Posts Tagged ‘restoration’

Learning from the Black Goat

December 8, 2017

Here’s an interesting article by Jonathan Cook, a British journalist living and working in Nazareth, the capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel: ‘In age of forest fires, Israel’s law against Palestinian goats proves self-inflicted wound for Zionism‘. He writes:

A ban by Israel on herding black goats – on the pretext they cause environmental damage – is to be repealed after nearly seven decades of enforcement that has decimated the pastoral traditions of Palestinian communities.

The Israeli government appears to have finally conceded that, in an age of climate change, the threat of forest fires to Israeli communities is rapidly growing in the goats’ absence.

The goats traditionally cleared undergrowth, which has become a tinderbox as Israel experiences ever longer and hotter summer droughts. Exactly a year ago, Israel was hit by more than 1,500 fires that caused widespread damage.

The story of the lowly black goat, which has been almost eliminated from Israel, is not simply one of unintended consequences. It serves as a parable for the delusions and self-destructiveness of a Zionism bent on erasing Palestinians and creating a slice of Europe in the Middle East.

The whole story struck me as a rich commentary on the conflicts between landscape rewilding and the ‘human ecology’ of traditional land-use and the cultures built on multi-generation subsistence practices. It serves as an extreme example of where conservation ideology can lead, as well as the dark urges it can serve, if no attention is paid to the human role in ecological systems, and if projects are forced through against the will of the people who actually inhabit those landscapes. Consequently it raises questions about the relationship between rewilding and ethnic cleansing and whether it’s even possible to have one without elements of the other.

It appears that, following the war in 1948 which created the state of Israel, the settlers were keen to plant a number of new pine forests. The stated aim was advertised as a noble environmental mission, to ‘redeem the land,’ create ‘a greener world,’ and to ‘make the desert bloom’ but there were several ulterior motives served by the policy:

The trees were fulfilling an important Zionist mission, in the eyes of Israel’s founding fathers. They were there to conceal the rubble of more than 530 Palestinian villages the new state had set about destroying […] making it impossible for the refugees to return and rebuild their homes.

Additionally, the pine was useful because it was fast-growing and evergreen, shrouding in darkness all year evidence of the ethnic cleansing committed during Israel’s creation. And the forests played a psychological role, transforming the landscape in ways designed to make it look familiar to recent European immigrants and ease their homesickness.

Finally, the falling pine needles acidified the soil, leaving it all but impossible for indigenous trees to compete. These native species – including the olive, citrus, almond, walnut, pomegranate, cherry, carob and mulberry – were a vital component of the diet of Palestinian rural communities. Their replacement by the pine was intended to make it even harder for Palestinian refugees to re-establish their communities.

However, these plans were frustrated — so it was claimed — by Bedouin herders, grazing sheep and black goats (aka Syrian goats) in marginal areas around the Negev desert and the hills of Galilee, and the ‘environmental damage’ caused when they allegedly ate up the young pine saplings. In response a ‘Plant Protection’ law was passed in 1950 which sought to outlaw the goat and paved the way for mass culling of the herds:

[Ariel] Sharon created the “Green Patrol”, a paramilitary unit of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, whose tasks included seizing and slaughtering the Bedouin’s black goats.

Palestinian community activist Maha Qupty notes that in the first three years of the Green Patrol’s operations, the number of black goats was slashed by 60 percent, from 220,000 to 80,000.

But again the motivation had more to do with ethnic cleansing and land theft, made apparent by a 1965 Planning and Building law which, in addition to the assault on their subsistence base, made Bedouin homes illegal and denied them access to public services, with the intention being ‘to pen the Bedouin up in a handful of urbanised “townships”, forcing them to abandon agriculture and become casual labourers in a Jewish economy’. Israeli leaders publicly admitted this at the time without apology, as Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff in the IDF, commented:

We should transform the Bedouin into an urban proletariat – in industry, services, construction, and agriculture. 88% of the Israeli population are not farmers, let the Bedouin be like them. Indeed, this will be a radical move which means that the Bedouin would not live on his land with his herds, but would become an urban person who comes home in the afternoon and puts his slippers on. His children will get used to a father who wears pants, without a dagger, and who does not pick out their nits in public. They will go to school, their hair combed and parted. This will be a revolution, but it can be achieved in two generations. Without coercion but with governmental direction … this phenomenon of the Bedouins will disappear.

