International Symposium on
Drylands Ecology and Human Security
Desert Agricultural Methods of the Bedouin
Khalil Abu Rabia
The Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy
Hundreds of years ago Bedouin, especially from Saudi Arabia arrived in the Negev area, in search of water and pasture lands, settled in the largely unoccupied Negev Desert. This settlement of Bedouin divided these desert lands amongst tribal groups in accordance with their number of warriors, influence and power, expressed in their ability to occupy and hold onto the sources of water, pastures and roads leading to the ports and cities. Surviving in the desert isn’t new for the Bedouin because they were born and lived in that arid environment and know very well the importance of the wide spaces for pastures and life sustaining drinking water for man and their domesticated animals.
The Main Farms and Plantations
Bedouin agricultural practices were created and developed from careful observation and management of the available means, resources and natural cycles or seasons of the desert. This was accomplished by adapting to the limitations of scarce water by capturing and storing what flows in the seasonal creeks and rivers that flow in the winter with a system of dams of various sizes. They were able to grow such vegetation that supplied their needs: vegetables, lentils, tobacco and wheat, (important in Arabic culture) which would hold them through the winter and the summer months. Generally, this produce would be eaten or sold with the surplus straw or field stubble used to feed animals, especially the sheep and camels these animals make up a significant form of wealth and income from the meat, dairy and other products they provide.
Barley is especially popular among the people in the south for animal feed and as a substitute for the more valuable, but more sensitive wheat during drought. On most of the family farms, olives, grapes and figs are grown. The production of olive oil for consumption as a food, healing topical oil and internal medicine is also valued as oil for lighting the home. The Koran records that the olive tree is the blessed tree that can’t easily be destroyed.
Bedouin farm methods and be quite basic and simple; maximum use is made of every drop of rain that flows in the desert throughout the annual growing cycles of winter growing and other seasonal crops and this is done by using simple tools like the plough drawn by a camel. Harvesting is done by all the family members manually, and often with the help of professional farm hands (who receive a quarter or third of the produce as pay. These are people who don’t own land and have to work the land of other people for a salary or as a seasonal migrant worker), in order to ensure sufficient food for their families and the animals they own (camels, goats, donkeys and horses).
Keeping the land free of erosion and getting rid of rocks is a full time occupation. Since the land is private and this property is a kind of trust held by the family, unlike public lands or land held in common for a sect, clan or tribe, which is not as well-maintained by comparison, to privately held family lands. It is observable in the flooding of the streams and rivers and erosion damage to those lands. It takes a commitment to the land to build “stairs” in the wadis and slopes to retain the alluvial silt or soil that is good for cultivating farms or growing vegetables, and plowing the land against the direction of the runoff (contour plowing) that allows the rain to soak into the soil and keep the soil wet. When plowing again after the rainy season, the dry surface or topsoil is covered with the wet layer and thus keeps the sun from immediately and completely drying up the land. Excess water that didn’t get absorbed into the soil accumulates in small dams so it doesn’t add to the powerful streams. Water slowly absorbed into the soil this way enhances the natural vegetation and allows for the cultivation of additional pastureland for animal grazing. This vegetation further slows the flow of rain and enhances soil conservation.
All these methods were designed to prevent topsoil erosion. Any flow of rainwater carries topsoil that may on the other hand spread fertility to other lands. A delicate balance is critical in land management practices, between the amount of water that is captured in this way, increasing the amount of available water from the same area, and the topsoil to be released in a controlled manner. In addition, organic animal waste that is accumulated in these “stairs” increases the fertility of the soil and farmers can increase their yields. This fertility of soil significantly impacts the standard of living of the residents and can give a sense of financial and social security. These desert populations living under severely arid conditions are tied to the land and rural traditions as a vitally important part of their cultural identity.
Additionally, by digging caves inside the mountains, animals can be housed in winter months and by digging tunnels 100-200 meters long both sides of the hole, and by digging water holes in hard rocks, rainwater can fill up the holes that will hold enough for them, their family and animals at least until it rains again. (There is now way you can live in the desert without water). We also saw that most of the wars between tribes in the desert were because they wanted to control the water sources. Fodder grown on the land ensures growing animals when there’s a drought and not enough food. When there is plenty of food, it is shared with between permanent groups that don’t allow other animals that are part of other groups to enter their pastures. At times, scarcity of resources has been another reason why some of these groups war.
In order to deal with the hard conditions of the desert, the Bedouin have specialized in raising animals that can survive with a minimum food and little water, such as the camel that can survive without water for several days and the black goat that can survive with little water and food from the field. The most important benefit of animal husbandry is in the production of cheese both dry, for long-term use, and fresh cheese for immediate use, in addition to the fresh goat or sheep meat when it is pure, free of chemicals and not mixed with other unnatural products. Based on natural, organic foods and vegetation in the fields, meats have a special taste. The wool that is produced from these animals is used for covers coats, mattresses and rugs, and is made into a steady income by women who have specialized in this market. Organic locally produced animal by-products such as milk and cheeses are healthier for babies and nursing mothers without the added cost of purchasing these necessities.
Finally, by using the natural recycling processes of biogas production, we can adopt this technology to clean organic waste material from the living environment of the Bedouin, improve health conditions, practice sustainable agriculture, and capture methane gas as a profitable alternative energy for cooking and other applications. Surplus gas can be stored or sold. Adopting this technology represents a conscious effort to insure that their traditional love of the land is not desecrated with the filth of pollution and they accept the great challenge of human stewardship over the Creation.
By cooperating with like-minded, concerned individuals committed to living on this planet with the least impact on the web of interdependent life, the Bedouin recognize that the human ecology of relationships is no less fragile and in need of a new perspective. Blessings outlined briefly above, come from the earth when man declares an end to the war of exploitation against the land for its resources. When peace is declared between men competing for those scarce resources, the cycles of life can be restored to interpersonal human relationships as well.