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March 20, 2014 7:23 am

Wadi Atir: A Negev Oasis of Sustainability and Jewish-Bedouin Collaboration

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

Dr. Michael Ben-Eli, founder of the Sustainability Laboratory, and Wadi Atir team member Ali Alhawashleh (left) with earth-moving equipment from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund). Photo: Courtesy Project Wadi Atir.

JNS.orgOzone depletion, climate change, soil erosion, poverty, starvation, and disease.

Those are the issues tackled by Michael Ben-Eli, with Israel’s Negev as his base.

“The list of issues is long,” said Ben-Eli, citing “an endemic failure of our social and economic institutions to address these issues effectively and in a timely matter.”

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Ben-Eli is the initiator of project Wadi Atir, launched jointly by the Sustainability Laboratory, of which he is the founder, and the Hura Municipal Council, the governing body of a local Bedouin township. The lab itself was set up to demonstrate breakthrough approaches to sustainability practices, expanding prospects and producing life-affirming impacts on people and eco-systems in all parts of the world.

For now, though, Ben-Eli is focused on the desert. And his partners are a motivated combination of Muslim Bedouin and Israeli scientists.

The concept for the project was born in 2007 when Ben-Eli visited Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and its Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research with his colleague Josh Arnow. During that visit he witnessed breakthrough technologies and world-class research that related to living in arid zones. Simultaneously, he was exposed to the harsh circumstances of the ever-increasing Bedouin community, which was suffering from being a nomadic people living in a land of Western and urban sprawl. The conditions, said Ben-Eli, were untenable.

“It did not seem right that full citizens in a country like Israel would live in desperate circumstances when there were such incredible technologies being developed nearby,” Ben-Eli said.

Ben-Eli met Dr. Mohammed Alnabari, mayor of Hura, a Bedouin town of 15,000 people. Forward-thinking and originally a chemist by profession, Alnabari immediately bought into Ben-Eli’s vision of developing a model project that would showcase the integration of many development issues in one microcosm.

The philanthropic support of Arnow and his father Robert allowed Ben-Eli to get started. The Arnow family, which funds the Robert H. Arnow Center for Bedouin Studies and Development, has continued to support the project; the government of Israel has heavily invested in the project too, as has the Jewish National Fund and other foundations and private donors. The total cost of actually implementing the project is an estimated $6 million.

The building process has not been without obstacles, said Alnabari, noting that only now, seven years later, are all of Wadi Atir’s permits secured and the land prepared for building. He said the bureaucracy was challenging on all fronts. There are issues of mistrust between the Bedouin communities and the Israeli government, and there are deep tribal divides among the Negev’s 200,000 Bedouin people.

“This is very politically and culturally sensitive,” said Arnow. “The climate in the Negev is extremely tense. But this project is one of its brightest spots.”

Why? Nothing like the developing Wadi Atir exists in the world, according to Ben-Eli. While there are “fabulous sustainable projects around the world,” he said, those initiatives tend to focus on one aspect of sustainability. Wadi Atir is systemic and holistic in that it will bring together the Sustainability Lab’s five principles of sustainability related to the material domain, the economic domain, the social domain, the spiritual domain, and the domain of life.

Additionally, the village is aimed at building an economic future for the Bedouin. At Wadi Atir, infrastructure is being built to leverage Bedouin traditional values, experience, and aspirations. In the farm, Bedouin workers will grow a mixed herd of goats and sheep organically for the production of a range of dairy products, including unique Bedouin cheeses that don’t require refrigeration. Another area will harness Bedouin medicinal wisdom, by cultivating medicinal plants and herbs and developing a line of health products for sale on the mainstream market. Wadi Atir will reintroduce nutritious, indigenous vegetables and create a hub for eco-tourism, and Ben-Eli also hopes it will offer a graduate level certificate program.

Most of the Bedouins could not handle the paperwork to market their products in Israel to people outside their immediate area, to obtain health certificates and, potentially, even kosher certifications. Through Wadi Atir, said Alnabari, all of this will be possible.

Additionally, Wadi Atir will serve as a model for Israel-Bedouin collaboration.

“It is good for the people,” said Alnabari. “It makes them feel good as citizens. It makes them proud to be part of Israel.”

On a recent Tuesday in March, Wadi Atir director Yunis Nbarey unlocked the gate to the village. The land, gorgeous and expansive, spreads for 400 dunams (99 acres). Nbarey became involved as a volunteer when the project was in its infancy. He said that at that stage he clocked dozens of hours to rally the community and move the initiative forward. He doesn’t have a high school degree, and before this he has never served in a leadership role. Nbarey said his family became frustrated with the time he was spending working on Wadi Atir in its infancy, but Nbarey persisted. He smiles quietly at the fruits of his labor, at land cultivated, planted, and prepared to hold the soon-to-be physical structures that will open project Wadi Atir.

“I saw the influence it could have on the children. They see Wadi Atir and they know that if they have a plan, if they work hard, then they can make their dreams happen,” said Nbarey.

“First the idea was just a raindrop,” Alnabari said. “Now it is raining.”

Alnabari said the team, which consists of 12 staff and as many as 50 or 60 contract workers, should complete the building phase by the end of 2014. After that, the ecosystem will truly come alive and could reach as many as 70,000 Bedouin in some capacity.

“Everyone thoughts this was a complete pipe dream. Most people said it would take 10 years to get through the bureaucracy. It took us half that time. … Ben-Eli, Dr. Alnabari and the Bedouin community have put in blood, sweat and tears, and we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us,” said Arnow.

“We know there are problems,” Nbarey said. “There will be more challenges. But we aren’t interested in the people who will look at Wadi Atir from the outside and judge us. We don’t care about those who say, ‘I am on the government’s side,’ or ‘I side with the Bedouin.’ … We want to go beyond the arguments. We simply want to have the tools to fix the community. The tools are in Wadi Atir.”

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