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t is a pleasant winter day as I join Orit, pest inspector, for a tour around one of the bell pepper hothouses assigned to her supervision in the mid-Arava, a desert agricultural area in the South of Israel. The inspector’s job is to trace and identify the ‘pests’, insects and otherwise, that damage crops out in the fields, then recommend the pertinent course of action. Orit surveys the entire hothouse long and hard, then starts weaving through the bell pepper rows. She points out one specimen. Gesturing at the conjunction of the pepper and plant, where I can just spy silvery marks, she determines: “Western flower thrips.”
The western flower thrips is a small insect, considered one of the most harmful pests for bell peppers and tomatoes. The thrips was an invasive species in the early 1980s, when intensive agricultural lands in the region started sprawling.
Several days later, I’m back inside the hothouse, this time with Assaf, the grower and owner. Assaf picks up a small white flask, then starts sprinkling brown specks on the leaves of plants marked out by Orit. These are the Orius, carnivorous bugs, the thrips ‘natural’ enemy and a prominent example of the ‘Arthropoda mercenaries’ in the Arava. Assaf wanted to show me how the ‘good insects’ had the upper hand over the hothouse’s 'bad bugs'.
Following the tour of the hothouse, Assaf and I go out for some fresh air. "So what do you say about your friends?” he asks, referring to the insects he has just sprinkled and to my interest in these tiny creatures. “Your friends, my soldiers,” he smiled.
Though meant as a humorous remark, Assaf’s reference to the insects, the product of scientific and technological development, as “his soldiers” charts the map of human-insects relationship in the Arava and points out that they are part of the local agricultural infrastructure as well as part of the military terminol which is common in Israeli society (Kimmerling, 1993). The insects are perceived as part of the national struggle to hold on to the land, to “try to make the desert bloom” – a national imperative formulated by David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, in the context of Israel’s national endeavor (Tal, 2007).
The Arava is an arid desert region marked by harsh environmental conditions. The local agricultural success story is seen by many as emblematic of the national and political significance of agriculture, where agriculture along the national boundaries is considered to secure these boundaries against potential external threats (See Figure 2). This success is the product of efforts and capital invested in creating, sustaining and developing the agricultural infrastructure across the Israeli desert (Shani, 2018a).
The fight against pests, most of them insects, is often accompanied by metaphors from the battlefield: war, mercenaries, recruitment, bombing, extinction and more. The pictorial language of everything involved is saturated with military terms, and so is the entry of biological pesticides and the "war" on pests. Although this is not a phenomenon unique to Israel, it is interesting to see how in a militaristic society like Israel the war discourse also dominates the world of insects. The insects are divided into good and bad, "beneficial" or "harmful", depending on their relationship with the human and its crops.
The Orius and the other 'arthropods mercenaries' didn't just happen to arrive to the Arava. Bred and nurtured in special facilities, they were introduced to the region with the purpose of fighting the thrips. The Orius, like aphids, sterile flies, and other insects that take part in "biological pest control", are now a major part of the agricultural infrastructure in the Arava region.
As part of the effort to look for a theoretical framework which integrates the human and the non-human in the Anthropocene era, some researchers proposed the term ‘infrastructure’. As a conceptual tool, infrastructure suggests a lens for pulling together a number of heterogeneous elements, and has recently become a revealing site for ethnographic research on negotiation, struggle and meaning (Star 1999; Carse and Lewis 2017). In order to examine the challenges posed by environmental transformation, some researchers have used the term ‘Environmental Infrastructures’ or 'Ecologizing Infrastructure' (Jensen and Morita 2015; Hetherington 2018). Thinking through environmental or ecological infrastructures allows us to examine the making and remaking of worlds that are at once material and semiotic, inhabited not only by people but also by a multiplicity of nonhumans (Morita 2016).
However, agricultural infrastructure, especially in intensive agriculture around desert areas, has many semiotic layers (Carse 2012; Jensen and Morita 2015). Agricultural practices, alongside the networks of connections that make agriculture possible — wells, pipes, plants, instruments, and people — reveals the “dual role of infrastructure”. As a national-political endeavor, it creates boundaries between different groups; and at the same time, as an environmental project, it sustains and creates human-nonhuman boundaries, and thereby often compounds ecological destruction.
The "good insects" are being recruited in the Arava to be part of the agricultural infrastructure, as part of an ambition to expand the agricultural areas and as part of the national-environmental effort to control and change the Israeli desert, as will be shown in the next section.
