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Pine trees in Zipori Forest, Israel

Between Ecology and Ideology: Climate Change and Forestation Sciences in Mandatory Palestine/Israel

When did the discourse on climate change begin? How was it related to colonialism? And in what way did it serve political objectives in Israel/Palestine throughout the 20th century?

This essay was first published in Hebrew here.

Climate change has been gaining increasing attention in the Western public sphere in the last few decades. Yet, the scientific discourse on this topic is hardly new. Already in the eighteenth century, natural philosophers such as David Hume, Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Thomas Jefferson and others had been debating the influence human societies had on climate. During the second half of the nineteenth century this debate became even more central as high imperialism introduced a form of globalism into climate sciences. Developments such as the establishment of networks of meteorological observers around the world, the standardization of meteorological instruments and measurements, and the rise of statistics during this period enabled scholars to conceive climate change not only in a historical perspective, but also in a global one, as James Rodger Fleming notes. 

Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, arguments supporting climate change were often based on ‘climate reconstruction,’ a form of historicizing climate which depended on ancient literal accounts of climate. Greek and Roman texts were occasionally interpolated alongside archaeological findings and geological analyses to prove that climate change had occurred in Greece, Cyrenaica, and parts of Europe. One of the most important textual evidence in proving climate change in the Middle East (and especially in Palestine) was the Hebrew Bible. American geographer Ellsworth Huntington, a vehement environmental determinist and a prominent advocator of climate change theory, wrote in 1911 that “in no other country could [climate] theories be so well tested, for [Palestine’s] known history extends back to remote antiquity” (vii). Later in the same article Huntington added that during his expedition to Palestine he was “surprised also to discover how closely historical progress or decline appear to have synchronized with the changes in climate” (6).

Photo of Petra by Huntington, 1911.

In an article titled “Is the Earth Drying Up?” published in 1914, the British geologist and explorer John Walter Gregory aimed to confirm climate change by comparing Palestine’s contemporary physical conditions to its glorious biblical representations:

Palestine is described in the Bible as a land flowing with milk and honey; it was fertile in vine and olive; many incidents suggest that it was well wooded; and, according to the Old Testament statistics, it had a dense population. Now it is a barren, arid land, with a scanty vegetation, swept by parching winds from the eastern deserts, and occupied by some 700,000 people, who are mostly Arabs and mostly paupers.

John Walter Gregory, “Is the Earth Dryin Up?” in The Geographical Journal
Vol. 43, No. 2 (Feb., 1914), p. 152.

Other publications on climate change from the same period stressed the continuation of weather phenomena in this country as proof of humanly instigated environmental degeneration. Rather than providing evidence for the fertility of the local environment in past times, these researches relied on biblical accounts of weather patterns in the Land of Israel. According to them, Palestine had never lost its fruitful potential. The only reason for the possible worsening of its conditions could be attributed to local Arab and Ottoman neglect, or ‘Unkultur’ as a German contemporary scientist described it [Unknown, “Das Klima Palästinas,” Die Welt 32 (07.08.1903): 8]. The notion of environmental neglect was similarly part of a global colonial discourse in which colonial administrators and experts blamed indigenous people for mismanaging the natural resources in their countries, which had resulted in environmental decline. Specifically, the British and the French tended to lay the blame on the Muslim invaders in North Africa and the Middle East.

One of the most frequently utilized colonial methods for solving desiccation and ‘improving’ climate was forestation. The link between forests and climate change, which prevails to this day, is based on the fact that trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, thus creating, among other things, an atmospheric equilibrium which helps keep the Earth’s temperature stable. This axiom can already be found in the writings of Greek naturalist Theophrastus, and it remained relevant throughout most of the next millennia. However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the link between forests and climate change was further developed by colonial scientific societies – a development which led the British to transform one-fourth of the lands in their entire empire into protected forests by 1850. Likewise, in Palestine, the British were occupied with foresting from the moment they laid foot on the ground. High Commissioner Herbert Samuel wrote a report to the League of Nations in 1921 stating that forestation represents “the first beginnings of a process which should add largely to the productiveness of Palestine, increase its rainfall and bring fresh charm to its scenery.”

