Israeli agricultural expertise aids Tibetan refugees

Tsering Dolma works in the fields of the Arava farming settlement: I’m a farmer in India but there we don’t have these types of special learning facilities. I’m learning so much’Tsering Dolma is excited. This is the Tibetan’s first time …

Tsering Dolma works in the fields of the Arava farming settlement: I’m a farmer in India but there we don’t have these types of special learning facilities. I’m learning so much’Tsering Dolma is excited. This is the Tibetan’s first time in Tel Aviv and she has only a few hours to capture the city’s essence. At the evening’s end she’ll board a chartered bus and return to the Arava Desert farming settlement (moshav) where she has been living for the past six months.

“We’ve been working in the fields a lot, from the early morning until evening. It’s good to have a break here in Tel Aviv!” Dolma said between bites of sambousak, a cheese-filled pocket pastry purchased from the popular Jaffa Aboulafia Bakery.

Dolma is part of a group of 50 Tibetans who have come to Israel for a year to learn agricultural techniques from Israeli farmers. At the end of their tenure, they’ll return to their homes-in-exile in India and pass along the information to fellow Tibetan community members.

The group came to Israel under the tutelage of Israel’s Forum for International Humanitarian Aid (IsraAid), an umbrella organization of The Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People (TIFTP). Established in 1989 by a group of Israelis seeking to provide support and aid to Tibetan refugees, the TIFTP oversees several Tibetan assistance programs including medical aid, child sponsorship and agricultural training.

“Israel is a known leader in agriculture and agriculture technology. Even countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel send envoys to learn from our farmers. So this group is a natural extension of what Israel does well,” TIFTP spokesperson Ran Natanzon told ISRAEL21c.

The agricultural program or Arava Project is a training program offered in cooperation with the moshavim (agricultural settlements) of the northern Arava. Over the course of a year students from developing countries learn advanced agricultural technique in a formal classroom setting and in hands-on field work.

300 Tibetans, all of whom are living in India, have been through the program in the three years since its inception and according to program directors, the knowledge and experience obtained is invaluable for the agricultural economies of the Tibetan communities in exile. The Tibetans believe that advanced agriculture will be a critical element in the future economy of a free Tibet.

“I’m a farmer in India but there we don’t have these types of special learning facilities. I’m learning so much,” said Dolma, citing special capsicum (chili peppers) cultivation and techniques about growing alfalfa.

Project participants report learning in-depth about drip irrigation and about crop cultivation – alfalfa and the peppers Dolma mentions. It’s all about practical cultivation for applied use back home. With their newfound knowledge, they serve as agricultural mentors and instructors upon returning to their communities in India.

The group visited Tel Aviv as part of a celebratory evening intended to promote world peace and rouse awareness regarding their lives in exile. The group stopped at Rabin Square to hand out literature and chant a peace prayer at the Yitzhak Rabin memorial site and then ventured to the city’s Cinemateque for a Tibetan support benefit.

According to Tibetan history, during the 1950′s China occupied and ‘colonized’ Tibet by force. When the Tibetan people attempted to rise up against the Chinese in 1959, thousands were killed, jailed and exiled. Others fled, including the Tibetan spiritual leader The Dalai Lama. Since, Tibetans have lived in exile in neighboring countries – mostly India – and attempt to spread word of their plight via information dissemination and garnering political backing.

IFTIP initiated the agricultural program when founding members decided to adopt practical means of channeling their empathy into action. Founders say they based the plan on Jewish cultural survival and aspirations through centuries-long exile and the establishment of modern day Israel from scratch.

“This puts Israel in a unique position to assist the Tibetan community,” IFTIP Executive Director Or Rachlevsky explained. “A strong and viable community in exile is, we believe, a critical factor in sustaining the wider struggle for Tibet’s future, the exact nature of which is to be decided by the Tibetans themselves.”

During their stay in Israel Tibetans are also paid wages for hands-on tasks performed in greenhouses and fields, providing incentive and a markedly higher income than they might earn in India for comparable work.

“It’s quite tough here; we usually have leisure time in India but we don’t have it here. I’m always working against time which is a big difference from home. Time equals earnings here,” explains Bhondup Tashi of Ladaque, India. An alfalfa farmer, Tashi plans to share the knowledge gained in Israel with his father – also a farmer – upon his return.

Key differences Tashi notices also include irrigation methods – drip versus a channel in India and greenhouses. “The place I live in doesn’t have a greenhouse. Just an open field,” he shares. But most important, he says, has been learning about export techniques and marketing goods for export.

“I am eager to teach my father all of this,” Tashi smiles. “It has been difficult, yes, but good.”