Desertification Conference Participants see KKL-JNF Desert Forestry in Action

Sunday, November 23, 2014 1:42 PM

"The conference and today's tour have been a big eye-opener for us in terms of what can be accomplished in dry areas."

The 5th International Conference on Drylands, Deserts and Desertification (DDD), took place on November 17-20 at the Sde Boker campus of Ben Gurion University.  Over 500 people from 60 countries attended this year's conference, including research scientists, representatives of government ministries, industrialists, NGO executives, diplomats and students. On Wednesday, November 19, a group of conference participants joined KKL-JNF Southern Region Deputy Director Itzik Moshe to see how KKL-JNF translates theory into practice in the Western Negev.

Group photo at the 4th century Anim Synagogue in Yatir. Photo: Tania Susskind

It would be hard to imagine a better guide for seeing how KKL-JNF combats desertification and plants trees in the desert than KKL-JNF Southern Region Deputy Director Itzik Moshe, an internationally acclaimed expert on desert afforestation and rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems. On Wednesday, November 19, a group of multi-nationals participating in the Drylands, Deserts and Desertification conference toured Yatir Forest, Israel's largest planted woodlands and an example of a forest in a semi-arid region.

View of Yatir Forest from the Foresters House lookout. Photo: Tania Susskind

On the way to Yatir, the group saw some of KKL-JNF's water harvesting techniques, including limans. Limans are based on ancient agricultural methods of the Nabateans, a technique
which involves planting trees inside shallow depressions in the sand, where water collects, forming a small dam. Limans not only harvest water from flash floods but also provide shade and water for livestock and wild animals. 

"Yatir Forest spreads out over an area of 60,000 dunams, and it's also for people, not just for trees," Itzik explained. "We left the flat areas for agriculture, and planted Aleppo pines on the rocky slopes and broadleaf trees in the valleys. KKL-JNF also has excellent relations with all the local communities. Abed, a Bedouin who was basically born in the forest, is the head forester here, and almost all the workers are Bedouins or Palestinians. This is something you don't hear about in the news. Shepherds from the Palestinian Authority graze their flocks in the forest, which helps prevent fires, and tourists come here from all over."

Yatir donor recognition wall. Photo: Tania Susskind

Some of the members of the group were curious about the many plaques in the plaza at the entrance to Forester's House. "These are dedication plaques for people from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews, who support KKL-JNF's work," Itzik explained to the surprised guests. "They enable us to serve the people and make all KKL-JNF sites available to the public free of charge."

The group proceeded to the Weizmann Institute research site, where they were greeted by Prof. Dan Yakir, a research scientist who noted that the site began operating in the year 2000. They saw the many different scientific instruments at the site, including a research tower rising high into the treetops. Yatir Forest was the first site in the world to study how a forest in a semi-arid region affects carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. One of the surprising findings was that CO2 sequestration in Yatir is similar to that of the forests of Northern Europe.

Yatir Research tower. Photo: Tania Susskind

They also saw a research project that focuses on an in-depth analysis of a number of individual trees and how the interface between the trees and the available water works. "We work very closely with KKL-JNF," Yakir said, "and try to find answers to questions they ask us, for example, what is the ideal tree planting density in such a harsh climate."

According to the Kenyan Ambassador to Israel, HE Augostino Stephen Karanu Njoroge, afforestation is a very important topic in Kenya, "because 80% of our country is arid or semi-arid. Israel has innovative techniques and great experience with planting trees to stop desertification, which is why I recommended that the heads of the Kenyan Forest Service come here for the conference. We are planning to collaborate with the Sde Boker Institute on reforesting Kenya. In certain areas of our country we were positive that it's impossible to plant trees, but after we saw what KKL-JNF accomplished in Israel, we realized that it can be done."

After lunch, Tali, an archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority, led the group on a walk through the forest to see the ancient agricultural remains that abound here. The day ended at the remnants of the Anim synagogue, which was established in the fourth century and existed until the eighth century ce. Tali also showed the group the remains of a square structure that served as a fortress during the period of the kings of Judah.   

At ancient cistern. Photo: Tania Susskind

Mr. Peter N. Kirigua
, chairman of the Kenya Forest Service, said that in spite of the tense situation in Jerusalem, he didn't hesitate about coming: "In every county in the world there are pockets of problems. The conference and today's tour have been a big eye-opener for us in terms of what can be accomplished in dry areas. I would love to meet with the KKL-JNF world chairman, who is a friend of the ambassador, and speak with him about future cooperation."

Luuk Fleskins from the University of Leeds in the Netherlands specializes in the socio-economic aspects of land management and was visiting Israel for the first time. "The British consul recommended that I come for the conference, there's an ongoing discussion between the UK and Israel on these topics. The truth is that in the Netherlands we have no lack of water, in fact, our problem is more how to contain it. However, I work with a lot of countries that have problems similar to yours, so I'm gaining some very valuable information while I'm here."

Goen Ho, an environmental engineer from the Murdoch University of Australia and his wife Madeline attended the DDD conference in Israel two years ago and came back for more. "Last time we went on a different tour, this time we wanted to see what KKL-JNF is all about. At Sde Boker, we understood that developing the Negev was one of Ben Gurion's goals. After today's tour, we are certain that Ben Gurion would have been most satisfied with how KKL-JNF is realizing his vision of making the desert bloom."