As water becomes increasingly scarce, communities that once depended on agriculture for their income are finding it increasingly difficult to support themselves. Water scarcity in the region, and especially in the occupied Palestinian territories and Jordan, has already had a significant negative impact on communities and individuals, and will only increase with time. In an effort to respond to these challenges proactively Friends of the Earth Middle East held a two-day workshop bringing together Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis in Shkedi Han, south of the Dead Sea. The purpose of this workshop was to discuss potential strategies for sustainable, authentic eco-tourism based on local products, skills and natural attractions.
Following everyone’s arrival and a night of Dabka lessons around the fire, the first day began with a 7 am hike in the hills around the kibbutz, which lies almost right on the Jordan/Israel border, followed by the first workshop. This discussion was led by the founders of a women’s cooperative in a Bedouin village in Northern Israel-Ella Jungman, a Jewish-Israeli expert on local tourism initiative and Hindi Sleimat, a Bedouin-Israeli and resident of the village. After years of hard work, the cooperative now sells handmade jewelry, baskets, and beaded tapestries, hosts tour groups in its center and has expanded to incorporate women from the village in various tasks such as cooking and conducting additional workshops.
The cooperative is unique for various reasons. The majority of its members are women in their 50s and 60s who traditionally are not thought to partake actively in economic production. In addition to providing them with financial benefits, the cooperative has created a support group and network through which its members travel around the country together, organize events together and host workshops for each other in order to build capacities. The cooperative has also taken advantage of the village’s historic significance by using one of the oldest homes as its base, a feature that helps attract tour groups interested in the history and culture of the region. Finally, by actively engaging with men from the community as the cooperative was developed, it was better able to safely confront gender norms that would have prevented women from participating.
Another example of local tourism and business presented at the workshop was the story of Mariam, owner of Bat haMidbar (Daughter of the Desert) cosmetics. Mariam began her business creating natural, organic lotions, creams, balms and perfumes from local traditional herbs and plants about 8 years ago. From the recognized Bedouin village of Tel Sheva in Southern Israel, Mariam struggled against rigid gender roles within her own community and the challenging economic and political status of Bedouins in Israel in order to begin her now steadily growing business. Relying initially on word of mouth, Mariam now hosts tour groups in her shop, conducts workshops, owns an herb garden and employs 4 other women from the village.
These two examples served to spark conversation among the participants regarding potential tourism initiatives within their own communities. For example staff at the eco-center in Auja were discussing the potential for growing a similar herb garden to that of Miriam and using it as an educational tool and an alternative local product-particularly as her plants require less water. Israeli tour guides were already laying plans to bring groups through to Mariam’s shop. In Tabket Fahel, Jordan they were discussing the potential for historical tourism and what kinds of initiative they could build around it.
This and future workshops will help to promote creative thinking for unique solutions in the face of future water shortages. It encourages the sharing of ideas and cooperation across nations, in a way that is crucial to addressing a challenge that ultimately, will have no borders.