Ecovillages are not always founded. Sometimes people are simply together, doing what they feel is natural, necessary, and right—loving their communities and the natural world, working for justice and sustainability—only to discover after a few decades that people are calling them an ecovillage. That’s the story of Farkha, a town of about 1500 people in the Salfit district, not far from Ramallah in Palestine’s West Bank.
In a way, it is also the story of Findhorn and Tamera, two other projects that existed long before the words ecovillage and Permaculture were invented. They are two of the founding members of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). And as part of GEN and Gaia Education, representatives of both were present to support the first Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) course in Palestine—and the first in Arabic—in November of 2015 in Farkha. So this story is about Farkha and the EDE, and what makes a village an ecovillage. But even more, it’s about the synergy of networking, about friendship and knowledge-sharing. It’s about how when human beings discover the shared vision that unites them, the details that separate them become much less important. It’s about the universal truth that when you offer solidarity, you also receive it in the same gesture.
The town of Farkha is just outside of Salfit, a small city once nicknamed “little Moscow” for its communist politics, and still known for its Marxist leanings. The only road to Farkha passes through Salfit and then follows a ridge to the center of the village, which is perched on a hilltop and surrounded by terraced slopes that roll off into the distance. Farkha is home to the Palestinian Organic Olive Growers Association, and this is only the most visible of many ecological and community-minded initiatives: There are a number of women’s associations which, for example, manage a kindergarten and cultural center in a shared building. There is another association that makes cosmetics from organic olive oil. The village has been hosting an international cultural festival for 23 years, and through this has a long history of cooperation with supporters in Central and South America. The murals and graffiti around town often include portraits of Ché Guevara and Hugo Chavez. The town has mixed-gender schools—a rarity in contemporary Palestine—and a high rate of graduation for both young men and women. There is a new, 6 hectare demonstration site for organic farming named for Simon Bolivar. The village has a full-time employee who picks up trash, and the council encourages chemical-free home gardening and rooftop rainwater harvesting.
Terrace-building with Baker (Photo: Frederick Weihe)
In other words, Farkha is a concentration of progressive thought and action, and would be a great role-model for small communities anywhere on earth…but it’s not just anywhere. It’s in the middle of Palestine, under a brutal and illegal military occupation. Although Farkha is quiet on the surface, Palestine is a small country; it’s not possible to be very far from the terrible reality. Traveling even short distances means checkpoints, delays, and roadblocks; daily life is marked by negligent or punitive power- and water-cuts; many of the EDE’s students and teachers have been in Israeli prisons, witnessed terrorism and state-sanctioned murder, and all have experienced the racist violence of the occupation. This doesn’t only bring logistical difficulties and the likelihood of having large infrastructure—water tanks and cisterns, for example—destroyed by the IDF (the Israeli military); it also means operating in a culture where fear and despair have been so normal for so long that anger and victimhood have become habits. Fortunately, more and more people in Palestine reject both violence and resignation, and realize that autonomy and sustainability are among the most effective tools of nonviolent political resistance.
Qambaz Baker—mostly just called “Baker”—is the mayor of Farkha, but this official role is simply one consequence of his natural qualities as a leader and visionary. He is accessible, quirky, and endlessly energetic. A true egalitarian, his house is open to the constant flow of supporters; he seems uninterested in the suits and polished desks that small-town politicians so often hide behind. He and his sons—especially Mustafa Baker—were always with us, working on the fields and earthworks, singing, serving food, sharing knowledge, and thinking together about the future. While we were there, Baker announced that the town had just received a grant to install a complete, autonomous photovoltaic system, to completely fill the town’s electricity needs. Farkha has the vision, the knowledge, and drive to move towards real ecological sovereignty, sustainability, and justice; they are a role model not only for Palestine but for the world. We are fortunate to have this friendship; to be there to witness, to learn, and to offer support.
An important bridge between Farkha and the international community is Saad Dagher, an agronomist and permaculture teacher…and yoga instructor, Reiki master, peaceworker, and lover of animals and all living things. He grew up in a village near Farkha, and now lives in Ramallah with his very international family. He speaks Arabic of course, as well as fluent English, Russian, and Spanish. He knew that something special was happening in Farkha, and brought it to the attention of the wider world.
Aida Shibli is a friend of Saad and a key representative of the global community of ecovillages. Herself a Palestinian political activist and peaceworker, she lives in the Tamera Peace Research Village, an intentional community in Portugal. She has long carried the dream of one day seeing an international peace community arise in the Middle East, and in the last years she has focused on network-building in Palestine, putting different activists, visionaries, projects, artists, experts, and students into synergistic and creative contact. This has been within the framework of the Global Campus, an initiative of the Tamera community. One of the many fruits of Global Campus Palestine has been to bring Farkha into contact with GEN, and to bring the EDE and other international networking events to Farkha. Most of the students and experts who participated came as a direct result of this effort.