The result?

Of the 90,000 people from 95 tribes living in the land of the Naqab on the eve of the Nakba, only 11,000 from 19 tribes remained by 1952. They were concentrated in an area equivalent to 10% of the lands they previously owned. [‘Naqab’ is the original Arabic name for the Negev desert; ‘Nakba’ is what Palestinians call the 1948 war and their ensuing violent colonisation.]

And the ecological consequences? Well, maybe pictures say it best:

 

Cook notes that, whereas there had been several Palestinian villages on Mount Carmel accompanied by a population of around 15,000 goats before the 1950 ‘Plant Protection’ law and the abuses of the Green Patrol, by 2013 goat numbers were down to 2,000 and thick pine forests disguised where the villages had been cleared. But the facade is vulnerable. The Aleppo Pine (called ‘Jerusalem Pine’ in Israel) favoured in the plantation schemes is very fire-prone, and the risk increases with arid conditions which are expected to worsen with global warming. The Mount Carmel fire of 2010 destroyed nearly 10,000 acres of forest, killed 44 people and caused the evacuation of 17,000 more, with the problem only likely to get worse in the future. Even hardline Israeli politicians have now started to reconsider the role of goats in preventing the build-up of flammable scrub, eating seeds and thinning out pine saplings, although it seems likely the remaining Bedouin herders will continue to suffer discrimination in different forms even if their subsistence practice now — finally after nearly 70 years — has the occupier state’s stamp of approval.

*****

So… how do we square all this with rewilding philosophy and practice going forward? My personal bias, born and raised in a North European temperate climate, is towards trees and forest cover, so visually I prefer the image of the forested Mount Carmel to its eroded, scrubby-looking appearance of 123 years ago (although admittedly the fire blazing through it indicates something’s not right!). But investigating the history and prehistory of the Negev region tells me that trees have been a rarity for at least the last 10,000 years, including a couple thousand years of hunter-gatherer occupation before domesticated grazing got underway. Pistacia khinjuk (a small tree in the cashew family) and Tamarix species are recorded, but the predominant species have been herbs and grasses in the Chenopodiaceae, Cruciferae, Gramineae, Liliaceae, Compositae and Artemisia families, with Plantago species apparently coinciding with ‘periods of livestock breeding in the central Negev desert’ at various intervals from around 5,000 years ago. So it appears that the Arabic systems of pastoralism or fruit and nut orchards where appropriate are the best systems for the region in the absence of mass irrigation or petrochemicals — if humans are to maintain a presence there at all, that is.

This brings us to the question of sustainability. Anarcho-primitivist rewilding philosophy rails against the domestication of plants and animals, including the pastoral context which most often goes hand in hand with field agriculture (eg: through trade relations). Apart from the damaging effects it has on the domesticated species and on the humans domesticators themselves, it creates a dividing line between ‘us’ (humans and the small band of species who completely depend on one another) and ‘them’ (all the other species ‘out there’ which compete with, frustrate, even predate on ‘us, in here’), leading to conflict, antagonism and eventual wars of extermination on any species which undermines the domesticating practices, or the expansion of those systems. It may be possible to sustain a certain population of pastoralists and their livestock indefinitely in any given area, but at what cost to the wildlife? Predators shot, trapped or poisoned, other grazers displaced, loss of 3-dimensional tree- and shrub-based habitat, erosion and disturbance of soil, disruptions of fertility cycles, etc etc. Domestication gives humans the option to expand food production — and their subsequent population — at will, and history has shown that, under these subsistence strategies, there is no upper limit which they will not attempt to push through in their never-ending quest for expansion. Witness the recent estimates that ‘83% of the global terrestrial biosphere [is] under direct human influence’ and ‘36% of the Earth’s bioproductive surface is “entirely dominated by man” ‘ and tally that against the extinction crisis currently well underway among all walks of life. Theoretically it might be ‘sustainable’ to reduce planetary biodiversity down to just humans and rice, but that’s not a world I’d want to live in!

