The Dilemma of the International Volunteer (in two parts): Permaculturing in Palestine

by David J. Lobina

The farm dog, which one day followed us from Beit Sahour to the Herodion National Park, and back.

In an article on anarchist thought and action, Noam Chomsky draws a crucial but often neglected distinction for politically-inclined activists: that between visions, the ‘conception of a future society’ one might aspire to, and goals, the actual ‘choices and tasks that are within reach’, the latter ideally guided by one’s vision.[i] These, Chomsky tells us, are often in conflict, as the most sensitive choices at some point may bring about changes and situations that can be far from, and perhaps even opposed to, the vision one is campaigning for.

The specific case that engaged Chomsky in the piece is the role of the corporation in modern society, a “legal entity” that can grow so powerful as to become ‘immune from popular interference and public inspection’ –  i.e., out of the reach of the state. Rather counter-intuitively, Chomsky concludes, an anarchist may well be advised to aim to strengthen public institutions and other spheres of the state in order to rein the corporations in, even if for an anarchist a future, desirable society would be one in which the state is in fact replaced by autonomous spheres of self-realisation (Chomsky’s preferred definition of anarchism); a clear discrepancy.

This state of affairs, however, is not exclusive to anarchist activists; indeed, the conflict between one’s goals and visions may well be a feature of normal life. The case I would like to consider in this two-parter is that of the international volunteer – those people who spend their unpaid time outside of their home countries to the benefit of others. In particular, I am interested in discussing some of the challenges a volunteer faces in a place like the occupied territories of Palestine.

Perhaps the first issue worth considering, however, is whether a citizen ought to volunteer to begin with, be at home or overseas. After all, no matter how concerned a citizen might be about this or that issue, one would expect the state, public institutions, and indeed the international community, to be responsible over all matters concerning social injustices; to watch over the common welfare; to act in the face of abuses and unjust situations; and much more.

No doubt most of the relevant institutions and their representatives already claim to be doing all these things, but it doesn’t take a hard look to see how far this ideal diverts from reality. The gulf between the decisions and actions of these institutions and the will of the citizens that elected their representatives arises too often to merit a detailed list of examples –a gulf that becomes a chasm the more removed these institutions are from the citizens they represent (not to mention the much more dramatic example of authoritarian regimes).

It is precisely this ever-increasing gap that compels concerned citizens to take up the type of (often, social) work that the state seems incapable to carry out – a role the state seemingly lacks too often, especially in some countries.[ii] Labour movements, NGOs, and activist groups are some examples of the type of organisations encompassing volunteering, and it is perhaps safe to say that most citizens have been involved in some of these activities at some point of their lives.

Most people certainly take part in their own communities in one way or another, a type of involvement that is seldom considered volunteering per se, but which shares with it the undertaking of an active and unpaid role in managing one’s own life, in cooperation with others, without recurring to delegates and representatives. Residents’ committees, workers’ unions, guilds, and various other groups proliferate at the level of the community, and a sort of direct volunteering is also evident from recycling campaigns to assistance to the poor and hungry; and myriad other examples. This type of volunteering is in general the most accessible as well as the most rewarding, as the results of one’s work are most evident.

Many of these activities can be quite low-key, but the conflict between goals and visions may surface here too, though not in such dramatic fashion as in the Chomsky example. As alluded to earlier, I’m not interested in such cases, but in the more politically-motivated volunteering, often driven by certain political beliefs or even ideology, as I am inclined to think that the conflict between goals and visions arises more clearly in these cases. I myself faced some of these conflicts over the summer of 2009, when I volunteered in a permaculture farm in Palestine.

A permaculture farm?

Permaculture farming tries to mimic natural ecologies in order to achieve self-sustainability and it has especially been useful in places with limited access to materials and resources, sometimes because of an embargo, occupation or else. The Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza are a case in point.

Permaculture is a relatively recent, global movement, but many of the solutions it offers to farmers have in fact been used in traditional farming for centuries. It is not uncommon to find farmers in rural areas of Southern Europe employing what appear to be permaculture methods, some of which include washing the dishes with lemon, reusing water for irrigation, etc.

