Expo 2015: Italian Journalists Tour the Arava

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 3:37 PM

“People who live in the Arava understand the desert, they’ve learned to cope with it and they want to share their knowledge with the rest of the world.”

A delegation of journalists from Italy spent a week full of tours and meetings in Israel in preparation for the international Expo 2015 exhibition. This prestigious event, which is held every five years, will open in Milan on May 1st and continue until October 31st, 2015.One hundred and forty-five countries worldwide will take part in the event, including Israel, whose pavilion will include a KKL-JNF exhibit.

Off-grid solar lighting in an African style hut in Kibbutz Ketura. Photo: Yoav Devir

The Italian journalists’ visit, which took place in early March, was organized jointly by KKL-JNF and the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and it was designed to show the guests a range of local initiatives related to nutritional security and renewable energy. Both of these issues are the subject of this year’s Expo, whose theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

Karine Bolton of International Projects in KKL-JNF in Israel and Denise Tanzer, KKL-JNF representative in Milan. Photo: Yoav Devir

“The whole city is very excited as the exhibition approaches,” said KKL-JNF representative in Milan Denise Tanzer. “As far as KKL-JNF is concerned, this is an opportunity to display the organization’s work in a number of different fields.” KKL-JNF will participate in the exhibition as part of the Israeli pavilion, which will display a variety of exhibits depicting the country’s agriculture, water resources and forestry, and its efforts to combat desertification.

During their visit to Israel, the Italian journalists met a series of prominent figures and officials in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, including former President Shimon Peres and Italy’s Ambassador to Israel Francesco Maria Talo. They were also given the opportunity to split up and report exclusive stories related to their own particular areas of specialization.

On the second day of their visit, the delegation members went south to the Arava, where they visited the Central Arava Research and Development Station, the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), an ecological park at Kibbutz Lotan, a solar energy farm, an off-grid village at Kibbutz Ketura and the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. This busy day was rounded off with a night-time visit to the primordial landscape of Timna Park.

The Arava allows the visitor an unparalleled opportunity to experience and understand Israel’s vision of combating desertification and helping agriculture to flourish in arid areas for the benefit of Israel and the world as a whole.

The Central Arava Research and Development Station – Advanced agriculture

Bitter melons growing in the R&D center greenhouse. Photo: Yoav Devir

The visit began at the facility’s Yair Experimental Station, which specializes in the development of crops and farming methods that suit the harsh climate of the Arava. The researchers develop techniques that will help local farmers to improve the quality of their produce, extend the growing season, save water, and become more competitive and economically viable.

“The Arava is Israel’s most remote region, and in the past there was nothing here but sand and flies,” said Noa Zer, the Central Arava Regional Council’s Resource Development Director. “People who live in the Arava understand the desert, they’ve learned to cope with it and they want to share their knowledge with the rest of the world,” she explained.

Farming in the central Arava primarily means vegetable-growing, and 60% of Israel’s fresh vegetable exports come from this region. 

Interactive sand table that demonstrates topographical processes at the Vidor Center. Photo: Yoav Devir

The Yair Experimental Station is, however, looking into other possibilities, such as deciduous orchards, vineyards, flower-growing, drip-irrigated rice and the development of remedies from medicinal plants.

The researchers conduct a variety of practical experiments in order to develop alternative growing, irrigation and fertilization techniques, while similarly exploring the possibilities offered by plant protection, organic farming, biological pest control, fruit growing and ornamental fish breeding. All this work is being done in order to help farming in this arid region to develop, expand and flourish.

The journalists toured the research and development station’s greenhouses together with researcher Dr. Mayan Kitron and were impressed with the groundbreaking crops they saw there: strawberries growing in the air, a cross-breed of watermelon and cucumber, tomatoes crossed with potatoes, non-sweet melons for people with diabetes and use in biological pest control, spicy peppers in the shape of spinning tops and much more. 

Alessia Gallione. Photo: Yoav Devir

At the Vidor Center, which offers a window in to Arava agriculture and which was founded with the support of Friends of JNF Australia, the guests learned something about everyday life in the Arava, coping with the desert, local flora and fauna and local farming. The interactive facilities at the center are an example of Israel’s innovative and creative technological abilities.

The journalists enjoyed the unique presentations: crop information broadcast automatically when a particular plot of sand is touched; videos in wooden cabinets that tell the personal stories of local Arava families; a sand table equipped with a computerized projection system that illustrates local topographical processes; and presentations on biological pest control, bee keeping, fish breeding and a whole host of other topics.
“Israel is a perfect example not just of the worldwide problems of desertification and food shortages, but also of ways to cope with them,” said journalist Alessia Gallione “This means that other countries all over the world can learn a great deal from Israel, and I’m sure that Expo will provide an excellent platform for this.”

The Arava International Center for Agricultural Training

Deana Inida from Myanmar (right). Photo: Yoav Devir

The next stop on the itinerary was AICAT, the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training, whose director Hani Arnon met up with the group to explain how the advanced agricultural expertise Israel has developed – at least in part, with the help of KKL-JNF – contributes to nutritional security throughout the world.

