November 10, 2014
Article by: Gwen Richrds, owner of Fable Naturals, a fair trade cosmetics company based in Vancouver, BC.
Abu al Balad, dressed in a traditional black tunic, drives an old, unsteady tractor toward his olive grove on the opposite side of Burqin village. The early morning sun streams between concrete houses, lighting the twisting rugged bark of the neighbourhood trees. I cling awkwardly to the side of al Balad’s tractor as we rumble along dirt roads, over hills, and across agricultural plains—all of which hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.
Al Balad helps me to the ground. The soil, permanently parched by the sun’s rays, is bone dry beneath my feet. It’s a wonder that life can sustain itself here. But scattered throughout the arid West Bank, olive trees flourish. They are a symbol of steadfastness for farmers living in the occupied territory. Their fruit represents stability. Al Balad holds a plump olive over my hand. “Olive oil,” he says as he squeezes the golden liquid into my palm. The oil is serene, as if blissfully unaware of the complex issues that surround it.
Palestine has a primarily rural economy (accounting for nearly 25 percent of its GDP), and olives are its largest crop contributing up to 19 percent the country’s agricultural output. While most of the olive harvest goes to producing olive oil for local consumption, up to 30 percent can be sold for export.
Olives are typically produced by small family farms that rely on unpaid family labour. It’s estimated that 100,000 families depend on the olive harvest for their livelihoods. The trees grow on steep, terraced hillsides, and plowing, weeding, and other work must be done by hand or with the help of farm animals. Prior to the introduction of the fair trade model, many Palestinian farmers earned only a meagre exchange for their harvests.
In 2004, Nasser Abdufara worked with farmers in the region to establish the first fair trade standards for olive oil and introduced their product to the global market. The group of about 40 farmers united to form co-operatives in their villages. As a result, they earned more than twice the market value for their oil.
Before joining Canaan Fair Trade, Manal Abdallah, a member of the organization, says “It was not even worth the effort to harvest the trees. Many farmers started to think about leaving their land to look for other sources of income.”
Since 2004, Canaan Fair Trade has grown to more than 1,700 farmers—including many women—and produces olives, almonds, couscous, and other food products. But despite the organization’s success, farmers still face many challenges.
Barrier for farmers
I sit down with Ahmed, a member of the Anin fair trade co operative, and we drink dark, bitter coffee in his living room. His wife appears from the kitchen, offering a plate of stuffed grape leaves—yet another instance of the genuine hospitality I’ve encountered throughout the region. Soon, family and neighbours trickle in, and the front room of Ahmed’s home becomes a gathering place to share stories.
Anin is a village several kilometres northeast of al Balad’s home. It looks like any other rural community, perched atop a hill overlooking terraces of olive trees that descend into the valley. Old men sit under the shaded porches of cool stone buildings, smoking fragrant hookahs to pass the time. Women wearing colourful head scarfs chat happily as children play in the otherwise vacant streets. But past the terraced olive groves lies the infamous separation barrier that divides Israel and the West Bank. The barrier is a thin line in the distance, cutting through the landscape and curving around Anin.
The government of Israel began constructing the separation barrier in 2002, with the stated purpose of protecting Israeli citizens from Palestinian terrorist attacks. It comprises a system of security features that includes fences, ditches, razor wire, electronic monitoring, and buffer zones. In more populated areas, the barrier’s concrete walls can reach as high as eight metres. The major political controversy around the barrier is that it intrudes into the West Bank territory as defined by the Green Line, also referred to as the 1949 Armistice Line. In 2004, the International Court of Justice, while acknowledging Israel’s right and obligation to protect its citizens, called on the government of Israel to cease construction of the barrier within the West Bank.
By 2012, 62 percent of the barrier had been constructed. If it’s completed as planned, 85 percent of the barrier will lie within the West Bank, isolating 9.4 percent of Palestinian territory and 23,000 of its residents. This area contains some of the most fertile land for agriculture and key sources of fresh water in the region.
For many of the farmers in Anin, the barrier isolates them from their olive groves, requiring them to apply for permits that give them limited access through a designated checkpoint. Often, the permit doesn’t allow them sufficient time to complete their harvest.
The barrier is not the only obstacle for farmers. Within the West Bank, 60 percent of the land is designated as Area C, which means Israel controls security, planning, and zoning. Families who live close to the Area C settlements have experienced physical attacks and the destruction of their trees.
On my last day, I travel to Ramallah, the chaotic and disorganized city that houses Palestine’s government. Ramallah is also home to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee’s (PARC) head office, where I meet with Shadi Mahmoud, who works in the fair trade department. We sit in his office, which proudly displays bottles of olive oil, jars of honey and sundried tomatoes, and packages of za’atar, a popular herb mixture used in Middle Eastern cooking. On the walls, there are thank-you letters and photos of smiling visitors who made the trip to Palestine to meet their partners in the global fair trade movement.
Mahmoud explains how PARC began helping farmers in the late 1980s, when the First Intifada uprising made the region entirely unstable. “They faced so much trouble selling their products to the market, and volunteers from PARC started helping these producers in different areas to sell their produce in major cities. Although, at that time, they did not know anything about fair trade. It was just like an intervention to help the farmers.” PARC now runs three processing facilities—including a date facility in Jericho that employs women from nearby refugee camps. The organization provides continued support and education, working closely with producer co-operatives to maintain their organic and fair trade certifications.
To appeal to the gourmet market, PARC has taken care to produce only the highest quality extra virgin oil. The entire production process is monitored. This involves keeping chemicals off the trees, storing the fruit properly, and testing for acidity and other taste and quality indicators. As a result, Palestinian olive oil has proven itself in competition with high-quality European olive oils on supermarket shelves. And it needs to be good, because the cost of production and export is much higher compared to oils from other origins.
When the olive oil is ready for export, restrictions from Israel create further complications. Palestinians in the West Bank rely on the Israeli port of Haifa to ship products overseas. Shadi explains that getting from the production facility to the port is not easy. “[The cost of] internal transportation is high because sometimes you have roadblocks, and the lorries would wait for a long time at the checkpoints.” Once the shipment arrives in Haifa, it can be delayed for even longer—often in the hot sun, potentially damaging the delicate oil. As a non-Israeli organization, PARC pays a higher price to export through Haifa and can only fill their containers about three-quarters full to make room for special security checks. With many aspects outside their control, West Bank exporters know that conditions can change quickly, and new challenges can arise at any time.
Hope for the future
Despite the uncertainties around them, al Balad and his family look forward to the olive harvest each year. The days are long, and harvesting their one thousand trees takes more than a month, but they know they can sell their oil for a fair price. They have a modest home, send their children to school, and most importantly, they farm their land—land that has been in their family for generations—with dignity.