May 17, 2006

Zalul volunteers hold a demonstration against fish farming in the gulf of EilatTo protect the environment effectively and accomplish long-term change, environmental advocacy groups need to be run like a successful business – with focus and determination.

If that’s true, then Zalul – devoted to preserving Israel’s coastline and natural water sources – is a high value-stock in the ‘green’ market.

The seven-year-old organization has achieved victories in its campaigns regarding Israel’s coastline and marine life, which have had a direct impact on Israel’s young environmental policies as well as on the country’s awareness of the issues.

“It’s the end of the hippie era in the environmental world,” says Zalul director Yariv Abramovich. According to Abramovich, environmentally-focused enterprises today have to wipe out their perceived public image of having a nonchalant approach towards making progress. Speaking to ISRAEL21c in his office at Ramat Gan, he declares that the environmentalist movement has begun a new chapter.

Organizations like Zalul are now staffed with experts who are dedicated to their careers and expertise to the environment. Abramovich is a clear example of this new transformation, with an academic background in legal studies and business. He has both a law degree and an MBA and has acquired much experience in the business world as the CEO of a bio-informatics startup company called I4 Gene.

It is credentials like Abramovich’s that have enabled Zalul to spearhead efforts for impacting Israel’s environment. Founded by prominent businesspeople, environmentalists, academics and public officials, and funded primarily by the Kahn Foundation – the organization’s most prominent success has come in the gulf of Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel.

After many years of demonstrations, legal battles, and court decisions, Zalul along with other green organizations helped in leading an effort to remove fish cages from the gulf. Following the five-year campaign, the Israeli government passed a resolution in 2005 to gradually force companies to remove them – 1/3 of the cages each year – until 2008.

According to Abramovich, the existence of the fish farms threatened the precious natural coral reef life. Such manipulation of sea life leads to an overpopulation of fish who are being fed about 5000 tons of food annually. The abundant food, which could not all be digested by the fish, combined with the natural fish secretions, is the main polluter of the bay water and disrupts the natural marine life process.

Another of Zalul’s victories for the environment was the clearing of waste from the waters surrounding the Kishon River near Haifa. Last year, Zalul conducted an investigative report on the river, ‘Contaminated Ground in the Haifa Gulf’, and presented it to the Environment Ministry. As a result, this year the Israeli Ports Corporation has cleared out 75 tons of sludge from the banks of the Kishon.

Abramovich, who recently embarked on a two-week business trip to the US and Canada for meetings with other environmental NGOs, explained that in order to make solid gains for the environment, Zalul must plan its moves methodically as in a chess match. While in many instances, the efforts that Zalul is promoting are directly in opposition to either private enterprises’ venture interests or governmental projects, environmental issues have still increasingly been gaining the cooperation of the Israeli government.

An element that is fundamental for all these campaigns for change to be effective, said Abramovich, is strong citizen involvement. Between writing letters to the various ministries, making signs to post outside their windows, and attending demonstrations, the growth in the awareness of the Israeli citizens has helped lobbyists for the environment attain mainstream success.

One of Zalul’s main priorities for the future is to get the youth of Israel involved and aware of the environmental issues at hand. “The main force comes from the citizens. The younger they are, the better they will do,” says Abramovich.

That’s why last year, Zalul established a pilot student activist group in Haifa. The group trained and taught 16-17 year-olds about activist issues that encompassed campaigning, understanding the environment, and initiating steps for change. The group’s location near the Kishon enabled them to literally sniff the issues at hand, and Zalul brought journalists, lawyers, and Knesset members to talk to them.

“[The students] all become ambassadors of the environment and agents of change,” says Abramovich. Zalul is seeking financial support to establish national youth groups in four or five more locations in Israel. Abramovich says that with the right preparation, the youth can better identify opportunities to improve the shores around them.

“And then kids can act.”

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