Every year, over a thousand students from a variety of African and Asian countries – Ethiopia, South Sudan, Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand – come to Israel to study at AICAT. Apart from their classroom studies, they also get some hands-on experience at farms in the Arava.

“Once they’ve finished studying they return home with a good knowledge of modern farming methods and the assurance that agriculture is possible even under the most difficult conditions,” explained Hani Arnon. “During their time here they get to know Israel at first hand and so become the country’s goodwill ambassadors.”

(R-L) Reigan and Immanuel from South Sudan. Photo: Yoav Devir

“We attend lots of useful and interesting classes, but the most important thing we learn here is how to cope with challenges and solve problems,” 29-year-old Deana Inida, who is the leader of the group of students from Myanmar, told the visitors. “I was amazed to see how Israel has managed to found such a thriving community right in the middle of the desert.”

Twenty-seven-year-old Immanuel from South Sudan told the guests that he had come to Israel to study vegetable growing. “We’ve got plenty of water and fertile land where I come from, but we depend on vegetables imported from other countries,” he said. “It’s our ambition to change this situation.”

His friend Reigan added: “In Israel we learn advanced work techniques and study the technology. There is no doubt that implementing this in our own country will be a major challenge, but we’ll do it.”

Lavianus from Indonesia (left). Photo: Yoav Devir

When asked what they would tell other people about Israel when they return home after their studies, Immanuel replied: “We won’t just talk about farming, we’ll say that Israel is a small country that manages to do great things. The most significant lesson we’ve learned here is that it doesn’t make any difference how small a country is. If its inhabitants have a vision and a will to succeed, their homeland can flourish.”

Although Israel and Indonesia do not maintain diplomatic relations, when a vital issue like nutritional security is at stake everyone is prepared to cooperate. Lavianus Masa, the leader of the Indonesian contingent, told the guests: “We’re the first group to study here and we hope that many other students will follow in our footsteps. We’ve learned a lot about technology, and when we get back to our own country we want to apply it.”

Fun and ecology in Lotan

Recycled park at EkoKef. Photo: Yoav Devir

The delegation paused for lunch at Kibbutz Lotan’s EkoKef (“Eco-Fun”) site, which offers organic gardening, recycling, an unforgettable visit to a recycled amusement park and an opportunity to try one’s hand at alternative building styles.

The site was developed in partnership with KKL-JNF’s Friends worldwide: JNF USA contributed a bird-watching park and a visitors’ center, JNF Australia helped to found the visitors’ center and JNF Canada was a partner in the establishment of the tea house where the journalists had lunch.

Mike Nitzan hosted the delegation members and explained that the local people want to establish a sustainable community in the desert. “We want people who pass through here to change their lives and the way they look at the environment,” he told his guests.

Renewable energies in Ketura

Udi Gat (center). Photo: Yoav Devir

“The Arava is the Silicon Valley of renewable energies,” declared Hevel Eilot Regional Council Chairman Udi Gat when he met the visiting journalists, and he emphasized the region’s three great advantages in this regard: sunshine 360 days a year, plenty of available land and people who are well aware of the importance of the issue.

Gat, who is himself of Italian origin, urged the visitors: “When you get back to Italy, tell the world how we make the wasteland bloom and turn the desert green!”

Avital Nosinov, Educational Coordinator at the Arava Power Company, accompanied the delegation to the solar farm at Kibbutz Ketura. “Sixty per cent of the area’s electricity consumption, including that of Eilat, comes from solar energy,” she said. “By 2020 energy from the sun will supply one hundred per cent of the energy needs of the 60,000 local residents.”

Avital Nosinov in front of the solar farm. Photo: Yoav Devir

The farm, which came into operation in 2011, has over 18,000 solar panels. The great challenge, of course, is to continue to supply electricity throughout the night, after the sun has set. There are plans to pump water up to great heights during the day and release it as evening falls, using its momentum to operate turbines and generate electricity.

Because of the central role green energy plays in the Arava, a new renewable energies complex that will include laboratories, offices and a visitors’ center is in the process of being constructed near Kibbutz Yotvata, with the support of JNF USA.

A small African-style village has been built at Kibbutz Ketura in order to show what it means to live off grid, with no electricity, water, sewage system or any other form of infrastructure. The village is not designed to attract tourists or arouse empathy for the billions of people in Asia and Africa who live in conditions such as these; instead it serves as a trial ground for technologies that can help them.

Solar panel which concentrates light used for heating. Photo: Yoav Devir

Using biogas for cooking.
Photo: Yoav Devir

“We produce the most advanced lo-tech solutions in the world so as to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid,” explained Avital Nosinov.

