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Palestine is something special. It is the same with his plant species. In terms of Palestine’s natural terrain, it is at the intersection of three major ecoregions that have given birth to a great variety of wildlife – over 2000 plant species in fact, 54 of which are endemic. And in terms of the geography of Palestine, it is surrounded by sea and fences and compromised by human development – much like its endemic plants, which are restricted to small, narrowing, degraded habitats with specific requirements. Add to the mix a rich cultural history nurtured through traditional knowledge and it’s clear to see how local civil society organizations are key to tackling the threats facing Palestine’s plants.
For the first time, BirdLife (through its role as the regional implementation team for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund’s (CEPF) Mediterranean hotspot) has made small grants to five civil society organizations in Palestine to help conserve threatened and restricted endemic plants in their habitats. Through these projects, the botanical knowledge and skills of scientists and conservationists are strengthened and hopefully passed on like the old agricultural knowledge in the olive groves.
Preservation of a symbolic iris
On the hills above the famous “most fertile meadow” in the Middle East, Marj Ibn Amer, grows a beautiful flower, Iris Haynei. Nowhere else in the world except in the village of Faquaa in Palestine does this rare endemic iris hang in inconsistent and fragmented populations and is considered to be globally threatened. In 2015, Iris haynei was declared the National Work of the State of Palestine by the Palestinian Environmental Quality Agency, and the Palestine Wildlife Society (PWLS, BirdLife Partner), with the support of the CEPF, is making an exceptional effort to save it. Understanding the distribution and environmental requirements is paramount.
Results so far are encouraging as youth from local communities across the village are engaging in efforts to save the iris – which faces many threats including overgrazing, pests, localized flower collection, afforestation and development.
Working with students from various Palestinian universities, PWLS has made a major breakthrough in germinating Iris haynei from seeds – using a methodology taught by another CEPF fellow and Iris expert in Lebanon (Saint Joseph University). The processed seeds were planted in three locations: in the laboratory, in the natural ranges of Iris haynei, and in a 4.5 dunum (0.45 hectare) garden donated by Faquaa Town Council to be used as a botanical garden for scientific research and educational center to be used as a garden.
A photo and painting competition for the children of Faquaa has also been announced by the Palestinian Ministry of Education to create a sense of ownership and awareness of “their” special purple flower.
Learn from the past
In the village of Misilyah in the north of the West Bank, old groves of gnarled olive trees are surrounded by a vibrant carpet of delicate flowers that until recently had never been explored. Some trees are over 800 years old, are passed down from generation to generation, along with traditional knowledge of how to care for them, and are viewed by Palestinians as symbolic ties to their land. It is their agricultural practices – such as organic composting, crop rotation, and intercropping – that have allowed recent flora to thrive, according to recent research from An-najah National University.
With a small grant from CEPF, a phenomenal 275 plant species from 48 families were registered in the forests. Recognizing the importance of the exceptional diversity, the research team organized a workshop in the village to raise awareness among farmers of the importance of their traditional practices and encourage them to keep them.
Such a scenic traditional landscape also attracts many tourists to the area, which could have detrimental effects on the groves if improperly managed. Fortunately, the primary results of the research succeeded in qualifying the Misilyah village community for a further fund that will set up an ecological park in the village. This will promote ecotourism in the sensitive region and raise the awareness of the local population for its rich biodiversity.
The irises that the sheep don’t eat
When the conservationist Dr. Anton Khalilieh came across a rare blooming flower in the northeastern slopes of Palestine (an important biodiversity area, KBA), he immediately called his colleague via video. “This is paradise,” he said, moving his phone from left to right to show the beautiful landscape, filled with many spots from another iris, Iris atrofusca. “We have to do something about it.” Although the elegant, rich purple blooms were scattered around the area, the challenges that threaten its very existence persist. Found almost exclusively in Palestine, its fragile population cannot withstand further deterioration, habitat loss and human exploitation.