Many of the teachers came from projects just as remarkable as Farkha, and the EDE also marks a continuation of the cooperation among them. The Bethlehem-based teacher of nonviolence Sami Awad was there; as was activist and author Mazim Qumsiyeh, a professor at the University of Birzeit, and the founder and director of the Palestine Natural History Museum. Permacuture expert Murad Alchufash came from his project Marda Farm to teach. Samera Asafadi came from the animal protection league to talk about her work—also with Saad—to change the often difficult fate of wild and domestic animals in Palestine.
Long-term friend and frequent host of the Global Campus Palestine, Fayez Taneeb, came from Hakoritna Farm, with his special knowledge of how local agriculture and the political situation interact. His family’s land in Tulkarem was mostly lost to the apartheid wall, and what remains has been flattened by the IDF’s bulldozers many times. But his commitment to nonviolence and resilience is strong; he rebuilds and replants every time.
There are many other innovators and activists who were not present, but who are part of this increasingly solid and coherent network.
There were 31 students, 25 Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza, from within Israel, and from the diaspora. Twelve came from Farkha itself. There were six internationals participating as well. It was mostly men, but with every event in Palestine we make steps towards parity. Being in Farkha, with its strong women’s groups, was a help; we had more women present than ever, as students and on the team.
The EDE curriculum was designed by Gaia Education, and covers the different dimensions of sustainability: Worldview, Social, Ecological, and Economic. Of course, our group was a little different. Our students mostly had backgrounds in natural agriculture and a direct lived experience of the political reality of the world, and we worked to match the content to the needs of our group. To put the local experience in a global context, there were also instructors from the international network, including Aida Shibli, Kosha Joubert—executive director of GEN, and Findhorn resident—and Alice Gray. Alice is a British national based in Palestine, an activist and a certified Permaculture instructor. Thanks to the networking efforts of the last years, the other experts were locals, able to offer the content in Arabic. One of the lasting benefits of the EDE, and the whole process around it, was to put the different experts, activists, and visionaries in contact with one another. Great things are already arising.
One important expert from outside Palestine was the natural rainwater management expert Bernd Müller, who was in Palestine for a series of watershed management consultations with the Palestinian Authority, local governments and farmers, and NGOs. The course had many classroom hours, but also days of hands-on action, and one of the most exciting was when we began to rebuild the neglected—but centuries-old—fieldstone retaining walls on the ecological-farming demonstration site. Baker brought his knowledge of traditional terracing, which fit beautifully with Bernd’s contribution from Permaculture; what emerged was an innovative and aesthetically-pleasing hybrid of terracing and swales. Among Saad, Baker, and Bernd, there was so much collected expertise, so much love for life, water, and the land…how could anything but deep friendship emerge?
For the student group also, these days working outdoors were a high point of the course: two joyful days of work towards food and water autonomy, cooperation with nature, and community-building. What we accomplished exceeded our expectations. Not only was a lot of stone and earth moved, but—as if by magic—time expanded to allow plenty of stories, ad hoc language and history lessons, abundant conversation and Arabic coffee, spontaneous song and poetry, and the occasional nargile. Some came to teach, some to learn…but everyone came to connect.
In the last few years, the definition of ecovillage expanded beyond agricultural collectives and intentional communities, to include traditional villages and other projects that support a new human relationship with the natural environment. The 2016 EDE marks the moment when the growing scale and complexity of the projects in Farkha began to overlap with the growing global network of ecovillages.
For me it’s a real source of hope to find people who, despite living in a small village under such constant challenges, nevertheless wake up every day and take a global perspective: They know very well that when they move towards autonomy and sustainability, they are working not only towards their own liberation but towards the liberation of everyone, for example their friends in South America, where farmers are driven off their ancestral lands by mineral speculation and industrial agriculture.
When I leave Farkha and pass through the checkpoints and borders; through traffic, cities, airports, and highways, I don’t have the impression of leaving an oppressed people and stepping into the “free world.” I have rather the feeling of leaving an island of joyful hope and beautiful resilience, and re-entering a culture of distraction, plastic, and hidden exploitation. Truly, my main thought is not “I’m glad I could help.” Rather, I am humbled and grateful that the people in Farkha are working so tirelessly for my survival and liberation—as they are also working for their own survival and liberation, and for yours—by helping to build a world in which community, sustainability, and peace are possible.
The above article was first published (in Communities #171, Summer 2016):
Important Correction: The initial article failed to mention the contributions of Mena Vieira to this process. Without her committed and tireless work, the EDE in Farkha, and Farkha’s emerging network with GEN and with many other projects, would have taken much longer to realize, and necessarily would have had a very different form. As a friend of Tamera, of Findhorn, of GEN, and as a peaceworker who loves the Middle East and is committed to freeing everyone there from the traumas of war and violence, we all owe her our gratitude.
Dr. Frederick Weihe lives and works in Tamera (www.tamera.org), an intentional community and peace research center in southern Portugal. His main professional activity there is in sustainable technology, especially decentralized energy systems. He blogs occasionally at www.physicsforpeaceworkers.org.