Products displayed at the site included a solar panel with a simple handle that even a child can use to turn the apparatus towards the sun; a heater based upon vacuum tubes; and a biogas facility that turns organic waste into energy for cooking, heating and lighting while keeping the environment clean and healthy and creating liquid fertilizer for crops. 

Maurizio Molinari. Photo: Yoav Devir

The huts in which these technologies are on show are built of mud and straw, which provide excellent insulation. Holes in the roof provide light that is not dependent upon electricity, and these products have been sold to numerous African and Asian countries, as well as a number of Bedouin villages in Israel that are not connected to the main power line. They can also be useful to residents of developed countries in times of emergency.

“Israel’s image as the site of conflict between Jews and Palestinians is gradually changing,” said the Italian writer and journalist Maurizio Molinari. “The younger generation is more interested in technology than in politics, and Israel is a fascinating start-up nation. I believe that Expo will help to strengthen the country’s technological image.”

Arava agriculture in Africa

“Our motto is that nature recognizes no borders,” said Tali Adini of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Students from all over the world, including Israelis and Palestinians, study at the institute, whose five study centers focus on different issues: renewable energy, water management, ecology, agriculture and sustainable development.

Motti Harari presents an Israeli project underay in the Turkana region of Kenya. Photo: Yoav Devir

Motti Harari
of the Southern Arava Research and Development Station met the delegation at the Arava Institute and told its members a little about agricultural development under extreme conditions: minimal rainfall, very high temperatures, strong sunlight, low humidity and – as if all those were not enough – brackish water for irrigation. Despite these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, agriculture is the main source of income for the local people, and it accounts for 40% of the economy of the southern Arava. Dates are the principal local crop.

The techniques developed at the research and development station are used by many other countries engaged in an attempt to farm desert regions, and thus they contribute to nutritional security worldwide. The station is situated among the fields of the Arava kibbutzim in close proximity to the Jordanian border, and researchers from the two countries collaborate on certain projects. This means that farmers in Jordan also benefit from Israel’s advanced agricultural expertise.

Harari presented a unique project underway in the Turkana region of Kenya, an area in which all previous attempts at farming had failed because of unsuitable water and soil, high temperatures, drought and pests. “The first time I went there I felt as if I’d gone back to Biblical times,” said Harari. “The local people live in little shelters made from branches – you can’t even call it a village. Sometimes they walk for six whole days just to fetch water.”

Missionaries active in the region heard that Israel leads the world in desert agriculture and asked the Southern Arava Research and Development Station for help. “We’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge at the station and of course we wanted to share it,” said Harari.

In a joint venture with KKL-JNF, a training farm was established to enable local people to work with Israeli experts and volunteers. Crops suitable for the local conditions were selected, fertilizers and pest control materials were brought in and water-conserving limans were dug, just as they are at sites in the Negev where KKL-JNF intends to plant trees.

Since the project was launched, 132 farms have been established in Turkana, and today local crops include chick peas, beans and melons. Next year, with the help of KKL-JNF, date palms will be planted. The cost of training a single farmer is around $1,500, which is spent mainly on equipment. This modest sum can save the lives of an entire family. 

Sharon Caballo (center). Photo: Yoav Devir

“In the past the local people lived off meat, milk and nothing else,” said Harari. “This meant that they suffered from vitamin deficiencies and serious medical problems. But now the farmers don’t just produce enough to feed themselves and their families, they also sell part of their produce,” he added proudly.

“As part of the developed world, Israel has an obligation to help developing countries,” said Sharon Caballo, Director of Policy and International Relations at the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation. “We are a young country that has managed to accomplish many things since it was founded and we have a great deal of knowledge to share with the world. And, of course, this also gives us an opportunity to present Israel in a good light and consolidate our ties with a variety of other countries.”

Tourism and nature in Timna Park

The action-packed and fascinating day came to an end in Timna Park, one of southern Israel’s outstanding nature and tourist venues. Dubi Goldman, manager of the Hevel Eilot Economic Company, informed his guests that copper had been mined at the site in ancient times; today the park is a major tourist attraction that helps to boost the local economy. 

Paolo Foscini at Timna Park Lake. Photo: Yoav Devir

The park’s desert landscapes can be viewed in a number of different ways: on foot, by bicycle, from a boat on the artificial lake or on camel back (tours are available). Visitors can also take part in creative workshops and enjoy desert-style hospitality. KKL-JNF is developing the park with the help of its Friends throughout the world, including those in the USA and Germany, and it is in the process of establishing a new visitors’ center, an amphitheater for public events and an additional campsite.

The visitors’ cries of amazement as they glimpsed the lake nestling among the desert hills were a wonderful closing statement to a fascinating and exciting excursion.

“The way Israel has made the desert bloom is a sort of miracle, and there’s no doubt that it’ll be one of the best and most interesting Expo stories,” concluded Paolo Foschini of Italy’s important daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. “I’ve visited Israel many times, and on each occasion I’ve seen new sides to it. Israel is a wonderful country full of contradictions, and those who hear about it only through the news media can never know it properly.”