Iba Farrah: Palestinian Permaculturalist

“Sometimes when you think you can’t do something you are overwhelmed by a desire to prove to yourself you can do it,” says Iba Farrah, a Palestinian permaculturalist, gardener, and educator. “And so, you prove it, and discover along the way you can do so much more than you ever expected.’ Iba is a force of optimism in a land where conflict has wrought many hardships.

I first met Iba at a mushroom growing course in a small village in the West Bank. The heat was stifling, my anxiety levels were high following the usual battle to navigate my way through the notorious traffic and the course was in Arabic. I don’t speak Arabic.

By mid-course Iba was on to me, and without drawing the slightest hint of attention to my incompetency’s, she started translating quietly. All of a sudden the miraculous world of mycology was unveiled through her beautifully accented English. I already wanted to be her friend.

My second encounter with Iba was via email. It wasn’t much more than a one liner: “I have a project in ecotourism I want to develop,” she wrote. “Are you interested?”

I was curious, but mostly I was intrigued by Iba herself. I wanted to know what she was about.

I battle the traffic back to the West Bank to meet Iba at Marda Permaculture Farm, where she works. The terrain out here is dry and rugged and the heat unrelenting. Although olive groves dot the surrounding hillsides, it’s hard to imagine the land sustaining thirstier plant life. Yet the busted old gate that marks the farm’s entrance belies a wondrous sea of green brimming behind it.

The farm is a sanctuary of cool and calm. The pomegranate trees are bursting at the seams with ripening fruits, and below the tomatoes and cucumbers are a thriving jumble of production. Iba is in her element – she has just finished filming a TV piece on Marda (it’s her job here to look at ways to expand the farm’s influence and promote sustainability awareness). This, I discover, is Iba’s jam: growing sustainably and inspiring others to integrate sustainable growing into their own lifestyles.

Marda Farm's abundant greenhouse

“I’ve been inspired by gardening since I was a child,” Iba says. “My father loved planting and it was such a pleasure collecting lemons and grapes and flowers and all kinds of other things from the garden. It gave me such a love of nature, a love of breathing in the nature.”

Iba is a biotechnician, genetic engineer, and doctor of public health. “While studying public health, I became much more concerned with eating healthy food and being close to nature,” Iba says. So she dabbled in sustainable and organic farming on the sidelines, did a permaculture course, and embraced a healthy lifestyle.

It was life’s vicissitudes, however, that brought her to nature as a career. When her toddler son was left severely disabled in an accident, she was unsure whether she would be capable of enduring it. Eventually, Iba immersed herself in her permaculture world and found acceptance there.

I realised that being in nature was therapeutic,” she tells me. “It was calming, stabilizing and it brought me joy. It was a turning point in my life, a way to move on positively.”

It was this life event that taught Iba what she was capable of as a mother and as a grower.

At Marda Farm Iba teaches others how to improve their livelihoods through sustainable farming. She is also currently in the process of planning a sustainable agriculture and gardening program for women in Jericho, so they can learn to generate income from their own homes.

Few women farm in Palestine and those who do are usually assisting their family business in unpaid employment. But Iba insists that this could change. “The program will empower women by giving them the tools to start small businesses to support their families from their own homes,” she says. “Small-scale backyard farming in Palestine has the potential to provide women with the skills to improve food security, increase the family nutritional intake and increase self-sufficiency.”

Iba also dreams of establishing a green school and research facility to support the next generation of agricultural scientists, and creating Palestine’s first carbon neutral eco-village ‘Sustainable agriculture preserves the land. It should be the most important business sector in Palestine.’

Iba is also motivated by a desire to help Palestinians reconnect with their cultural links to land. Her eco tourism plan, the subject of her email to me, would be a project encouraging Palestinians to connect with nature. “Land boundaries in Palestine have made our connection to the land weaker. But land signifies resilience and perseverance for the Palestinian people in the face of the ongoing land loss that the occupation and the expansion of Israeli settlements brings,” she tells me.

Above all, Iba wants people to understand that small-scale farming, growing food and leading a healthy lifestyle can be a force for good for individuals, family units and Palestinians as a whole. She tells me she’ll keep at it until it happens! “Nothing can stop me,” she says.

The leafy grounds of Marda Farm
The view from Marda up to Ariel, an Israeli settlement overlooking tiny Marda village