“We would like to plant trees in some areas but the seeds we have are not withstanding drought,” Kenyan Ambassador Lt.-Gen (Ret.) Augostino S.K. Njoroge told The Jerusalem Post last week. “We want to get seeds from here that will be able to withstand harsh climate, to increase acreage.”
In addition to Njoroge and his wife, about 20 foreign diplomats to Israel and their spouses joined Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) on Wednesday for a tour of several different Negev development sites. After learning extensively about desert plant growth and park development, they also rode a safari truck through rugged – but green and blossoming – desert terrain and planted trees themselves in the Ambassadors Forest.
The tour began with a morning visit to the “MOP Darom” Negev Research and Development Center, located next to Moshav Yesha and near the town of Ofakim, a few kilometers from the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Gaza.
The station is funded 60 percent by governmental sources, 25% by KKL-JNF, 10% by competitive research funds and 5% by the local growers themselves, according to Myron Sofer, director of Negev R&D Center, who is also a plant pathologist and farmer.
While the station grows a number of flowers, vegetables, herbs and strawberries, the main crops of the location are tomatoes, as tomatoes from this region account for 48% of the country’s tomato needs, explained Liana Ganot, a staff member of the station. Ganot demonstrated to the visiting diplomats how all the tomatoes grow successfully in desert sand and survive without much pesticide spraying, as they are surrounded by protective nets.
Next door, blossoming lisianthus flowers of all colors sat in vases to test shelf life, as most of these flowers from the region end up being exported abroad, primarily to Holland, Ganot said.
In a third greenhouse, the diplomats munched on fresh strawberries, which had been hanging from the ceiling in baskets of coconut soil.
The techniques, which have been developed at this station since 1973, could be beneficial to many of the countries from which the diplomats hail, Sofer told them. While some of the visiting ambassadors and staff members were from Eastern Europe, most came from dry climates in South America, Africa and southeast Asia.
“We are happy to help other countries to the extent to which they want to cooperate with us,” Sofer said. “We believe that this kind of agricultural cooperation builds strong relations between countries and people.”
After their stop at MOP Darom, the diplomats visited the developing Nahal Beersheba Park, where they saw a land that was once mostly filled with solid waste becoming green with flowers and grass.
The park has been under restoration for 10 years, and by summer 2013 will feature a 12,000-seat amphitheater, and a couple years later, a 2.2- hectare (5.4-acre) lake, explained Itai Freeman, the park director.
“This area for many years was neglected and we’ve been developing it for the public,” he told the diplomats.
The park, which will span 500 hectares and stretch across eight kilometers, will require a lot of water – a need that officials will be fulfilling through recycled water from a KKL-JNF reservoir being constructed in the valley, Freeman said.
“What was neglected for many years will be the center of the city,” Freeman said, calling the park an “urban generator” for the city’s future economy.
To Hector Palacios, Guatemala’s deputy chief of mission to Israel, the rehabilitation of such a wasteland into a blooming park is particularly relevant.
“We have a lot of needs to start parks like this in our cities,” said Palacios, who has been in Israel for three-and-a-half years and will soon leave to become the Guatemalan ambassador to Costa Rica.
“In some of the areas around the cities – like Guatemala City – it’s something like this,” he continued. “It’s lost land and you cannot do anything with this land.”
While Guatemala receives excessive amounts of rain in comparison to Israel, sewage treatment remains a problem and affects potential arable lands, according to Palacios.
Having more contact with KKL-JNF to explore ways of transforming such land into parklands could therefore be “tremendous” for his country, he said.
While Guatemala may have ample rains, much of the world does not, and KKL-JNF world chairman Effi Stenzler reminded the guests that in the next couple decades, at least 30% of the globe will become desert.
“[KKL-JNF] will be more than happy to bring to your countries the knowledge of how to plant where we don’t have enough rain,” Stenzler told them.
As he sent off the diplomats to plant trees in the Ambassadors Forest themselves, Stenzler reminded them that already 240 million such trees have been planted throughout Israel. Such tree-planting on a regional basis beyond the bounds of Israel, he said, could lead to positive cooperation.
“Green as you know has no border,” Stenzler said. “We would like to plant trees on the border with Jordan, on the border with Lebanon and on the border with Egypt. I think it would be more than a sign of peace if we would plant trees with them.”
The ambassador of Belarus to Israel, Igor Leshchenya, echoed Stenzler’s sentiments, noting that Israel is a country of “intense impressions.”
“One of the most intense impressions is that we have to accept the fact that most of the forests on this land were planted or restored by the Israelis,” Leshchenya said.
After planting his own tree, Kenyan ambassador Njoroge reiterated to the Post how he was planning on connecting his country’s director of forestry with that of KKL-JNF, to bring such a bloom home – for both the benefit of his country’s massive lands and his own 200-acre farm.
“This is my personal and governmental interest,” Njoroge said.