We Are All Seeds: Heirloom Seed Saving, Multispecies Justice, and Resisting Colonial Erasures in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Scholars of multispecies justice are increasingly turning toward plants, animals, fungi and complex other-than-human organisms as subjects of justice in our shared worlds.[1] In addition to the invitation to expand the moral community, multispecies justice issues a serious challenge to rethink conceptions of our human selves not as distinct individuals, but rather as part of a deeply entangled web of relations among and across non-human beings and bodies. Given that our human lives would not be possible “without the flow of non-humans through our bodies,” it only seems right that we pay greater attention to the “intersection of human social worlds and the lifeworlds of multispecies justice.”[2] But what can it mean to speak about justice for the other-than when not all human beings are treated as belonging to the category of the human? 

I aim to dwell on this question by exploring human-seed relations in the form of heirloom seed saving. Specifically, I focus on the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library as a generative practice that engages with the nonhuman (seed/soil) as a form of justice. By exploring human-seed relations in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), I make a broader claim: the conditions that have made Palestinian heirloom seeds vulnerable to extinction—and therefore key subjects of justice—cannot be disentangled from the longstanding injustices which Palestinian humans face amidst ongoing settler colonialism, military occupation and the Anthropocene.[3] As we will see, the heirloom seed and the human share an entangled kinship in which the suffering and flourishing of each are tightly bound up in the struggle for their right to exist. 

In what follows, I position the Palestinian Anthropocene(s) within settler colonial logic before briefly introducing my case study. I then think with seeds as embodied ecologies, which allows us to understand the violence directed at both Palestine’s heirloom seeds and its people as deeply enmeshed. I suggest that both forms of violence operate on the same logic of erasure that is continually enacted through dispossession from land, severing of multispecies relationality and dependence on Israel. I then turn to monoculture pine forests in order to illuminate the ways in which multispecies worlds are contesting settler colonialism and agribusiness to pursue justice against all odds. 

Settler colonialocene?

Kathyrn Yusoff convincingly argues that Black and brown death is the precondition of every Anthropocene origin story.[4] The specificities of the Palestinian Anthropocene are no exception, being rooted in histories of settler colonial violence and deeply tied up with the dispossession and “extinction” of Indigenous life-worlds. Scholars are increasingly making the case that multispecies entanglements are crucial for understanding the violence of Israeli settler colonialism. I propose that human-seed relations are one such enmeshment that opens up new ways of looking at a landscape where some human bodies “make the desert bloom” while others are forced “into the realm of Nonlife.”[5]

Settler colonialism can be understood as an enduring structure that possesses a fundamental logic of elimination; that is, it seeks to continually eliminate Indigenous people because they obstruct settlers’ access to land.[6] If we accept that settler colonialism’s central aim is territoriality—in this case to gain and retain control over as much of the land and resources of historic Palestine with the least number of Palestinians on it—I suggest we can understand it as a decidedly multispecies project of oppression.[7] In other words, the Israeli settler colonial project aims to bring about not only the elimination of Palestinian people but also “the destruction of Palestinian ecologies of life” more broadly.[8]

The more-than-human world is thus central to Israel’s control mechanism and is employed in complex ways to reproduce its settler colonial order.[9] Non-human entities in Palestine are continually “caught in the violent matrix of forensic ecologies of militarized violence,” including mass uprooting of olive groves, contamination of aquifers and soil, animals killed by bombs or hindered by the Separation Wall and the near extinction of heirloom seeds.[10] Settler violence to the Palestinian other-than-human world should be understood not as an unfortunate byproduct of the occupation but central to and inseparable from the suffering it inflicts on the human bodies it seeks to eliminate. In this way, the large-scale attack on Palestinians’ ancestral seeds, foodways, trees, water and soil—what some are calling environmental colonialism or ecological apartheid—is not new but rather a transmutation of a settler colonial logic that has been long endured and resisted.[11]

Vivien Sansour founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library as a way of resisting Israeli agribusiness monopolies and reviving ancestral Palestinian farming techniques.[12] The library seeks to find, save and distribute heirloom seed varieties—seeds that are open pollinated and non-genetically modified—as an alternative to the corporate seed monopoly.[13] For Sansour, the resurgent planting of heirloom seeds is an inter-generational practice that preserves Palestinian agricultural heritage and biodiversity, and resists the many injustices of the Israeli occupation. In this context, heirloom seeds are understood not just as “living beings” that “carry in their genes the stories and the spirits of the Palestinian indigenous ancestors,” but also as subversive rebels that travel “across borders and checkpoints to defy the violence of the landscape while reclaiming life and presence.”[14]

