Environment

In Palestine, an iconic tree suffers, too

Climate change is decimating the economically crucial olive harvest — and farmers lack the resources to fight back.

July 19, 2019
A new pest threatens the olive harvest of Palestine
A new pest threatens the olive harvest of Palestine | Credit: Pexels

Saad Omar Ahmed has been an olive tree farmer in Palestine for over 17 years. Although he has witnessed many changes over his lifetime living in occupied territories, none have been as devastating as the recent decline in his annual harvest. 

His harvest has decreased by around 70% in the past three to five years, as disease and lack of rain have taken their toll on the trees. These factors are part of a changing landscape suffering under the harsh effects of climate change. 

“These are things we were not familiar with during the days of my forefathers,” he says.

And climate change isn’t Ahmed’s only problem. Compounding his frustrations, and those of other farmers like him, are the hardships of Israel-enforced isolation, including restrictions on access to water and fertilizers. 

“Palestinian agricultural output and productivity have lagged behind that of Israel and comparable countries in the region … [because] Palestinian farmers not only face the challenge of natural obstacles but also have to combat the impact of occupation,” says Nora Hamdan, program coordinator at We Effect, an international development organization that has been working with local farming groups in Palestine.

Israel placed restrictions on Palestinian access to fertilizer in 2010, claiming it was being used to make explosives, which caused agricultural productivity to decline by 20 to 30% in Gaza and the West Bank, according to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. That, in addition to the Egyptian government-imposed blockade on the Gaza Strip, has made it difficult for farmers like Ahmed to get much-needed supplies.

Farmers have resorted to making their own fertilizers or smuggling them illegally across the borders in order to maintain their livelihood, according to Hamdan. Growers also face systematic harassment by Israeli authorities and settlers. More than half a million trees, 80%of which were olive trees, have been uprooted by Israeli authorities since the last Palestinian uprising in 1987, according to the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs. There have also been numerous reports of Israeli settlers vandalizing olive tree farms, with the most recent incident involving 33 olive trees in the West Bank.

Against this backdrop, Palestinian farmers must contend with new threats related to climate change. They are trying to cope with long-term drought and a deadly new pest called the olive leaf gall midge, or Dasineura oleae. Unknown before 2014, the pest now likely infects 51% of olive trees in the Palestinian territories, according to a recent study  published in the Journal of Plant Diseases and Protection.

“The intensity of the infestation is becoming worse, with the pest attacking not only the olive leaves but also young branches and flower stalks of olive trees, causing serious reduction of olive yield,” says Yacoub Batta, professor of pathology and agricultural entomology at the An-Najah National University in Nablus and [the/an] author of the study.

Batta, who was the first to study the pest in Palestine, thinks climate change likely played a major role in the recent damage. “The warm climate and low rainfall encountered in the last years encourage the pest reproduction and its development,” he says.

Mohammad Jarrar, an agronomist with the Economic and Social Development Center of Palestine, agrees. “We’re not used to these diseases, they were never in our environment,” he says.

Jarrar, an expert in olive tree cultivation, says that the tree’s historical and cultural significance makes the decline especially painful. “The olive tree originated from Palestine, and from the borders of the Mediterranean extends towards Sinai in Egypt, and towards Greece, Syria, Jordan,” he says. “It’s a blessed tree that was mentioned in the Quran more than once.”

Olives area main source of income for 80,000 Palestinian families and are responsible for around 14 percent of the Palestinian economy, according to the United Nations.

Their reliance on traditional growing practices leaves Palestinian growers vulnerable to some devastating new problems, experts say.

“Climate change has not been a topic or an issue faced or understood with many farmers until recently,” Hamdan says.

We Effect, the program that Hamdan coordinates, has been holding awareness sessions for farmers to help them better adapt to climate change through innovative techniques. Using wicker beds to grow the trees, for instance, leads to more efficient irrigation.

But climate change is a novel concept for Ahmed and other Palestinian farmers, who are used to traditional farming methods passed down to them from one generation to the next. And Ahmed’s lineage of farmers, he says, never had to deal with the effects of changing temperatures or disease.

The added obstacles of the Israeli occupation, Ahmed says, make it even more difficult to cope with drought and the pesty midges. Among the list of restrictions imposed on farmers, he says he is only given four days a year to tend to his farm, as the Israeli government restricts access to farmland located beyond security barriers. He also has no access to pesticides and far less water and fertilizer than he needs.

Jarrar says that Israeli farmers have been using pesticides to fight the midge on their side of the fence, which he claims drives more of the midges into Palestinian lands. 

“We can’t work on our lands, or spray them with pesticides because of occupation,” Jarrar says. 

In order to help Palestinian farmers work around these restrictions, Batta is conducting further research on natural enemies of this midge, such as parasitic insects, that could be placed on Palestinian land to help control the infestation. 

But Saad, the farmer, says time is running out. Every harvest season counts — not just for him, but also for the livelihoods of his wife, brothers and the farm workers he hires. Having already suffered major losses, he hopes to find solutions soon.

“Our two main problems — occupation and climate change,” Saad says. “There’s been so many changes, and the burden is getting heavier.”

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About the Author

Passant Rabie is an award-winning journalist from Cairo, Egypt. She feels strongly about issues related to environmental justice, conservation and access to clean water. Her interests also include genetics and race, artificial intelligence and trees. She loves trees. Prior to moving to New York, she spent years writing for independent media outlets across the Middle East and aims to produce accurate coverage of science stories within a regional context.

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