State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

The Power of the Common Person: Can They Do What Governments Can’t?

By Allison I. Villegas Roman

Discussion of the Sindyanna Programs
Discussion of the Sindyanna Programs

Nine Columbia University students traveled to Jordan and Israel in August to learn about how the two countries are cooperating on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. The trip is part of a course on regional environmental sustainability in the Middle East, a collaboration between Columbia University’s Earth Institute and School of Professional Studies, the Columbia University Global Center in Amman, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. This is one in a series of posts about the trip. 

I expected to eat great food, see great sites, and learn more about one of the most significant conflicts in the world. But I did not expect to meet such great people and learn about the power that individuals can have in resolving a crisis. Traveling to Jordan and Israel, I was primarily interested in the role and influence that government agencies have in resolving conflict. I saw them as being the primary drivers of change, and while they are essential, I quickly learned the power and momentum of NGOs and local citizens. That to resolve decades of tension, solutions must come not just from governments but directly from the people, because they have a unique freedom to strike at institutional failures that governments cannot.

Traveling through Jordan led us to visit EcoPeace Middle East, a bottom-up project-oriented NGO that incorporates an advocacy strategy in order to approach cross border environmental protection and peacebuilding. To be able to stay in the Sharhabil bin Hassneh Eco Park, where there was once an absence of vegetation and now to see the large scale in which the natural ecosystem has been restored, is humbling.

Sindyanna of Galilee, a female-led non-profit, highlights the impact that conscious consumerism and fair trade can have on uplifting women’s life. By selling Arab-produced olive oil and other premium items such as hand-woven baskets, Sindyanna teaches women marketable skills and a means of securing an income for themselves and their family.

Walking through the streets of Jerusalem, one cannot help but feel the emotional and religious attachments over the site. Once out of the Holy City, we received a tour by Aviv Tatarsky from the NGO Ir Amim. Ir Amim focuses on creating a more equitable and sustainable environment for Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem. While overlooking Shuafat, a Palestinian Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, we discussed how people are attempting to provide services for their community amidst to the absence of ministry.

Aviv Tatarsky talking overlooking Shuafat
Aviv Tatarsky talking overlooking Shuafat

While traveling across the region I saw more collaboration than I initially imagined. Groups of Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians working together to address the socioeconomic and environmental threats that impact peoples’ everyday lives. This degree of collaboration would not be possible without the work of nonprofits. And it is because of this cooperation, where people from all backgrounds can learn and humanize one another, that the true roots of longstanding peace can be formed.

Allison received her BA in Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and Human Rights from The City University of New York, Hunter College and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Climate and Society at Columbia University. Allison has had the chance to work in government offices, political centers, national labs, and research institutions, and she is eager to learn about how environmental initiatives can aid in creating new partnerships that further innovation and peacebuilding.

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Mike Nelson Pedde
6 years ago

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~ Margaret Mead