Heirloom seeds as embodied ecologies

Thinking with heirloom seeds as living beings that inhabit what Andrea Ford calls fluid “embodied ecologies” invites deeper questions about the way seeds carry specific relations and ways of life with them that are deserving of justice.[15] As the embryos of new plants, heirloom seeds evolve, grow and are saved in situ: that is, in their appropriate environment or place. In this sense, they exist and circulate in embodied worlds—including multispecies kin networks with people and place—that are central to how they grow “and what they bring with them as they move through subsequent generations.” It is not just humans with whom they have relationships. The sun, soil, wind, rain, birds, bees and butterflies all enact relationships of kinship and care with the awakening, distributing and pollinating of heirloom seeds. Saving and sharing heirloom seeds thus enacts “a sense of kinship with and through plants, environments, and other humans” that embeds people in intergenerational relationships of care.[16] If it is true that seeds “germinate, grow, die, and evolve within ongoing networks of co-constitution,” then heirloom seed saving is an act of relational justice in which human and plant worlds are co-evolutional.[17]

By contrast, hybrid seeds are developed ex situ and preserved in laboratory conditions, meaning they have not evolved to suit Palestine’s topographies, ecological communities and microclimates. What’s more, they are sterile—meaning they must be re-purchased each year—and heavily dependent upon irrigation and manufactured chemicals, leading to a vicious cycle of dependence on Israel. When seeds are commercially bred or genetically modified, it is not only multispecies relationships that are disrupted but also their capacity “to embody their environments” and to adapt in intelligent ways.[18] According to Katharine Dow, commercially produced hybrid seeds are an example of Donna Haraway’s “proprietary kin”: they are valued for their genes while the natural-social articulations through which they are produced are disavowed.[19]

Heirloom seeds, having been carefully selected by ancestors throughout thousands of years and cultivated with their natural-social articulations intact, possess a certain intelligence of place.[20] In other words, these seeds “know the soil.”[21] They are acclimated to their microclimate and naturally resistant to many diseases. Most Palestinian heirloom seeds are ba’al, meaning they do not require irrigation but live off the rain and moisture retained in the soil.[22] In this way, the self-sufficiency of heirloom seeds is inextricably linked to the self-sufficiency of Palestinian farmers. 

Multispecies social justice 

It is not only or ultimately the elimination of the Palestinian human population that the Zionist state seeks, but access to trees, soil, air, land and water. To the settler state, these are resources; while for many Palestinians, they represent a thriving other-than-human living world from which they derive their identity and steadfastness. For both heirloom seeds and many Palestinians, where they are is who they are, and the many human and nonhuman species they are in reciprocal ethical relations with—“the orchards, the lemon trees, their goats, sheep and horses, the seasons and the harvesting” that are “the flesh from their bodies.”[23]

With this understanding, we can better appreciate one major mechanism of Israel’s attack on Palestine’s sovereign seeds and its people: to dispossess them of their land and sever their ties to their embodied ecologies. In doing so, Israeli settler colonialism and its agribusiness formations aim to transform them from being deeply rooted and self-sufficient within their relational networks, to being spatially contained and dependent on colonial-capitalist industry. As Palestinian activist Jamal Juma says, the goals of the occupation cannot be separated from the other-than-human world: “What they [Zionist settler colonists] want is to take your feet out of the ground, out of the land. They want to separate you from there.”[24]

The same can be said for Palestinian heirloom seeds, which are facing “near extinction” in large part due to the spatial containment of the Israeli occupation and the homogenising work of its agribusiness.[25] Since the creation of Israel in 1948, the occupation has played a central role in transforming Palestinian agriculture from being an autonomous system based on soil and sun to one that is very much based on chemical imports and hybrid seeds.”[26] Most Palestinian farmers in the West Bank cultivate land in Area C, where the use of and access to land as well as irrigation for agriculture are controlled by Israel. Due to Israeli land zoning, Palestinians have ultimately lost their sovereignty over two thirds of their agriculture resources.[27] What remains is land that is negatively affected by Israeli settlements, violence, and control of water. Israeli agribusiness corporations have stepped in, heavily marketing their engineered hybrid seeds and other technologies to Palestinian farmers, promising higher yields and better resistance to pests and diseases “for the benefit and safety of all.”[28] The widespread adoption of these seeds is now threatening heirloom seeds with extinction. 