Nevertheless, the permaculture movement is a more systematic and conscious endeavour that follows four principles: minimal consumption, recycling and reinvesting of waste products, redistribution of surplus, and self-reliance.[iii]

The permaculture movement is not new in Palestine. The Sustainable Development Centre was founded, with financial assistance from Western organisations, in 1993 in the West Bank in order to study how permaculture could be implemented in Palestinian farms. It managed to achieve some success, including the planting of some 300 native plants, but it was short-lived, given that it was destroyed by the Israeli army in 2000. Murad al-Khufash, who worked at the Centre, is carrying on with this work, but the group is beset with huge logistic and bureaucratic problems.[iv]

The project I volunteered in, originally set up by four British ex-pats, is to be found in the Henna Saad valley (wadi) in Beit Sahour, a middle-class town east of Bethlehem in the West Bank, predominantly Christian, and with a population of around 12,000 people when I visited.[v] Naturally, a farm of these characteristics is to meet the real-world conditions of the area, and the actual conditions in Palestine are varied, not only between the West Bank and Gaza, but also within the West Bank itself.

Ever since the Oslo accords, the West Bank has been divided into three administrative zones. Area A is under the full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and comprises around 1% of the West Bank; control of area B is divided between Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control, and this area covers 27% of the land; and area C, which is under the full control of Israel, and constitutes around 72% of the whole region.[vi]

Beit Sahour is located within the confines of area A, but it is certainly not immune from the direct effects of the occupation: movement is hampered by the fact that 74% of the main routes are controlled by Israeli checkpoints;[vii] Israeli settlements are visible from many surrounding towns, such as Beit Jala and Nahalin, and some Israelis have even attempted to reclaim land nearby;[viii] the Gilo checkpoint is a mere 10 minutes away by car, and hence the separation wall; and importantly to this permaculture project, access to water is very limited, despite the fact that the Eastern Aquifer is located within the West Bank in its entirety.

The farm was originally set up by four friends from Bangor University who successively made it into the region from 2004 or thereabouts, some initially as tourists. Ultimately, they took up diverse NGO-related jobs, which in some cases involved writing reports about the water situation in the Palestinian territories. One of them eventually moved into the oldest house in the aforementioned valley, built by one Henna Saad, who gives his name to the entire wadi, and in time the entire group relocated there with the intention to kick-start a more hands-on activism. The project officially started in April 2008, in the middle of spring, and the valley was full of tortoises, and hence the name of the farm: Bustan Qaraaqa, the tortoise garden.[ix]

The hundred-year-old house, traditionally built to accommodate its environment – in clear contrast with the surrounding, modern, Western-like houses – sits over 1.2 hectares of land, of which the tree nursery, water tanks, and the caves immediately stand out as one enters the property. The house itself is three-storey high and can accommodate up to a dozen volunteers and guests (the project functions as a guest-house too, including couch-surfing).

As mentioned, a permaculture farm is supposed to meet the real-world conditions of the region, and two factors were immediately salient in this case: the project’s organisers were on three-month tourist visas and these have to be constantly renewed, with the obvious repercussions for the continuity of the project; and, the water situation in the West Bank is so grave that overcoming this problem is central to the very viability of the overall project.

The whole farm is organised in order to function despite the limited availability of this most important of resources. The gravity of the situation can’t be overstated. Only 69 percent of Palestinian communities are connected to water supply, and many of these form part of a bigger network that also serves Israeli settlements in the West Bank, with the result that supply is constantly cut off  (especially during the summer) if there is not enough pressure to meet the requirements of the settlements.[x]

In all, the average supply to the West Bank is around 63 litres per capita per day, which is well below half of the Israeli domestic consumption. Further, the sewage system is either inadequate or just absent, causing the inevitable spreading of clearly preventable diseases. The result is that many households, including Bustan Qaraaqa, are forced to buy water from Israeli private companies. It couldn’t escape any visitor that there is an easy way to tell Palestinian towns from Israeli settlements in the West Bank: by looking at whether you can spot huge water tanks on the roof of houses.