What if we look at human practices, domesticated or otherwise, which enhance biodiversity and improve habitat for other species – regenerative, rather than merely sustainable practices as Toby Hemenway and others have described (‘How’s your marriage?’ ‘Oh, it’s sustainable…’)? Many people around the world make this claim already, whether we’re talking about coppicing, hay meadows, hedgerows, hunting, selective harvesting, managed grazing or small scale burning, both in indigenous and market-society contexts. The trouble is that it’s always a subjective judgement: an improvement for one species will inevitably worsen conditions for another. Maintain an open forest canopy and light-loving plants and animals will thrive but those that like it dark and damp will suffer. Keep meadows, heaths and moorlands open through grazing or burning and the wildflowers, grouse and pollinating insects will thank you but the Birch trees and associated secondary woodland species will curse you under their breath. Burn under established oak trees and you’ll get a good crop of acorns but the insect populations, along with the targeted acorn weevils, will plummet. There’s a good article about this by ecologists Hambler & Speight, looking at conservation practices in the UK and Europe. They make the point that local biodiversity might not be the best measure of an ecosystem’s true value:

High diversity of habitat is clearly an undesirable general goal: the costs and benefits depend on the scale of the habitats. A diverse park or garden may have more landscape or educational appeal than a dense, dark oak or spruce monoculture, and more species of vascular plants – but more specialist, vulnerable, and globally rare species could inhabit the woodland. Mud and sea lochs may not be diverse, but are important habitats. […] Common habitats should not be created from rare ones to increase diversity.

A further problem with habitat diversity is that it may be created at the expense of large, homogeneous blocks of habitat, and therefore more edges are created, between small habitat fragments. In some circumstances, edges are beneficial, but a rapidly increasing scientific literature suggests organisms of the edge and matrix around a habitat can be inimical to those of the interior.

The claim for black goats in Israel/Palestine is that they browse away the woody plant materials that would otherwise build up and potentially fuel catastrophic wildfires. I don’t know if this would also be the case without the pine plantations adding to the fuel load. Probably to a lesser extent. Further it is said that their browsing habits are important for:

[…] controlling the growth and spread of trees and shrubs, which thwarts the growth and ultimately the existence of herbs and wildflowers, in turn leading to the disappearance of animals and birds that need open spaces to live in. One ecological study carried out on Crete examining the effects of goat grazing in inhabited areas found that places where goats regularly grazed had 46 types of wild herbal plants, whereas others only had 10. (ibid.)

I couldn’t find that study but this paper (pdf), taking a broader view of the goat’s positive and negative environmental impacts around the world, argues that its reputation as a ‘black sheep’ for causing habitat degradation is not deserved, as goat herds are often brought in only after the land has already been overgrazed by sheep or cattle, and where they have caused damage this is most often due to mismanagement or accidental release of feral populations into sensitive environments. On the plus side it states that:

[…] moderate goat grazing is considered valuable for the conservation of pastures dominated by native or endemic species in Tenerife Island (Fernández-Lugo et al., 2009), and negative effects on plant diversity are expected after goat grazing abandonment in pastures which sustain endemic plant species in La Gomera Island (Arévalo et al., 2011). […] Furthermore, goats having a potential positive impact on vegetation regeneration and biodiversity improvement (ElAich and Waterhouse, 1999), they have returned to several unmanaged grasslands around Europe with aims of conservation of the biodiversity (Ferrer et al., 2001; Muller,2002). They can also contribute to preserve ecosystems like heather, moor, marsh wet meadow and other unique biotops present in protected areas (Martyniuk and Olech,1997).

Other examples include improving mountain plantlife after cereal cultivation and managing chalk grasslands for specific butterfly populations. So far so subjective… It discusses the impacts that goat herds have on other wild mammals sharing the same forage, pointing out that in many cases the wild species are able to live alongside due to slight differences in range or food preferences. A powerful example of the damage-through-mismanagement case can be seen in the Loess Plateau restoration project in China. One of the main causes of environmental damage was unrestricted grazing of goat herds. When they were penned up and more tightly managed the area was able to recover and benefit from all the other restoration efforts. See this documentary from around 17:30:

Interestingly this resulted in drastic changes in the whole climate, with trees, dammed water sources and terracing arresting the moisture that formerly would have just run off, carrying a load of the topsoil with it. It’s an artificial plantation, but judging from pictures it’s difficult to imagine it catching fire (though I’m sure protracted drought would make it more likely). Also, unlike the Israeli plantations the area actually has a history of temperate forest cover, further supporting the appropriateness of the restoration efforts.

