03/31/2011 04:52

Green Movement leads 11th-hour protest in front of Knesset to save Arava Desert’s last remaining dunes.

Israel’s Green Movement held a demonstration Wednesday afternoon in front of the Knesset calling for the government to revoke plans to mine Samar sand dunes, the Arava Desert’s last remaining dunes, which host a variety of animal species unique to that “island” landscape, according to Prof. Alon Tal, head of the group.

“It’s a biodiversity hotspot – because it’s a meeting of three continents,” said Tal, who is also a faculty member at Ben- Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

Originally 11,000 dunams, the Samar dune area is already down to about 2,300 dunams due to previous work. The Green Movement, alongside other environmental activists, has been fighting the mining ever since a license was granted for it about a year-and-a-half ago by the Israel Lands Authority, Tal explained.

The mining has not yet started due to a recently concluded High Court case filed by a group that tried to enjoin the project, but Tal said he fears that the work will start within weeks, referring to the protest as a “one second before midnight” effort.

While Tal said he understands that sand is necessary for construction, there are alternative methods of acquiring sand rather than scraping it from this dune, located near Kibbutz Samar, some 30 km. from Eilat.

“The entire amount of sand which is planned in the quarrying operation is only 500,000 tons,” Tal said in a statement.

“As Eilat’s annual demand for sand is about 150 million tons a year, this means that they might be able to lower prices of apartments by a percent or less for three years – but what then? What will be left of this magical ecosystem then?” As potential alternatives, Tal suggests acquiring sand from the Rotem plains near Arad – which is about 150 km. from Eilat and an hour-and-a-half longer drive – or purchasing it from Jordan or the Sinai.

Another alternative he suggests is digging for sand underneath dunes that have already been mined, which, while more expensive, could provide up to 10 million tons of sand, according to Tal.

“We contend as environmentalists that you can dig deeper there, since the area is already disturbed,” agreed David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, who also attended the rally.

Calling the area an “island,” Tal cited two new species of spiders – one of which was characterized a top hundred finding of the decade by the Discovery Channel – hyenas, foxes, wolves, gerbils and lizards.

Some of these animals are actually exhibit “specific genetic uniqueness, which is unlike the animals in the region,” according to Lehrer.

“This is an area that is certainly unique with endemic species that are specific to this area because of the fact that it’s a block of sand dunes that are sort of surrounded by a different type of terrain,” Lehrer said. “So the animals that live on these sand dunes are like on an island.

They can’t leave – they don’t mix with other animals.”

Meanwhile, Tal added, the Samar dunes are a popular place for hikers and children who play in the sand.

“Why prevent future generations of Israelis’ access to its one remaining sand dune, and destroy an internationally significant hotspot for biodiversity to reduce the travel time of sand by an hour and a half?” Tal asked.

In response to the protest and criticism, an ILA spokeswoman told the Post: “In the framework of the advancement of the plan to mine in the Samar sand dunes, concern was dedicated to preserving the dune. The project received the approval of all planning institutions before the land was marketed by tender.

“It bears pointing out that the area of the dunes is five times bigger than the area slated to be mined, and it is situated just to the north of the Yotvata Nature Reserve, and the ILA intends to preserve the entire contiguous area.”