MICHELE NORRIS, host:
One of the harshest winters in three decades has ravaged vast stretches of Central Asia and parts of the Middle East. In Afghanistan and Tajikistan, aid agencies estimate the severe cold has killed hundreds of people and countless farm animals. And on the west bank of the Jordan River, rare frost and unusually low temperatures have destroyed nearly 90 percent of Palestinian field crops.
Farmers there are asking for urgent help from the Palestinian Authority. But so far, none has arrived.
NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Thirty-four-year-old Nadir Tasser(ph) says he's never seen it this bad in his 20 years of farming. Arab farmers call this fertile plateau in the Jordan River Valley the breadbasket of Palestine. Tasser walks through a forest of ravaged banana trees. Their falling leaves, brittle and brown, crackle under his muddy boots.
Mr. NADIR TASSER (Palestinian Farmer): (Through translator) Two things destroyed us - very strong winds and the frost. The frost this year is unprecedented. Lots of rain doesn't scare us, but frost is horrible. It ruins everything.
WESTERVELT: The trunks of the banana trees that are still standing wobble in the wind, swollen and dark. Tasser sticks his index finger into one of the many blister-like bubbles in the waterlogged tree trunks. It took him three years to cultivate a mature banana crop, investing everything he had into it. Today, the fruit is both hard and green and will never ripen, or sits split and rotting on the ground.
He estimates winterkill has destroyed 95 percent of his potato, eggplant and banana crops - the pillars of his farming livelihood.
Mr. TASSER: (Through translator) My losses are huge, more than $300,000. This is a huge blow to my work.
WESTERVELT: The devastation to Palestinian farmers here is tremendous. 90 percent of Palestinian vegetable and fruit crops in the southern Jordan Valley have been wiped out by frost damage according to the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture. Asked if has any kind of insurance, Tasser laughs, insurance? Only the Jews have that, he says, referring to nearby Jewish settlers.
Skinny with bad teeth and a quick smile, Tasser has lost everything yet seems oddly relaxed. What can I do, he says, now at least I have some spare time to tour around and see old friends.
Mr. TASSER: (Through translator) I don't know how I'll manage, or what I'll do. God will compensate me.
WESTERVELT: Pressed further whether God is really his only relief plan, Tasser says, no, he urgently needs help from the agriculture ministry. Financial help, technical help, I don't care, he says, but I want to be supported. Agriculture ministry agronomists surveyed the damage to Tasser's farm and hundreds of other Palestinian farmers in the Jordan Valley more than a month ago. Tasser says he hasn't heard a word from them since.
Mr. TASSER: (Speaking in foreign language)
WETERVELT: They've given me absolutely nothing up until now, he says, nothing.
Faizal Anjun(ph) who lives near here is the head of the farmers union for Al Oja, an important farming community in the valley. He says farmers were already hurting because of a developing drought and not enough wells. The latter he blames on Jewish settlers nearby. They dig deep wells and take all our water, he says adding, imagine - it's our water and we have to beg for it.
Mr. FAIZAL ANJUN (Farmer's Union of Al Oja): (Through translator) The Palestinian farmer was already demoralized because of a lack of water. But with this frost, which has been the worst in years, his land is destroyed and his morale has collapsed.
WESTERVELT: Anjun charges that an American taxpayer-funded USAID farm aid program for the West Bank ended up mainly benefiting one large Palestinian agribusiness conglomerate, Sunucrote(ph) Inc., which has a near monopoly on distribution and marketing of Palestinian produce from the West Bank.
We've been shafted by the settlers, by USAID, and by Sunucrote, Anjun says bitterly, and now, we've been shafted by the frost. When told that more snow and unseasonably cold weather is forecast, Anjun shakes his head, we're already sunk, he says, we can't sink any further.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Al Oja, in the Jordan Valley.
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