This unjust situation needn’t be the case, but it directly follows from the constraints the occupation imposes. Even though Palestinians and Israelis share two water systems – the Mountain Aquifer and the Jordan Basin – access to these is severely restricted for the Palestinians, not only because of the physical impediments in the way of barriers and curfews, but also by the legal requirement to apply and obtain permits for any drilling, a permission that must be granted by the Joint Water Committee (JWC).[xi]

Enter the composting toilet!

To be found on the second floor of the property, and inside a brick cabin, its only redeeming feature at the time was that its walls were covered in quotes from poets and philosophers, though I could never make up my mind whether the smell of shit was appropriate or not, given the company. Standing on top of the toilet seat, one could look down the five-metre chute and into the buckets were all the excreta were being collected, a true abyss if I have ever encountered one.

The toilet is much improved now (see this video), but at the time two separate buckets would eventually be filled, and these needed to be taken to a proper, much bigger deposit where a biodegradable process would take place. It was a ghastly activity, but the benefits were considerable, or so I was told; not only is the waste water of a flash toilet greatly reduced, the excrement are in time reused for the soil.

“Reduce and reuse” was in fact the strategy the organisers hoped would allow them to get off the grid of the Israeli-controlled water supply lines. The farm had a number of water tanks for this purpose, the most important of which were the rain-collecting ones on the roof, which served the kitchen and bathroom, and which in turn were connected to a “grey water system” the project members had devised so that all the water employed was filtered and reused for irrigation. In fact, the core of the whole project revolved around the extensive number of plants and trees in the farm, as these were there to provide enough food for everyone.

As I were to find out, most work at the farm was around these very trees and plants. It takes some time for a permaculture farm to reap substantial rewards – around three years – and one has to make sure the conditions are ideal. This mostly involves the daily and careful watering, which in the case of the tree nursery at the farm, this meant devising an efficient irrigation system. The implications should not be underestimated: if you manage to collect enough water from the raining season, and if you grey water system and composting toilet work efficiently so that you can provide enough water for the trees and plants, which in turn these trees and plants are to provide enough organic food for subsistence, then projects such as Bustan Qaraaqa’s ought to be able to disengage from the water supply lines. This is a lot of conditionals, of course, but some of the achievements the project could boast in 2009 were already impressive (they have come a long way; see the aforementioned video, supra).

Be that as it may, however, one really needs to consider the role and place of Bustan Qaraaqa in the community they are based, the connections they have made, the volunteering they have promoted in other farms and areas of the West Bank, their place within the worldwide permaculture network, and of course, within the occupation. It is to do with these issues that the conflict between goals and visions, from the point of view of a Western volunteer, clearly surface. But this is for Part 2!


[i] “Goals and Visions”, reprinted in Chomsky on Anarchism, AK Press, pp. 190-211.

[ii] It has always been a rather curious fact of countries such as the United Kingdom, with its myriad volunteering programmes and fund-raising events, as compared to, say, Sweden, that these events do not come with the realisation that they are the direct result of quite clear failures by the state/country.

[iii] Brenda Starr, Red Flag magazine, issue 1, autumn 2009.

[iv] Sarah Irving, The Electronic Intifada, 4 June 2009.

[v] For the sake of internal congruity, most of the data I provide were true of 2009, when I visited the farm.

[vi] These figures are taken from Edward Said’s The End of the Peace Process, p. 78.

[vii] The Palestine Monitor 2009 Factbook, p. 56.

[viii] Rory McCarthy, The Guardian newspaper, 23 August 2009.

[ix] For more information, see here:

[x] The data in this paragraph and the following are taken from The Palestine Monitor 2009 Factbook, pp. 60-6.

[xi] The JWC, composed of both Israelis and Palestinians, was set up in the Oslo II Interim Agreement in order to oversee water and sewage projects for the Occupied Territories. It is however in a constant stalemate, sitting idly over ample funding from foreign donors.