! Staying at our guesthouse adjacent to the center, you may explore the valleys nearby with our local guide Muhanad, who has an amazing knowledge about the flora and fauna. Or sample delicacies from the local Bedouine cuisine, prepared by our excellent cook Nofoz – you may even learn how to prepare them yourselves.
You can also learn about sustainable solutions that the Center is implementing, such as composting, waste recycling and permaculture. Learn Dabka, the traditional Arabic dance or join local women produce beautiful handicrafts, be amazed at the Bedouines’ knowledge about medicinal herbs or just rent a bike and explore the area north of the Dead Sea. Get engaged, and you will have long lasting memories of your visit here, just like how my stay at Al Auja has greatly enriched my experience of Palestine.