Men of the trees in Palestine. Artist: W. A. Stewart. Source: The Palestine Poster Project Archives (PPPA)

Nevertheless, British afforestation also fulfilled an important political and territorial role. Forests were large land areas which were controlled and monitored by the government and in which grazing, woodcutting, and, at times, even loitering were prohibited in ways which crucially affected the local agrarian social structure. Thus, although afforestation in Mandatory Palestine was already linked with the discourse on climate change in the early twnentieth century, throughout the years it also became an aparatus to achive political, national, territorial and cultural objectives. These objectives included, among other things, the revival of imaginary biblical landscapes (which reflected both British and Zionist attempts to justify their historical and moral right over the country); the transformation of local landscape into a ‘familiar’ and ‘friendly’ one in their eyes; and the appropriation of Indigenous land. It seems that these objectives – whithin which trees became identified with Western culture – often exceeded genuine climatic and environmental causes.

Similarity to British experts, Zionist botanists and agronomists at the early twentieth century claimed that afforestation would contribute in improving local climate, which according to them gradually degenerated as a result of overgrazing and neglect by the local population. Before the link between greenhouse gas emission and climate change was established, forests served as the most important subject matter in discussions on climate change. Deforestation was perceived as harmful and afforestation as useful, even if the latter meant challanging the local ecological balance by introducing new and alien plant species. In Palestine, for example, the unfamiliarity of British and Zionist experts with the ‘original’ flora of the country, led them to plant trees that had never existed in the country before, thus, radically intervening in local natural processes.

In the late nineteenth century, the eucalyptus tree was introduced into the country, along with other plants, to drain large swamps in the coastal plain. The eminent position of the eucalyptus tree was replaced in the 1920s by the pine tree. Zionist foresters liked pines because they grew relatively quickly and did not require much cultivation. Furthermore, pines created a distinctly European landscape, thereby concealing the geographic dislocation of European Jews and reminding them of home. Nevertheless, throughout the years, pine trees have led to a significant decline in the local biological diversity since the pine needles and the trees’ seed peels delayed the germination of other plants. Thus, pine forests tend to expand fast, take over biodiverse areas, and transform them into poorly vegetated ones. The dense plantation of pine trees also increased the risk for bigger and more severe fires which have occured more frequently in the last decades as a result of climate change.

Similar to the British colonial forest, the Zionist forest had territorial implications as it served a vital tool in the occupation of land and the fulfillment of Zionist settlement ideology. Already in 1911, Zionist institutions came to acknowledge that owing to Ottoman land policies and later British tree protection policies, forests could serve as practical instruments with which to gain power over land and provide labor for Jewish immigrants. In addition, following the 1948 war, forestry became a means by which the State of Israel took over former Palestinian villages whose inhabitants fled or were expelled, covered their ruins, and prevented the return of Palestinian refugees.

Yatir Forest.

Yosef Weitz, director of the Land and Afforestation Department in the Jewish National Fund (JNF), wrote in 1933 that forests were instrumental in “determining geopolitical facts on the ground,” as Eyal Weizman notes. In relation to the arid geographical area of the Negev, Weitz claimed that forests were able to “fight off the desert, thus creating a security zone for the people of Israel.” Today the JNF proudly declares itself the biggest and most important ecological entity in Israel and one of the leading forces in fighting off the desert as a result of tree planting. The official website of the organization announces that, “Israel is one of the only countries in the world that has more trees today than it had one hundred years ago.” This viewpoint is likewise supported and endorsed by international environmental organizations. In 2015 the UN was in favor of actions that were being taken in Israel as part of the fight against desertification while emphasizing afforestation practices in the Yatir Forest, located in the northern Negev. The Yatir Forest, which was planted in the 1960s and is composed mostly of pine trees, is not only the biggest forest in Israel today but also the biggest human-made forest in the world in a semi-arid environment. Professor Dan Yakir, Israel Prize winner in Environmental Sciences and founder of the climate research station of the Weitzman Institute (supported by NASA), showed in 2019 that the Yatir Forest absorbs carbon in the same rate and capacity as European forests and is therefore of great significance to the battle against global warming and in particular to forest research in semi-arid regions. 

However, the Yatir Forest is also known as a central arena in which the State of Israel is fighting its Bedouin citizens. Bedouin villages such as Hassein Al Rafiaa and Al-Araqeeb are facing forced removal due to afforestation schemes since the late 1990s, although there are plenty of other territories available in the Negev to pursue this purpose. Unfortunately, Israel’s contemporary successes in fighting climate change and delaying desertification processes do not reflect the importance of environmental concerns among governmental agencies and decision makers. The Israeli modest contribution to fighting climate change originates first and foremost in foreign cultural perceptions of the local landscape and ethnocratic territorial aspiration.

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