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Palestine: Reviving stone terracing in rural Nablus

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The mountains of Nablus possess great beauty, equaling if not surpassing those of Jerusalem. For millennia, they have been an important source of natural resources and water - home to unique plants and wildlife, as well as a source of sustenance for rural "mountain" Palestinian communities. Since the turn of this century, however, their beauty and bounty have been threatened. During the Turkish occupation of Palestine, vast areas of natural forests were lost as trees were cut to provide fuel and tracks for Turkish railways. This process was accelerated under the British Mandate, when the network of railroads crossing Palestine was vastly expanded. More recently, the mountains of Nablus have lost hundreds of thousands of trees - as well as large tracts of land - to the building of urban-style Israeli settlements.

Together, such actions have dangerously accelerated desertification - a process of erosion in which rich topsoil (as well as the ability of the land to retain water) is lost.

Traditionally, Palestinian farmers constructed stone terraces - a technique old enough to be mentioned in Bible - to prevent such erosion. However, as the Palestinian population increased and more modern methods of farming became widespread, the practice of stone terracing fell largely into disuse. A contemporary traveler driving today through the mountains surrounding Nablus will see many hills crisscrossed by stone terraces, but both the age and the sad state of disrepair of many of the terraces will be evident.

A new program launched by the American Near East Refugee Agency (ANERA) and funded by USAID/West Bank & Gaza begins to address this problem. Interestingly, the project did not develop from the perspective of aiding Palestinian agriculture. Rather, it came in response to the great need for emergency employment for Palestinians whose economy has been shattered by two plus years of violence. ANERA's organizational approach, to work closely with community leaders to ascertain the best way in which to offer humanitarian assistance, enabled them to develop an emergency employment program based on maximum labor and minimal materials costs. Such an approach allows USAID funding for emergency employment to reach the greatest number of the needy.

The first of ANERA's emergency employment projects to be based on this approach is the construction of stone terraces throughout the mountain villages of Nablus. The project began in autumn 2002 and will continue through 2004. Stone terracing is an excellent selection for an emergency employment generation program since no materials or equipment need to be secured in order to run the program. Whether repairing an existing stone terrace or building a new one, all that's needed are stones and willing hands. Throughout the mountain villages of Nablus, both are available in abundance.

Therefore, virtually all of the program funding can go to salaries. This enables a $ 10,000 project budget to fund 570 workdays rather than the 285 days a traditional emergency employment program (where the materials/salary ratio usually breaks down 60%/40%) would fund.

An added benefit to Palestinians living in the greater Nablus area is the series of agricultural roads created or repaired alongside the construction of stone terraces. Such roads enable Palestinian farmers to get to their crops and groves. They also have become a critical "lifeline" between northern West Bank communities, since access to main throroughfares and bypass roads is progressively impossible due to Israeli military checkpoints.

An oft-repeated criticism of international aid efforts to generate emergency employment is that little of lasting value is accomplished besides adding 40 or 50 shekels a day (approximately $10) to the income of an unemployed Palestinian "breadwinner." USAID-supported ANERA stone terracing projects go much farther than this - helping to preserve for future generations a precious mountain eco-system and much-needed agricultural lands, while enabling Palestinian communities to stay connected during difficult times.