On problems of cause and effect

A site of rapid and repeated change, the Huleh raises plenty of questions – and generates numerous explanations. As I move about the different sites, I fall into conversation with ecologists, farm workers, historians, casual visitors. At every turn, people shape stories to explain what happens here, and how and why – stories people tell themselves, stories they tell others, stories to correct, stories to distract, stories to reaffirm.

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Deforestation Maquette, (?)1970s, Usishkin House Nature Museum, Kibbutz Dan (In Israeli accounts, regional scarcity of forest cover is commonly attributed to over-harvesting under Turkish rule)

In a complex landscape such as the Huleh, even the smallest interventions can have multiple and unexpected consequences. Major changes – such as draining the original lake and swamps in the 1950s – have obvious impacts, but even here the effects can be more complex and extensive than is immediately apparent. Numerous problems arose following the drainage of the valley, including subsidence, underground peat fires, and nutrient overload in the Sea of Galilee, leading to toxic algal bloom in the nation’s major fresh water supply. This, at least, generated a strong enough consensus to promote active restoration of open water in areas where the land had become unfarmable. But draining the lake had other consequences. The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, for example, formed around a campaign to salvage part of the wetlands as a nature reserve. Neighbouring communities were allocated farming rights on the drained land – and so became invested in its future even as its agricultural promise failed to materialise. The stories that were created in the act of drainage had their own powers of cause and effect that worked alongside, and amplified or altered, its material implications.

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‘Malaria’ history display, Dubrovkin Farm Museum, Yesud HaMa’ala (vintage insecticide advert)

The uncertainty unfolds backwards as well as forwards. One of the main reasons cited for the drainage of the swamp was the prevalence of malaria. While malaria took a heavy toll on the early settlers, and was undoubtedly part of the original case for drainage even in the Ottoman era, more than half a century had passed before the project materialised, by which time DDT had effectively eradicated the malarial threat. Accounts today link the drainage to a war on mosquitos – as for example in this display at the Dubrovin museum. At the time when malaria was an active threat, however – and when the drainage was first proposed – the disease hadn’t yet been linked to mosquitos, but was attributed vaguely to ‘evil air’ from the swamps.

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Irrigation equipment and cranes in Huleh Valley

Today, it’s more widely accepted that the primary motivation for drainage was creation of new farmland. Re-flooding parts of the failed farmland in the 1990s took land back out of agricultural use, but at the same time technologies were introduced to support year-round irrigation and circulation of crops, to preserve the soil from erosion and dessication. The increase in productivity more than counter-balanced the loss of land, in economic terms.

Migrating cranes, Huleh Valley, February 2016

Migrating cranes, Huleh Valley, February 2016

Wintering crane populations in the Huleh rose in a couple of decades from 100 to 35,000 (Labinger et al., 2012). According to some sources, new farming practices, alongside changes elsewhere on the migration route, are likely the main cause of cranes coming to the valley. Peanuts, in particular, were a new introduction and the stubble fields provided cranes with rich and favoured gleaning. Others attribute their arrival to the creation of open water for roosting. Cranes staying on past the autumn damaged winter crops of wheat and peas, so feeding was introduced to keep cranes off the new-sown fields. This effectively reduced agricultural damage – but may (arguably) have helped encourage the increase in cranes, whose numbers climbed steadily.  The strands are too many and too complex to summarise so briefly – what I hope to convey is that the webs of cause and effect are both tangled and disputed.

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Explanation panel, Agmon Hula Park

A significant amount of research has and does take place in the Huleh Valley, to better understand the complex ecological interactions, and better inform future management. By isolating different factors, scientists seek to establish greater certainty about relationships of cause and effect. The kind of detailed and specific knowledge generated is surely necessary to improve our understanding. On entering the field, however, it quickly becomes apparent that empirical knowledge and narrative persuasions shape each other. Divergent institutional and personal preoccupations produce different, sometimes contradictory, knowledge. In the meantime, knowledge and narrative continue to have material effects in the here and now, as interventions made (or not) help shape the shifting ecologies of the valley. What if understanding the nature of cause and effect in this complex interwoven ecology of species, material processes, ideas, and narratives is not solely a question of making finer, more judicious, distinctions? Could an alternate mode of enquiry work not by isolating factors but by engaging with the messy tangle on its own terms?

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Rock doves nesting in a box intended to encourage barn owls as natural pest control

 

 

References cited:

Labinger, Z., Shani, I., Alon, D., Ayalon, T., Smarno, K. and Boneh, O. (2012) International conference proceedings: Crane management in the Huleh Valley [סדנה בינלאומית בנושא: ממשק עגורים בעמק החולה], Tel Hai College, 17-18 December.

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