Dr. Khalileh is the Executive Director of the Nature Palestine Society (NPS), a three-year NGO committed to researching, conserving and educating the biodiversity and the environment in Palestine, which has received a CEPF grant for their work. Very little was known about Iris atrofusca in Palestine, so a survey was required. The NPS team hiked 14,000 dunums (1400 hectares) and surprisingly discovered an area of about 1800 dunums (180 hectares) with over 7800 iris flowers. Two rare color variants – yellow and white – were also found in it.
During the survey, the team met a shepherd who was wandering around with his 300 sheep and cows and who fell in love with the iris after realizing that his sheep weren’t eating them. He worked hard to get it in the wild and helped the team figure out its distribution.
A botanical garden for the iris was created as an in-situ protected area on 5 dunes (0.5 hectares) out of 14 dunes (1.4 hectares), which were donated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Quality Agency within the KBA. 120 clones of Iris atrofusca were planted here in 2021.
In cooperation with school environmental clubs in the city of Tammun, five plant micro-reserves are being set up in three KBA schools. A large iris mural is painted to raise awareness.
An emerging generation of botanists from Palestine
Scientific research is important not only to understanding an area’s biodiversity and the threats to which it is exposed, but it can also be an important way to educate the next generation of conservationists. This is especially true of Bethlehem University, which has trained young researchers in plant identification, distribution analysis, conservation, and other skills to encourage more young people to work in the field of botany. This was part of a CEPF-approved project to study Al Mahkrour (the newest green space in the city of Bethlehem) and the gardens of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History.
More than 361 plant species, spread over 12 dunums (1.2 hectares), were recorded in the museum’s garden. In addition, the team created a botanical garden and created a management plan for the conservation of threatened and rare species.
The museum is also an attractive place for tourists, so the university is working to make it a place of ecotourism, where they sensitize students and visitors about the plants in the botanical garden and their conservation – what with the cultural and traditional heritage in Knowledge is connected.
Plant micro-reserves: vital stains for plant protection
Moved to Nablus, where the status of a third endemic iris, Iris lortetii, is being assessed by the Biodiversity & Environment Research Center (BERC) by identifying and mapping its localities and collecting samples to study its DNA.
BERC’s assessment found that flora in Nablus is exposed to various threats, including overgrazing, land use conversion, quarries and urban development. In response, the team set up six plant micro-reserves to preserve the iris and other plants. Plant micro-reserves are a newer conservation approach for the Middle East to conserve high endemic areas that are outside of protected area networks. Here they are on public land owned by the Department of Agriculture at Mount Ebal, in public gardens managed by the village council, and on private land owned by the local community who believed in the importance of preserving this remarkable flower.
Given the already mentioned cultural attachment to olive trees, one of the prerequisites for obtaining a building permit in Palestine is to inform the Environmental Quality Agency (EQA) if olive trees are uprooted. BERC is working on a similar regime for Iris that will help conserve all threatened plant species and ensure that the EQA transfers threatened plants to one of the region’s micro-reserves.
According to Dr. Issa Musa Albaradeiya, Director General for Environmental Resources, EQA Palestine, this work promotes awareness among government and community decision-makers of the value of traditional practices and the role of ecotourism in protecting nature. He says: “BirdLife International and CEPF’s support for Palestine has strengthened the capacity of civil society organizations to conserve key biodiversity areas. The results are meaningful and will help prioritize the conservation of sites of high natural and cultural value. “
Read the article in Arabic (Arabic)
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Japanese government and the World Bank. Additional funding was provided by the MAVA Foundation. A fundamental goal is to ensure that civil society is committed to conserving biodiversity.
CEPF is more than just a financing provider
A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (local experts) directs funding to key areas and even the smallest organizations. Building civil society capacity, improving conservation outcomes, strengthening networks and sharing best practices. In the biodiversity hotspot of the Mediterranean basin, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its partners: LPO (BirdLife France), DOPPS (BirdLife Slovenia) and BPSSS (BirdLife Serbia).