Conference explores Middle East environmental narratives

North American and Middle Eastern scholars and environmentalists met for four days at York last week to explore how Palestinians and Israelis understand the past, present and future of the ecologies they share.

space viewLeft: View of Middle East from space

The conference, co-sponsored by the York Centre for International and Security Studies and Brown University’s Watson School for International Studies, was unusual but not unique. Despite the continuing conflict in the Middle East, broad discussions of regional environmental issues have been taking place with some degree of cooperative work. The conference on “Palestinian and Israeli Environmental Narratives” was organized to cultivate greater mutual understanding of approaches to environmental issues being taken in the Middle East. As well, the conference highlighted how thinking in environmental frameworks could contribute to improving the quality of life for both Palestinians and Israelis in the long term.

The conference was part of a larger initiative, the Middle East Environmental Futures (MEEF) project, in which York became a partner in 2003. The MEEF program’s central objective is to strengthen environmental policy decision-making in Israel and Palestine by integrating environmental data analysis with an assessment of the desires of various population groups in the region vis-à-vis their natural environment. It seeks to define what people think the Middle East environment should look like in the future as well as predicting what the environment will look like given current trends

schoenfeldStuart Schoenfeld (left), a professor in Glendon’s Department of Sociology, said approximately 50 people attended the conference, many of whom commented on the quality of the discussion and high levels of participation shown for all the sessions. “People said there was an atmosphere of mutual respect in the room even when difficult things were being said,” he observed. The fact that the conference was held in Canada, where government and non-governmental officials could learn more about MEEF and the work of the academics and environmental activists who attended, was an added benefit, Schoenfeld said.

The 24 papers presented at the conference covered ways in which the national narratives of the two peoples shape their understandings of the regional environment, how environmental issues can be framed in either narratives of conflict or narratives of peace-building, and the potential for the development of a narrative of sustainability in the region.

Some of those who spoke at the conference are members of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies which brings together Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian, Egyptian and some international students, including Canadians, to do applied research on ecosystem issues affecting the Middle East region. Housed in a kibbutz known for its religious and political pluralism, the Arava Institute looks out on a wilderness area that contains some of the last vestiges of plant habitation in the desert. Affiliated academically with Tel Aviv University, the institute offers a one-year program in environmental studies.

York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) signed an academic partnership agreement with the Arava Institute in 1999. In any given year, up to three York Bachelor of Environmental Studies students receive credit for studying at Arava and up to three graduates from the Israeli institution are assisted to enter York’s Master of Environmental Studies program. Each year, FES also awards the Harry Victor Student Bursary for BES students whose major research project relates to the Middle East and who wish to study at the Arava Institute .