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"Operation Owl" - How Organic Pest Control Could Aid Middle East Peace

Article illustrative image Partner logo Barn owls for peace

KFAR KAMA - Bent down in his field in this lower Galilee town, Amjad Shami points out the countless underground tunnels dug by voles. Three years ago, he says, these rodents destroyed his entire harvest.

Shami says he continues to try to fight them with pesticides, which do little more than poison his land, infect his water and decimate the local fauna. So when this veteran Muslim cultivator in Kfar Kama heard about a different way to fight the problem, he wanted to know more.

He would end up speaking to Alexandre Roulin, a professor at Lausanne University, who had discovered a unique pest control weapon: the barn owl. Amjad Shami would hear about the bird's exceptional hunting skills, flying quietly it kills three or four rodents a day. Since these birds live in families that can include up to ten members, the math is done. The presence of one couple of owls and their offspring is likely to make a thousand rodents disappear every month -- and cause no pollution at all.

Superstition and suspicion

It has been nearly 30 years since the idea to use barn owls against rodents first began to spread in Israel and in the West Bank, with some 3000 bird cages in the fields and orchards.

Nevertheless, the technique has not spread evenly. The Jewish cultivators were the first to set up bird cages, with the Circassia Muslim minority joining the project soon afterward. But Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank were less keen to participate. There were two major reasons: first, owls are a sign of bad luck in their culture; the second, and maybe the more significant one, is that every Israeli initiative creates conflicts, even when there's no apparent downside.

In this tiny area of the Middle East, needless to say, politics are even stronger than superstitions. Alexander Roulin decided to launch a project of cooperation between two enemy populations with a common ecological objective. He offered his services, since being a neutral Swiss citizen allows him to visit both camps.

After having to cope with a few technical issues, the political problem will be harder to overcome. Roulin's Israeli guide, Motti Charter, tells the story of his meeting with a Palestinian he knows. As an Israeli Jew he is not allowed in most places in the West Bank, and his Palestinian colleague doesn’t have the permit needed to enter Israel. That left them to meet in one of the very few areas where they both can go: a highway rest stop on the road along the Jordan river.

The Palestinian friend of Charter is enthusiastic about the project, and having a Swiss international expert offering his help. “The owls can bring a lot to our cultivators, and they are politically neutral,” he says. Still, the man refuses to be photographed and asks that his name not appear in this article.  “Politics are like the sun, he explains. "They can change very quickly. One day it can be soft, and the other hit very hard.” 

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