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Remote Arava needs more people, mayor says

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Ezra Ravins, right, mayor of the Central Arava Regional Council, is welcomed by Côte St. Luc councillor Allan Levine.

MONTREAL — Côte St. Luc councillor Allan Levine and Ezra Ravins, mayor of the Central Arava Regional Council in Israel, have something in common: they want to increase the population of their respective municipalities.

Ravins, who recently was the guest in Canada of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), visited the new Côte St. Luc Aquatics and Community Centre where he talked about the challenges and rewards of living in this little known part of Israel.

The latest Canadian census data show that the west end suburb is having some success. Its population is up almost three per cent in the past five years.

Ravins is finding it a little tougher to attract people. But then what he is offering is a remote and especially arid part of the Negev Desert, where the ground is parched and rocky, yet agriculture is the main livelihood.

The Arava Valley, midway between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea and bordering on Jordan, represents six per cent of Israel’s land mass, yet it is home to only .04 per cent of its population, or 3,219 people.

And it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep them. Many are migrating to central Israel, especially younger people, Ravins said, where there is more employment opportunity. Nevertheless, his goal is to double the population over the next decade.

Despite the harshness of its climate and topography, the Arava possesses a haunting arid beauty, and Ravins is trying to develop tourism.

The Arava produces a bounty of crops. Through much trial and error since the area was first settled by Israelis in 1959, its farmers now grow and export mainly to Europe peppers (the biggest crop), tomatoes, eggplants, dates, melons and table grapes, flowers for cutting, and 90 per cent of the ornamental fish raised in Israel. These include the Nemo, made popular by the 2003 Disney animated movie.

Ravins, a farmer himself, said produce is coaxed out of the salty, hard clay soil using drip irrigation and nylon-covered tunnels to shelter crops from the blazing sun.

Everything grows in a 30-cm layer of sand that is brought in by the JNF, or Keren Kayemet, as it’s called in Israel. The Arava is not connected to the country’s main pipeline and relies on 52 deep wells, a quarter of them in Jordan, for its water.

There are reservoirs, but rainfall is scant. The area has had only five millimetres this year, he said.

Ravins has lived on Moshav Tzofar for 31 years, and it’s where he and his wife raised five children. Before becoming mayor, he was head of Arava Research and Development from 1994 to 2004.

The Arava is home to an international agricultural training centre that teaches students from Africa, Latin America and China and elsewhere in the Middle East how to farm under adverse conditions. Ravins personally escorted the then-Chinese president on a tour of the fields and greenhouses 12 years ago.

The centre currently has 550 students enrolled in a 10-month course. They also tour the country and visit sites, like Yad Vashem. “When they go back, they are goodwill ambassadors for Israel,” he said.

Things are getting harder though. The Arava’s flower industry has been undercut by a growing industry in Africa, where labour is cheaper, and the higher cost of air travel has meant exports today travel by ship. Therefore, North America is no longer a feasible destination for most of its produce, he said.

The Arava has very good relations with its Jordanian neighbours since the signing of the 1994 peace treaty, and even before, Ravins said.

But when he asked about the future, he symbolically knocks wood, rather than answers.

He stressed that Israel needs border communities, but the government is beset with so many other issues that the Arava has not been a high priority.

“The young generation wants to come back, but the government has not done enough in land and water development,” he said.

For those who don’t see their future in the Arava, Ravins asks that Canadians “adopt” one of the endangered acacia trees in the Arava. Two varieties of acacia, native to Sudan, are the only trees that grow there and they are vital to the ecology, he said. The Arava has a varied wildlife, including gazelles and oryxes.

Global warming, human encroachment, and the depletion and contamination of the aquifer are threatening the acacia.

The project, run with JNF, is helping maintain existing trees and plant young ones.

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