A Museum and Institute of Sustainability and Biodiversity at Bethlehem University

A Museum and Institute of Sustainability and Biodiversity at Bethlehem University

For many people, Palestine’s significance lay in its religious and emotional role as the Holy Land.  However, it was Palestine’s geology and geography that make it even more interesting to students of history and nature. Palestine is located at a juncture of Asia, Africa, and Europe and was affected by unique geologic formations due to the interactions of te African and Arabian continental plates.  This is why it is a critical part of the Fertile Crescent where humans first developed agriculture and domesticated plants and animals. For a very small area, Palestine’s location and topography ensured rich floral and faunal biodiversity (including human diversity).  Hundreds of millions of birds, for example, pass through Palestine in annual migration between Africa and Europe. Palestine’s biodiversity and future human economic survival is threatened by environmental degradation and deforestation, human population pressures, and climate change. These challenges are even more acute because of diversion of resources for a conflict that lasted decades.

The Convention on Biological Diversity adopted at the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 (CBD 1992) highlighted three key principles: conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of nature, and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits. Palestine as a nascent state still under occupation has poor dependent economy with little attention to issues such as biodiversity, conservation, and sustainable development.  In any society, museums are integral to promotion of science, culture, nature conservation, and education, and are critical for development. The importance of museums in these respects makes them symbols of national identity, research centers and depository of biological diversity, and educational facilities for conservation and sustainable living.

Agriculture is an essential part of the cultural, economic and social life of Palestine. Yet the Israeli occupation forced a shift froman economy based on sustainable agricultural production and tourism to an economy that is dependent on foreign-aid, on monoculture, and on menial jobs servicing an increasingly industrialized Israel. The gradual expansion of Israeli settlements and control of Area C devastated the agricultural sector. The restrictions on the movement of people and access to natural resources have stifled economic growth and led to a significant deterioration in the living conditions of Palestinians. In the West Bank, an estimated 60% of the land is considered “Area C” and is not fully accessible. The fragmentation of Palestinian communities and the lack of opportunities means that almost a fifth of Palestinian men and almost a third of women are unemployed (Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics).

The Palestine Museum of Natural History (PMNH) and the Palestine Institute of Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) were established at Bethlehem University starting with a $250,000 donation from Mazin and Jessie Qumsiyeh and largely volunteer efforts and local donations.When started we could not anticipate the growth of this museum and now we started to get some other support from people interested in helping us achieve our mission focused on research, education, and conservation of our natural world, culture and heritage and usingknowledge to promote responsible empowered human interactions with all components of our environment. Our goals include:

  1. Explore the diversity of the fauna, flora, and human ethnography of Palestine via collections and scientific research that includes morphology and genetics.
  2. Promote environmental protection and responsible interaction between people and the environment.
  3.  Use the knowledge gained to promote science education.
  4. Develop and increase respect: a) for ourselves (self-empowerment), b) for our fellow human beings regardless of background, and c) for all living creatures and our shared earth. This will help create a more peaceful and sustainable world.
  5. Use research results in areas such as biodiversity, history, culture, permaculture and biological control to promote sustainable communities, focusing on marginalized communities under threat of continued ethnic cleansing.

In the past two years, we managed to 1) publish several research papers (on things ranging from environmental health to biodiversity to museology, to reptiles, to butterflies, and more) 2) initiate a botanical garden with an integrated water and land ecosystem, 3) develop permaculture including bee keeping and aquaponics systems (production, research, and knowledge transfer), 4) develop an educational program including hosting science festivals that benefited hundreds of school students, 5) host hundreds of local and international visitors who gained knowledge of local challenges and opportunities, 6) build partnerships with local and global governmental and non-governmental entities resulting in benefit to environment and sustainability, 7) develop databases and other resources including collections, photo library, digital library, local biodiversity database, and a seed bank. We now have an integrated system for research, education, and conservation to address areas in need in Palestine, 8) develop an environmental impact assessment unit. The latter unit is very important to ensure that business projects in Palestine are done in ways that guard our environment in compliance with local and international standards.

The museum grounds and its botanical garden (integrated ecosystem) is also an oasis for wildlife in Bethlehem and an oasis for young people seeking alternatives and a new way of looking at themselves and their environment (empowerment and nature conservation).We need funds to continue rehabilitating the area as an integrated ecosystem and not merely a botanical garden in the classic sense. This means having the land productive for all living things and an oasis of tranquility and model of human coexistence in harmony with nature. Already the garden has 17 species of butterflies among a faunal biodiversity that includes over 26 species of birds (the number is growing as migratory birds are starting to be attracted to the pool, mammals (from small mice, shrews, and bats up to a jackal), reptiles, three species of amphibians, fish, crabs, and water and land snails. In terms of plants both aquatic and terrestrial species are found including rare orchids and even the threatened ‘Star of Bethlehem’ flower.

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