Loess Plateau, September 1995

Loess Plateau, September 2009 – source

It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t show an objective improvement of the land and an example of the kind of thing civilised humans should be doing across the planet to repair all the damage they have caused over the centuries and millennia. The only misgivings I had after hearing about it had to do with a) the involvement of the World Bank (what’s in it for them?) and b) the massive amount of government funds needed to get the ball rolling, 250 million dollars, without which the local farmers would never have had the time to spare for such slow-return activities. The above documentary showed one illuminating quote from a farmer during the early stages of the project: ‘They want us to plant trees everywhere, even in the good land. What about the next generation? They can’t eat trees.’ [22:50] You can sort of see his point, even if he’s wrong about being able to get a direct or indirect food crop from trees: is it feasible or sustainable to have an entire farming population employed in non-food-producing activities over a period of years, just doing repair work? Where’s the money come from to support this venture? But yes, it also illustrates how the over-reliance on a few species of plant or animal domesticates can paint your imagination into a corner, explaining the shrieks of outrage that farmers everywhere direct towards ‘unproductive’ rewilding projects. They mean unproductive for (civilised) humans, who have a God-given right to total dominion over every acre of the planet. They fail to account for all the indirect benefits that nondomesticated landscapes can have for their systems if given half a chance, but further they fail to see the possibilities for direct human involvement in rewilded landscapes and don’t remember that formerly this was every human being’s mode of existence.

It’s good to see a continued human presence as landscapes are repaired, indeed with people leading the way with the restoration efforts. Also I like that food production is still a key part of the end result, and that it hasn’t simply turned into a recreational tourist zone. That’s what troubles me about the trend in landscape rewilding movements in Britain and Europe, which seem to have a ‘pristine wilderness’ ethos that bars direct human involvement, except for in the alienated role of an outsider, visiting, taking a picture, participating in an organised leisure activity, then going back home to the city. See this Rewilding Europe video for example:

The only people featured engaged in any kind of subsistence activity are the old man using a donkey to pull a small plough, presumably to represent the old-time farming which no longer has a place in the modern world, and a beekeeper near the end as one example of the ‘business, jobs and income’ that rewilding can provide. The rest are young professionals with spotless outdoor clothing and expensive-looking cameras, just there to enjoy themselves and look at the scenery. Something important is definitely lost under those bland phrases ‘Large parts of the countryside in Europe are being abandoned … Young people are leaving for the cities … We can turn these problems into a historic opportunity’. I’ve seen nothing to suggest that Rewilding Europe are actively driving this process, merely benefiting from the vacuum left after farmers sell up and leave because of no longer being able to compete on the world market, among other reasons. Nonetheless it seems to fit a sad pattern that space only opens up for rewilding projects where for some reason the countryside has been depopulated. Places that spring to mind are:

  • Scotland (after the Highland Clearances)
  • The Soča river valley in Western Slovenia (after Germans were expelled following WW2)
  • Chernobyl (after the nuclear reactor explosion)
  • The demilitarised zone separating North and South Korea (after the Korean War)
  • The Chagos Islands (after expulsion of native islanders by the British)
  • The expansion of forests following population crashes in the Americas after first contact by Europeans and Eastern Europe after the Mongol raids

You can see how claims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ from farmers might not be total paranoia, whether they’re blaming rewilders, other environmentalists or conservation charities and their influence, such as it is (or rather, such as they perceive it to be), on government policy. Their life is enough of a struggle as it is, without a bunch of know-nothing outsiders telling them what to do, what not to do, or even that they shouldn’t be there at all.

I guess you have to ask what the land itself would want, in each circumstance. Maybe in some places it would be happy for farmers and their domesticates to continue their traditional practices; maybe in others it would like to see humans decamp totally and allow the wild communities to recover on their own and create their own self-willed ecological relationships; maybe in some circumstances it would appreciate the re-introduction of some former lost species or the periodic control of an invasive; or maybe it would welcome the re-introduction of humans, not in an exploitative capacity but playing a keystone role in their own right. People who have lived and worked in that particular place for a long time will have the most relevant knowledge about what can and should be done there to make things better, assuming they’ve kept a basic sensitivity and not become tenant exploiters for outsider interests. However, in the long run it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this expansion of civilised humanity and their domesticates; this appropriation of every available stretch of land; this great hoovering up of every last photon converted by the plants into the basic building blocks of life has to be stopped and put into reverse. Furthermore this whole mode of production which operates by basically stealing biomass from the rest of the living community to fuel the growth of just a handful of species has to end. Just look where we are now: