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Don’t dry up Israel’s botanical gardens!

Slashing the budget for these havens of ecological wonder is a blow to Israel's biodiversity

Israel is a country with incredibly diverse ecological assets. Moving from Eilat in the south to the Golan Heights in the north, one passes through tens of unique habitats across the 400 kilometer transect. We are blessed with a disproportionate amount of plant and animal biodiversity relative to our postage-stamp size, due to the cumulative impact of a number of geographic and climatic factors — including the country’s location as the land bridge between three continents and its position under one of the most significant global migratory bird flyways in the world.

Even the 10,000-year presence of extensive grazing and agricultural activities of humans has allowed for the diversification of animal and plant life and, combined with our climate, made Israel and the Mediterranean Basin unique among the diverse ecosystems of the world. Ecologists recognize and cherish this aspect of Israel’s character for its scientific value, while all of Israel’s population enjoys the aesthetic, recreational and educational benefits of the country’s animals, plants and the diverse natural landscapes they create.

Among the flowers of the Technion Ecological Garden

Yet the loss of the open spaces that provide habitat for Israel’s biodiversity, and all the benefits it provides, is among the major environmental challenges Israel faces in the 21st century. Israel is being rapidly plowed up and paved over by our constantly growing population seeking housing, workplaces, natural resources and transportation infrastructures. All the plowing and paving is rapidly depleting those open spaces, and consequently heralding the loss of many species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world but here.

In the face of this challenge, amid the sea of concrete, are eleven islands of ecological wonder scattered throughout Israel, from the Western Negev to the Carmel Mountain, dedicated to preserving the ecological heritage of the country. These islands are Israel’s botanical gardens. With admirable foresight and wisdom, Israel’s legislators in 2006 passed the “Botanical Gardens Law” that gave the Minister of Agricultural the authority to establish such gardens for the preservation and display of plant species. Since 2008, the Ministry has invested in these gardens between two to six million shekels per year (or approximately 0.5% of the ministry’s annual budget). This funding has proved crucial for developing the gardens, helping them assure the fulfillment of their botanical mission, and for turning them into loci of tourism, research, educational programming and relaxation.

But now, as reported by Haaretz correspondent Zafrir Rinat this week, Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel, has decided to cut almost all funding to the botanical gardens, reducing it to a paltry 100,000 shekels (less than 10,000 shekels per garden). The garden managers have already reported that they will have to cut back and cancel many of their gardens’ educational and research programs. Apparently, Minister Ariel has decided that these gardens are not worthy of public support.

I strongly urge the minister and his personnel to take a week to tour the places they have decided to dry up. What they will find — what thousands of visitors have found before them — is that each of the gardens is a veritable jewel of ecology, botany, history and heritage.

Students of landscape architecture touring the Technion Ecological Garden

From Jerusalem to Haifa, each garden is stunningly unique. At Hebrew University, tucked behind the Har HaTzofim Campus, is the Mount Scopus Botanical Gardens,  a 25-dunam garden dedicated to recreating each of Israel’s plant communities, from the Mediterranean chaparral to the hyper-arid Arava desert plants. Within the greenery are the tombs of Zionist leaders Menachem Ussishkin and Yehuda Leib Pinsker, emphasizing the seamless integration of Israel’s cultural heritage with its natural environment. Across the city, the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus maintains the completely different Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, featuring plants from across the globe. To the north, in Haifa, nestled between the engineering departments of the Technion is the ecological garden, inspired by the late Prof. Ze’ev Naveh to preserve the natural and agricultural landscapes of the Mediterranean region. The University of Tel Aviv Botanical Garden, hosting almost 4,000 plant species, attracts thousands of visitors each year. At Oranim College, managers have turned their botanical garden into a model for urban sustainability, with community gardens, composting facilities and regular course work and gardening workshops for students and non-students alike.

The benefits of these gardens spread far beyond the universities, kibbutzim and other institutions that host them. All are open to the public and most run regular activities for students, neighbors and others to come and learn about the region’s natural history, its environment, the sciences of botany and ecology, gardening or just to come and relax in an island of tranquility amidst Israel’s urban landscape. Further, the preservation of rare species and genetic material is a mission of global importance, as the biodiversity crisis is both national and global in scale.

There is much that has to be done to preserve Israel’s ecological heritage; sacrificing an already existing resource is not the way forward. Rather than financially drying up the ecological splendor of the very land of Israel that Minister Ariel claims to love so much, he should be doubling the budget of these precious institutions. Minister Ariel should be a partner, rather than an impediment, to fulfilling the mission of gardens to preserve the botanical heritage of Israel and the planet.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.