Many Palestinians in Area C struggle to access basic services such as water/sanitation, primary education, and safe shelter, and face the highest levels of food insecurity across the West Bank.[29] In this context, the role of Palestinian agriculture and land-based livelihoods—what Sansour calls “agri-resistance—is central to Palestinian food sovereignty.[30] It entails the right to save, distribute and plant heirloom seeds; that is, the right to grow and eat their own food and preserve their ancestral farming and foodways. Thus, multispecies justice cannot be delinked from the social justice fight for Palestinian self-determination where both share a similar aim: restoring the Palestinian—seed or human—relationship to place. For Sansour, the struggle against dependence on the occupier starts with multispecies learning: “When you put a ba’al seed in the ground, you’re […] allowing farmers to be fully independent of agri-business and other dominating forces. Through these seeds we can truly be sovereign.”[31]

Multispecies resistance   

Following Palestinian heirloom seeds leads us to a rather unlikely place: the pine forest. By tracing seed justice to afforestation in the oPt, I aim to illuminate one way in which multispecies worlds are generating an ecological resistance.[32] Human and other-than-human beings are not simply victims to but also actively disrupting colonial relations.

After 1948, the Jewish National Fund proudly planted over 240 million pine trees in dense forests, claiming to be “greening the desert.”[33] These pine forests, however, have largely been an instrument of Israeli land theft and Palestinian displacement: used to “make the landscape look less alien,” to conceal all physical traces of Palestinian heritage and to prevent the return of Palestinians to their former homes.[34] They sit over demolished Palestinian villages and fruit groves that were razed to make room for the pines; the seeded heirloom wheat and barley fields that once thrived there can no longer survive among the Aleppo pines, which can starve other plants of sunlight and shed a thick blanket of acidic needles that prevent the growth of other plant species.[35]

But even this “Settler-Nature” has grown toward a kind of subversive justice: over the years, the forests have developed to protect what remains of the villages. In some places, pre-existing groves began to grow through the ruins, and pine growth has made further bulldozer access to the ruins impossible. The same forests that were originally intended as a tool of erasure “have […] hindered full-scale de-signification and obliteration.”[36] Gutkowski argues that human-animal entanglement in the West Bank both reproduces human-centered colonial relations and represents their disruption.[37] In a similar way, turning our gaze to the behavior of other-than-human vegetal species like the pine—originally intended to reproduce colonial relations—foregrounds “the unanticipated effects of non-human matter potentially unsettling settler colonial architectures of destruction.”[38]

Viewing the oPt through the lens of multispecies justice makes clear that among the ruins in which so many Palestinians live—among the militarized checkpoints, border walls and even forests aimed at controlling and erasing them—exist “a swarm of non-human life forces” that are “undeniably living and resisting colonial erasures.”[39] The humblest of these forces may be the seed, cast into the earth by a single human hand and pushing up through the soil to pursue the only form of justice it knows: life. Deborah McGregor reminds us that all beings—whether human or other-than—have responsibilities, and that interfering with their abilities to fulfil these responsibilities is ultimately “an injustice to Creation.”[40]

(In)justice—however we attempt to divide or name it—is always-already intersectional. But the heirloom seed also teaches us this: through practices of care, like those performed by Sansour, we can enact the dream of a flourishing multispecies community, even in the cracks and ruptures of the ruins.[41]

[1] Eben Kirskey and Sophie Chao, “Introduction” in The Promise of Multispecies Justice, ed. Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey (Duke University Press, 2022), 2.

[2] Ibid., 6; Scott F. Gilbert et al. in Danielle Celermajer et al, “Multispecies justice: theories, challenges, and a research agenda for environmental politics,” Environmental Politics 30, no. 1-2 (2020): 127. 

[3] The Anthropocene is a term used to describe a new epoch of geological time in which humans are the dominant force in shaping Earth’s environment, though there is much debate about its usefulness. 

[4] Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 66. 

[5] Ruba Salih and Olaf Corry, “Displacing the Anthropocene: Colonisation, Extinction and the Unruliness of Nature in Palestine,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 5, no. 1 (2022): 381, 387; Barbara Bloch, “Making the Desert Bloom,” Overland 232 (Spring 2018).

[6] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 401.

[7] Mandy Turner, “Peacebuilding as Counterinsurgency in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Review of International Studies 41, no. 1 (2015): 84.

[8] Joseph Pugliese, Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human: Forensic Ecologies of Violence, (Duke University Press, 2020), 43.

[9] Zoe Todd, “Commentary: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism, Part I,” Engagement (April 11, 2017); Irus Braverman, “Environmental justice, settler colonialism, and more-than-humans in the occupied West Bank: An introduction,” EPE: Nature and Space (2021): 4.

