It Starts with Respect | Helping Palestine’s People Live in Harmony with Nature

“Follow your passion and you will find a way to serve”

It also started with a simple curiosity. As a child Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh followed in the footsteps of his uncle, the first Palestinian Zoologist. He now carries on his uncle’s legacy as the Founder and (Volunteer) Director of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) at Bethlehem University.

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh has worked at universities like Duke and Yale, published over 160 scientific papers in peer reviewed journals and established an institution, a museum and a botanical garden from scratch.

Now he finds even greater joy in coaching young people and watching them create achievements of their own, as his legacy for Palestine’s nature and people grows.

Learn more about the biggest conservation challenges and opportunities in Palestine, and how – by simply following your unique passions – you can help people live in harmony with nature, too.

Building a community garden. Credit: PMNH.

Why do you work in conservation?

From my childhood I was fascinated with nature as I accompanied my uncle who was the first Palestinian Zoologist (Sana Atallah). Uncle Sana was killed soon after he finished his PhD in 1969 and I wanted to complete his work.

I was also raised during a time of significant environmental injustice. I wanted to do work that helps human and other living communities (fauna and flora) to be sustainable.

Credit: PMNH.

What do you think are the biggest conservation challenges and opportunities in your country?

The biggest challenge has been political, which has resulted in significant damage to people and nature.

The diverse agriculture practiced for thousands of years (we are part of the Fertile Crescent where humans first developed agriculture) was lost when Palestinian were displaced or became refugees. The Jordan valley water was diverted to coastal areas. The Hula wetlands were drained (over 219 species disappeared), industrial colonies were built that produce toxic waste on remaining Palestinian & much more.

Opportunities are huge especially in reclaiming endogenous cultures which existed in relative harmony with nature. Our native people have lots of wisdom that help deal with also the new challenges like climate change and desertification.

What are the main activities in your current role?

Using largely volunteer efforts and local donations, the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) and its offspring, the Palestine Museum of Natural History (PMNH) and ecological botanical gardens at Bethlehem University were established in 2014.

Our motto is RESPECT – first for ourselves, then for others, then for the environment. Our vision is sustainable human and natural communities. Our mission is research, educate about, and conserve our natural world, culture and heritage and promote responsible human interactions with our environment.

Our activities in research on areas from biodiversity to genotoxicity to pedagogy help us structure the best environmental awareness programs that lead to conservation efforts.

As a founder of this institute (donated $250,000 to start with) and a full time volunteer for the past six years, I believe my main role is as a coach. I believe also to create an environment where people grow to be responsible engaged citizens. Young people learn quickly and quickly develop leadership skills.

What’s the best part of your job?

Working with young people (school and university students) gives me great pleasure as I watch them blossom, think, develop initiatives and become true guardians of planet earth.

I also find nature itself highly sustaining to me. Growing our own vegetables (we also run a community garden) and working with plants and animals is quite invigorating. We built a community garden and an exploratory playground mostly for young students. Also communal activities like harvesting our olive trees give us pleasure.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst part is to deal with government bureaucracies, military occupation, to encounter greedy individuals who do not seem to want to change. But these obstacles all are small considering the rewards.

What are your career highlights so far?

I published over 160 scientific papers in peer reviewed journals, published several books, and published dozens of chapters in other books. Contributing to scientific knowledge is quite rewarding.

But as I got older I found much more satisfaction from seeing publications of my students and what they have achieved in their life. I am proud of establishing an institution, a museum, a botanical garden from scratch as noted above.

What key steps have you taken in your conservation career?

The key steps were large and I think the biggest advice I would give is to not be afraid to take on more challenging opportunities. I did a master’s degree, PhD, then two postdoctoral positions and worked at universities like Duke, Yale and many others, always challenging myself to go the extra mile.

What careers advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

Humanity will either have to learn to live in harmony with nature or we will destroy our only home (planet earth). There is no more rewarding careers than those that address this issue.

Fortunately within this path lies many opportunities. I know artists who are using art for nature. You can work in media and communication for nature and for sustainability. You can be in IT and help nature: we work with lots of databases and bioinformatics is now key to many areas of conservation.

You can simply farm in eco-friendly ways (e.g. permaculture). You can write (even fiction related to nature)! You see the pattern. Follow your passion and you will find a way to serve via those skills.

You can learn more about the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability by visiting their website, following them on Facebook, or reading their 2019 annual report.

Want to hear more career stories from professional conservationists from underrepresented countries? Check out our latest Celebrating Diversity in Conservation articles.

All image credits: PMNH.

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