Agriculture as a means of maintaining internal and external borders
“Agriculture protects our Borders,” reads a sign on the Arava highway, the road that runs north to south through the region (See Figure 3). Though something of an anachronism for much of the Israeli general public, at a time when neoliberalism challenges the importance of agriculture for Israeli society, this sentiment still resonates with the self-identity of the Jewish residents of the region. Agriculture has served, and still does serve as an infrastructure for maintaining the external and internal borders in Israeli national logic.
As in other instances of settler colonialism, the desert, like the Land of Israel at large in the early days of Zionism, was perceived as an empty wasteland, its fate in the hands of man (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury, 2015; Gutkowski, 2018). One key practice of realizing this imagination is intensive agriculture, which relies on an equally extensive development of water resources and arable land (Weizman and Sheikh 2015). Agriculture was the main practice employed to realize the imaginaries of fighting the desert and making it green, drawing the internal and external national boundaries in the process.
Land and water were key to the Zionist movement and nascent state of Israel, as the main resources for agriculture and settlement (Alatout, 2008). Zionism’s connection to the land was reflected in the ideals of ‘working’ and ‘conquering’ it. The early twentieth-century Jewish farmers were held in esteem as elite pioneers whose very labor served to realize the values of Zionism (Kimmerling, 1993; Dromi, and Shani, 2020). A key part of the Zionist control of water and land lies in its counteraction against the ‘others’ who had already inhabited the land - the Palestinians and Bedouins. In true orientalist fashion, these inhabitants were seen as primitive, detrimental to the environment, causing desertification, and unskillful in land and water management (Tal, 2007).
Spurred on by imperialist views of land management and by colonialist concepts of anti-desertification struggles (Davis 2016; Alatout 2008; Weizman and Sheikh 2015), the Zionist movement saw advanced agriculture as the key to the settlement project’s success, and developing advanced infrastructure that will enable it (Tal 2007; Shani 2018b). Scores of agricultural communities were set up along the frontier, informed by the conviction that their presence would assert Israel’s borders more effectively than fences. According to this logic, settlements were also established in the Arava desert along the border with Jordan.
But agriculture also serves as a practice for maintaining the internal border, within what is defined as the borders of the state. Unlike in other Negev areas, there are currently almost no non-Jewish residents around the Arava, after the Bedouin who had used to spend their winters in the region were driven away during the 1948 War. But the threat of the Bedouin, or Palestinian – the national ‘other’ within the internal border - is cited time and again in conversations and practices of local growers, while agriculture and growers are falling out of grace with the Israeli society. “If we’re not here, someone else will grab hold of the land,” as many of the residents told me.
Attempts to root Israeli settlement in the Arava immediately after the establishment of the state in 1948 failed as a result of harsh environmental conditions. Only in the early 1960s, when the Israeli military set about the establishment of semi-civilian outposts along the Jordanian border, was a cadre of young Zionist idealists able to make the “desert bloom.” Eventually, these outposts became permanent agricultural hityashvut, which expanded under the national conviction that securing the nascent state’s borders required the populating of outlying areas. Regarded as pioneers and the embodiment of Zionist values, these young farmers enjoyed considerable moral and financial support. These days, however, Arava farmers feel obliged to remind the nation of the importance of agriculture to the state’s economy and security. As the national-social significance of agriculture has waned, the road sign proclaims to the general public, perhaps even to the people of the Arava, the ideology that undergirds these communities. Facing wavering public support for their project, Arava residents are keen to stir public interest in local agriculture and territorial expansion.
By now, almost sixty years after the Jewish communities were first launched in the central Arava region, the residents feel that they have changed the desert, and have made the desert their home. Spanning roughly 1.5 million dunams (approximately 625 square miles), the Central Arava Regional Council comprises 13% of the area of Israel (within its pre-1967 borders). Some 3,000 Jewish Israelis reside in seven rural communities that stretch along the Jordanian border, and subsist primarily on agriculture—principally bell peppers and other vegetables for export (See Figure 3).
Agriculture was a key element in these settlers’ success to cleave into the desert and in “making the desert bloom”. But the Arava has never been an actual ‘wasteland' to be made a-bloom. Alongside its human residents, the mid-Arava sustains a vast diversity of nonhuman inhabitants, regular or temporary, passers-by of the migration season, and some who have made the region their home (Shani, 2018a). But the desire to change the desert, the second level in the dual role of agricultural infrastructure, led to ignoring everything that was before settlers arrived, as part of culture's control of nature (Chakrabarty 2009; Weizman and Sheikh 2015).
As in other agricultural areas around the world, the fight against harmful insects - which 'invaded' the area as part of the environmental changes following the settler's agriculture - took the form of spraying toxic chemicals. These chemicals have significantly damaged the environment, degraded and polluted water resources, and damaged the health of the growers themselves. Even though they were aware of the damage caused by those toxic agents, the Arava farmer nevertheless continued to use them, assuming it was the only way to succeed in agricultural production, as an essential part of the agricultural infrastructure. It was only external pressure that precipitated the ensuing change.