[10] Pugliese, Biopolitics of the More-Than-Human, 2; Braverman, “Environmental justice, settler colonialism, and more-than-humans in the occupied West Bank,” 21. 

[11] Ahmed Abofoul, “Israel’s Ecological Apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” OpinioJuris (October 22, 2021).

[12] Vivien Sansour, “Palestine Heirloom Seed Library,” SeedShed (nd). 

[13] Tessa Fox, “The woman saving Palestinian heirloom seeds,” BBC (September 10, 2021).

[14] Sansour, “Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.”

[15] Andrea Ford in Katharine Dow, “Bloody Marvels: In Situ Seed Saving and Intergenerational Malleability,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 35, no. 4 (2021): 495; Haraway in Dow, “Bloody,” 506. 

[16] Dow, “Bloody Marvels,” 495, 497, 499.

[17] Thom van Dooren, “Inventing Seed: The Nature(s) of Intellectual Property in Plants,” Environment and Planning. D, Society & Space 26, no. 4 (2008): 689; and “Wild Seed, Domesticated Seed: Companion Species and the Emergence of Agriculture,” PAN: Philosophy, Activism, Nature 9 (2012): 24.

[18] Dow, “Bloody Marvels,” 506, 508; Gawan Mac Gregair, “Palestine’s seed library finds fertile ground to pioneer sustainable farming,” The New Arab (February 8, 2018).

[19] Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (Routledge, 1997), 497. 

[20] Sansour, “Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.”

[21] Sylva van Rosse and Vanessa Lambrecht, “When the seed knows the soil: a Palestinian story about resilience and food,” Het Grote Midden Oosten Platform (April 17, 2021).

[22] Joshua Leifer, “Seeds of resistance: The woman fighting occupation with agriculture,” +972 Magazine (March 8, 2018). 

[23] Chandni Desai, “’The land is talking to me’: An interview with Jamal Juma on
meanings of land, decolonization, resistance and solidarity from Palestine,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 6, no. 1 (2017): 128.

[24] Ibid., 127.

[25] Mac Gregair, “Palestine’s seed library finds fertile ground to pioneer sustainable farming.”

[26] Leifer, “Seeds of resistance.” 

[27] Raja Khalidi et al, “Strategic Review of Food and Nutrition Security in
Palestine,” Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS, 2017): 23.

[28] Yonatan Sredni, “The Israeli agritech startups leading crop innovation,” CTech by Calcalist (August 28, 2022).

[29] Roubina Ghattas et al, “Opportunities and Challenges of Palestinian Development actions in Area C,” Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (December 2016), 27; The Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS), Socio-Economic & Food Security Survey, State of Palestine (2020): 10.

[30] Vivien Sansour and Juman Simaan, “Tales of Agri-Resistance,” Resilience.org (January 4, 2017).

[31] Interview with Vivien Sansour, “We are all seeds,” Baladi Rooted Resistance (May 21, 2019).

[32] Anne Meneley, “Hope in the ruins: Seeds, plants, and possibilities of regeneration,” EPE: Nature and Space 4, no. 1 (2020): 158.

[33] “We Are JNF,” Jewish National Fund.

[34] Eve Spangler, Understanding Israel/Palestine: Race, Nation, and Human Rights in the Conflict (BRILL, 2019), 121. 

[35] Jessica Buxbaum, “Making the desert bloom? How Israel is greenwashing its land theft in the Negev,” The New Arab (February 1, 2022); Cnaan Liphshiz, “How planting a tree in Israel became controversial,” Jerusalem Post (January 14, 2022)

[36] Salih and Corry, “Displacing”, 394. 

[37] Natalia Gutkowski, “Bodies that count: Administering multispecies in Palestine/Israel’s borderlands,” EPE: Nature and Space 4, no. 1 (2021): 137.

[38] Salih and Corry, “Displacing,” 394. 

[39] Ibid., 391.

[40] Deborah McGregor, “Honouring Our Relations: An Anishnaabe Perspective
on Environmental Justice” in Speaking for Ourselves: Environmental
Justice in Canada
, ed. Julian Agyeman et al. (University of British
Columbia Press, 2009), 40. 

[41] Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, “Lively Ethography: Storying Animist Worlds,” Environmental Humanities 8, no. 1 (2016): 79.

*Cover image: Credit by Vivien Sansour.

[*Cover image description: An aerial photo of a group of people, all sitting cross legged on a rug on the stone ground, carefully picking through green crops for heirloom seeds. The plants are spread across the ground and their laps, with the seeds being collected in small colourful bowls.]

Edited by Trang Dang, reviewed by Asmae Ourkiya.

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