I was looking through the photojournalist site VII (a great time suck if you ever feel like being unproductive in the most enjoyable of ways; and a superb array of photos of course) and stumbled upon this series on Farming in Gaza. I would highly encourage you to head on over to check out the photos, since they give a raw and very moving impression of the difficulties of ensuring food security in one of the most volatile regions on Earth. But then come back! Because the photoseries inspired me to look further into the story. And boy, is it a story.
[N.B. this is the situation to the best of my knowledge/research at this point; in a region so much in flux some of it might be outdated, so please let me know if I left further developments out!]
You should be familiar with the concept of the Gaza strip as part of the Palestinian territories (in addition to the main other region of the West Bank). If not, no shame in consulting Wikipedia! I found out a couple of additional facts that I wasn’t familiar with either:
- At a current population of 1.7 million, Gaza also has the 9th fastest population growth rate of the world (3.01% every year). This is rather problematic considering its food insecurity problems discussed below.
- The entire area is 365 square kilometers, being 41 km long and from 6 to 12 km wide.
- Tiny history lesson: Having been fought over pretty much since the Allied nations issued the Palestine Mandate after World War I, it was successively occupied first by Egypt and then by Israel until the Oslo Accords of 1994 which also delineated (most of) the current borders; after a brief period of Palestinian authority rule, the Second Intifada started in 2000 with even more violence and led Israel to effectively move in again more strongly until their decision to unilaterally disengage in 2005. In 2006, there were elections that led the more radical Hamas into power, replacing the more moderate Fatah which were the main negotiating partner internationally. This led to more violence, and finally a 22 day war in 2008 that was succeeded by an Israeli blockade, which led to a further deterioration of the residents’ living conditions. Since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011, the border to Egypt is now permanently open, which decreases the tension a tiny bit.
Complicated, eh? But still, this is enough to know to understand the importance of food security to the Palestinian people living there, which are almost completely dependent on humanitarian aid apart from what they are able to grow themselves. And this ability for self-reliance is seriously curtailed, as we will see below.
If you look at map, the green line is the fortified border that is enforced very strongly. The bold red is “area restricted for Palestinian access”, though technically on Palestinian territory. According to a 2010 UN report (cited on this blog), though the “no-go zone” officially imposed by Israel extends to 300 meters from the border, there have been documentations of Palestinians being targeted as far as 2 km from it. This meant (at that time) that the decision to farm much of the most fertile soil the Gaza citizens had was a constant struggle – The closer you get to the border, the higher your risk of having your land bulldozed (in the name of security), your workers harassed or even shot at, and the greater your risk that you might not be able to get back in time to water/fertilize/harvest your crops, making agriculture a tenacious activity.
A similar problem existed with fishing – the further from the coast Palestinian fishermen venture, the higher the likelihood that their vessels will be attacked or arrested. But closer to the coast, the sea is sandy and virtually no fish can be found, placing fishermen in a position between economic and physical insecurity.
Now, from my understanding this was the situation in 2012 before the ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza came into place. This agreement also “promised farmers increased access to the area close to the fence“, according to a NY Times article of June 2013. Yet, a report issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights still spoke of a buffer zone of almost a mile from the fence.
I guess this whole explanation makes the point obvious – As that article then further highlighted, and as I understand it, such agreements lead to little or no change on the ground simply due to the volatility of political agreements – if you can’t trust that the ceasefire will hold for an entire growing season, why start investing your time and effort? As one farmer said, “I’m afraid of having them bulldozed since the first day I planted them. We do not know if the tanks will enter here today or tomorrow. Uncertainty is the biggest problem we face.” It’s even more complicated for perennial crops such as fruit orchards which require a vision 5 to 10 years in the future. After one farmer’s clementine and lemon trees were leveled, he said he would not build them up again:
“I will not risk again and plant trees. Because the trees need years before you could pick their fruits, and who knows what the situation will be in the future.”
The worst part about this is that many residents of Gaza rely on the land they own to feed their families and gain at least some additional income to supplement the aid that the UN agency UNRWA provides. According to a 2012 survey that UNRWA carried out carried out in collaboration with the FAO and WFP, from 2011 to 2012 alone the percentage of food insecure households increased from 44% to 57% 🙁 This situation is mainly due to the combination of the blockade and these previously mentioned territorial policies, which is why the UN’s recommendations included the following:
- “Lifting the blockade on Gaza and easing the West Bank access restrictions remain the most critical factors affecting food insecurity. Only by addressing the core drivers will food insecurity be sustainably addressed in Palestine. Until the constraints of the occupation are lifted, the Palestinian economy will continue to suffer and prospects remain bleak for widespread economic revival and, thus, food insecurity, as an expression of poverty, is likely to remain pervasive.
- All measures to revive the productive capacity of the Palestinian economy should be undertaken with a view to promote its ability to produce and export goods, including food. Sustainability of economic growth depends largely on the capacity of the Palestinian economy to compete in global markets. Food security is ultimately driven by employment creation through private sector growth. More attention and resources should be invested in assuring that the productive sectors remain competitive. These aspects are critical towards food security in a society where there is still significant economic reliance on the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.”
This comes to show how agricultural production and productivity can have ripple effects that affect most of the other sectors – by spurring domestic demand, easing poverty, and just being the base of a sound societal system. It makes me sad that there is so much that could be done in Gaza that just depends on this intense political rivalry cooling down.
Had you heard of this issue before? What do you think about the photoseries I linked to?