In modern agriculture, growers are very much reliant on their export markets. The quality requirements stipulated by some European and US markets also include a growing demand to cease using chemicals. To meet those standards, biological (or ‘natural’, as defined by some) pest control was introduced - pitting ‘good insects’ against ‘bad insects’. And so the aphids, bugs, sterile flies, and others, grown in specialty plants, have become the farmers' own allies and part of the agricultural infrastructure. Nowadays, biological or integrated (chemical-biological) pest control makes up almost 90% of the overall pest control in the Arava bell pepper farms.
Indeed, the use of biological pest control marks the move away from the monolithic lumping in of all insects together as pests, and points to changes in the human-insect relationship around the Arava. But for most of the region’s growers, the use of insects is just another tool in the toolbox designed to maximize agricultural capacity. Rather than a pesticide, they resort to a small flask full of insects. Under pressure from consumers and regulations to reduce pesticide use, another tool was found for this end.
As mentioned, the fight against pests in agriculture, of which insects play a large part, is often accompanied in metaphors from the battlefield. In the Arava, the war discourse also dominates the world of insects. Insects are recruited for the struggle of land tenure. In this sense, Assaf's use of the term "soldiers" can be compared to the recurring term in describing insects in biological pesticides as "mercenaries." The military discourse also distinguishes between soldiers who fight for a flag, a nation or a state, and "mercenaries" (who fight only for greed for money). This difference is particularly interesting: in our case the "warriors", soldiers or mercenaries) did not choose to join the war, but someone else made them (literally, by genetic and other means). The "beneficial" insects and barren flies allow prairie farmers to survive in the competitive global agricultural world.
However, insects are no mere partners-soldiers in the economic war. They also partake in the political-national struggle. The “good” insects, in this sense, are also part of the national struggle, by facilitating the ongoing agricultural livelihood and presence of Jewish growers in their region. They allow them to secure their hold on the land and protect the borders, inter-state and human-nonhuman alike, as part of the agricultural infrastructure that allows for the ongoing control of the land and environment.
The agricultural infrastructure in the Arava varies by external and internal pressures. Political, economic, environmental, and personal interests influence it, but its dual role continues: sustaining boundaries between the ruling group and the others, while maintaining human control over nature.
On one level, the agricultural infrastructure allows to sustain, and even bolster, the national borders. The very presence of agriculture, the physical presence of the settlements and the agricultural areas reinforce the national boundaries and underscore the spatial separation between different groups. After all, agriculture protects our borders.
On another level, agricultural infrastructure enables environmental change. It allows humans to change the desert into another, different environment. Agricultural infrastructure allows humans to control nature, subordinate the desert to “culture”, and perpetuate the separation between human and nonhuman. Although the advent of Orius and other beneficial insects changed attitudes towards insects among the Arava growers, it is mostly the ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ insects that are considered bad, while their man-made counterparts, or insects that have undergone some “domestication” process, are considered good. Thus, despite the desire to find echoes of multispecies perception among farmers, nature-culture, human-nonhuman distinctions are maintained. In this way, the ‘Arthropods Mercenaries’ become part of the agricultural infrastructure, part of the national and environmental effort to hold onto, and at the same time, change make “the desert bloom”.
In this short paper I have shown how different global and local interests challenge the agricultural infrastructure and all the material and ideological array it allows. At the same time, I showed how the people of the Arava adjust the agricultural infrastructure and adapt to the new reality. Thus, the infrastructure can also contain the nonhuman and make them part of the effort to hold onto the desert. But despite the changes and challenges, the national-environmental dual role of the agricultural infrastructure continues: preservation of the boundaries and hierarchy between the ruling group and the others, and between the human and nature. In this way the agricultural infrastructure as both a political- the national attempt to hold on to the land - and environmental endeavor - the attempt to turn the desert green and control the nature - helps to preserve between those who are perceived as 'good' and 'beneficial', and those who are perceived as 'bad' and 'harmful': between different nationalities, between ethnic groups, between the human and the nonhuman, between culture and nature. But the question of whether the Arava people will be able to adapt the agricultural infrastructure even when climate change will dramatically affect the desert and thus also change the geopolitical environment in the area, remains open.
 See for example the use of war discourse in pest control in the Soviet Union (Forestier-Peyrat, 2014), or the centrality of war metaphors in the fight against pests and invasive species in New Zealand (Morris, 2020).
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Dr. Liron Shani is Assistant Professor in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and a research fellow in the STS Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in the connections between agriculture, environment and science.