Land reclamation and land defense

  Topographical map of the West Bank

Topographical map of the West Bank

This one comes out of reading Khalil al-‘Alul’s Isteslah wa Isteglal Aradi Al-Diffa Al-Gharbiya (Land Reclamation and Use in the West Bank), which was published in 1987 by the Arab Thought Forum. I am finally starting to write about the ways in which technical agrarian interventions become part of land defense in the West Bank after 1967. ‘Alul’s short book is a kind of proposal and feasibility study for doing land reclamation in the highlands, as well as pasture and forest projects, and it brings together the question of territory with the problem of agrarian political economy. Since unused land could be seized by the state, land reclamation can protect territory, but land reclamation only works if farmers are using their land (and, hopefully, doing more land reclamation). The catch is that farmers are assumed to only use their land if they can make a profit, or at least break even. 

In this study, every dunum in the West Bank is accounted for, either to be cultivated, forested, or turned into fenced and maintained pasture land. It has to be, given that unused land is subject to confiscation. Part of the move here is to expand, quite drastically, the total area of land used. The other move is to confront the terms ‘cultivable’ and ‘non-cultivable’. This becomes clear in al-‘Alul’s treatment of the Israeli aerial survey, which divides West Bank land into six categories, ranging from the best agricultural land to basically desert waste. While he says that the survey was carried out to serve the colonial project, he also aruges that its possible to use it in the service of planning reclamation and land use. In the process, al-‘Alul undermines the categories of the survey, which allows him to move some 2,600,000 dunums from ‘non-cultivable’ to ‘cultivable’. This is not just to demonstrate that land use could be higher, but to denaturalize categories that would obviate that possibility from the get-go. 

  Distribution of land use in the West Bank prior to proposed land reclamation projects

Distribution of land use in the West Bank prior to proposed land reclamation projects

Numbers are also important for highlighting the risks of letting land remain unused. In one table, we get figures like this: Hebron: 318,300 dunums cultivated, 10,700 forest, and 1,018,926 unused; Ramallah 245,500 cultivated, 7,000 forest, and 807,859 unused, etc. Despite the closures, there is still a great deal of “unused private land” within “every Palestinian village”; this study claims that “every inch of land” that can possibly be cultivated  should be in order to “protect it” and for the “local community to benefit from its produce”. This not only highlights the centrality of private land, but also of a kind of personal responsibility, showing that there is work that can be done even within the confines of military occupation. 

Beyond the occupation, there are important ecological, topographical, social, and technological limits to reclamation. Immigration, slope, rainfall, soil quality, and potential crops all render reclamation, in the final instance, economical or uneconomical. This is not economic determinism, but pragmatism: we are taking ‘economical’ as the limiting factor, because unless you can use the land afterwards and farm it and expand it, there is no point in doing reclamation. 

The issue of use brings us to the embeddness of this tactic, and other land defense tactics, in the wider agricultural market. The whole issue of land use is tied not only to confiscation, but to the lack of financial services for farmers, marketing problems, and wage labor. In this writing, we see this comparison: the wage is ‘quick/secure’, while cultivation is ‘slow/insecure’ (this issue of fast money bleeds into a moral critique, often directed at the youth, in other narratives). While it appears to be natural to agriculture (a result of seasonal work and profit), it isn’t; instead it is produced by conditions of occupation and, more broadly, capitalism mediated by the occupation. Indeed, these condition give land defense its central problematic: how to encourage farmers to “begin to invest their money and time in land reclamation and use” when the market is telling them otherwise.

  Soil type map of the West Bank

Soil type map of the West Bank

The answer here is a host of interventions: the rationalization of production, crop diversification, new marketing strategies, and the like. Wage labor in Israel, which is causing the desertion of agricultural lands, needs to be countered by agricultural development. Again, this depends on crop type and location. In the Jordan Valley, for example, capitalist agriculture and labor absorption is the key, which is quite different from the kinds of land use promoted for the highlands.

Ecological and topological limits also mean that cultivation simply isn’t feasible everywhere. What about non-productive uses of land? al-‘Alul makes an argument for the social and economic benefits of forestation, but we run into problems. First, there is the issues of land confiscation. He argues that it is a misconception to equate forested land with state land. Here, private property is key: there is lots of forested “private" land that is untouched (not confiscated), and he thinks that as long as land is planted, it can be exempted from state lands declarations. This is the first time I’ve heard this (most other accounts say the opposite), and its interesting, since it is a move away from ‘cultivation’ to ‘use’, although I don’t know what the legal ramifications are. Second, there are problems with long-term planning, scale and private property. While land has to be private to be protected, it throws up considerable difficulties when trying to scale up projects of land reclamation or forestation, especially when the initial costs are high and the long-term returns are low.