This article first appeared in the Co-operative College publication “Fair and Square: Ethical Shopping Matters”.
The Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) is a truly inspiring organisation, and during Fair Trade Fortnight 2009 I was privileged to finally meet its founder, Nasser Abu Farha, as the world’s first Fairtrade olive oil was launched. In Manchester, Nasser spoke to audiences across the city on a BBC radio programme, from the dizzying heights of the Co-operative Group tower. He explained that Palestine is the natural home of the olive tree, and that the olive groves of the West Bank are cultivated by traditional methods which help to promote biodiversity, and have a particular air flow and sunlight, which improves the taste.
For Palestinians, the olive tree is crucial to both their cultural heritage and economic livelihoods. The land and the groves provide a link between generations of families, who have harvested the same trees for hundreds of years. Some olive trees in the West Bank have been estimated to be more than 2,000 years old.
The Palestinian economy is also deeply rooted in olive oil, and its economic importance is increasing as a result of rising unemployment in non-agricultural sectors, due to the checkpoints, curfews, restrictions of movement and destruction of markets endured in occupied Palestine. Another reason for the specific importance of the olive crop is that the olive groves of the West Bank are rain fed. The Israeli occupation and annexations has made it more and more difficult, at times impossible, for Palestinians to access their land, which has devastated large swathes of Palestinian agriculture. But, like the Palestinians themselves, olive trees are resilient. They don’t require irrigation or intensive maintenance, and therefore the crop survives, despite the fact that people are often prevented from reaching their land for extended periods of time.
My first stay in a Palestinian village was in November 2002, during the olive harvest. The villagers of Roujeb had been unable to get to a large part of their land for two years because it was close to the violent Israeli settlement of Itamar. As we approached the olive groves, shots were fired by a settler that had spotted our group. It didn’t take long for the military to arrive, and the soldier that materialised did not pause as he passed the internationals. Without acknowledging us he pointed his gun at the 12 year old boy who was with his parents underneath a tree. After the initial stand-off, during which the internationals positioned themselves between the gun and the child, the soldier began to speak to us. His name was Charlie, apparently, and he had trained in Sandhurst, UK. Eventually a bad photocopy of an improbable original document was produced, with yellow highlighter intended to demark the area as a “Closed Military Zone”, and one which we had to leave. Eventually we did, but had managed to harvest a few trees.
The Israelis have re-hashed an old Ottoman land law which means that land not tended for more than 3 years can be expropriated by the Israeli state. Reaching that land was not just about facilitating one harvest, we were also attempting to secure the villagers’ ownership of the land. In the West Bank, this often seems like a losing battle.
Along with the settlements and settler-only roads, the series of walls and fences constructed by Israel throughout the West Bank have obviously also prevented people from accessing their land. They are sometimes accompanied by trenches, electronic sensors, military patrol roads, lookout towers and cameras. In 2002, I participated in a demonstration at a village that was to lose more than half of its land behind the Wall. It was actually a fence in that area, which a Palestinian friend of mine cynically remarked was only different to a wall in the sense that bullets could pass through it.
The demonstration attempted to block bulldozers from digging up olive trees. Some of the trees had branches cut off and were lying on the side of the track created by the military vehicles. I asked someone what would happen to them and was told they were taken away in open-backed trucks. And then what? “They will be sold … in Tel Aviv or the settlements”. Some years later I saw a couple of replanted trees in a settlement, in a raised bed with pansies on the corner of a roundabout. I also went back to the village, Jayouus. A farmer took me to his land through the gate in the fence. I saw an entire crop of lemons that had fallen from the trees and were rotting on the ground. There was no point harvesting them. They couldn’t get them through the gate, the soldiers would not permit it.
Israel has been extremely successful in destroying agricultural markets and the distribution of locally-grown food in the West Bank. The first place that the Wall was constructed was around the town of Qalqulia, which used to be the agricultural heart of the West Bank. Around half of the food in the West Bank previously came from the Qalquila district. With Qalquila itself now completely surrounded by a wall, and one checkpoint through which all people and produce must pass, it is no longer.
PFTA olive oil has had organic certification for about four years, but it is not possible for oil that has come from trees on the other side of the Walls to be certified as such. Permits are required for people to get through, and the gates are only opened by the young Israeli soldiers at certain times. Over the years I have heard many stories about the kinds of permits that are being issued: to dead relatives, to elderly people who could not possibly work on the land; to 5 year olds. If the family is lucky, an adult male will be issued a permit that will enable him to go through the gate in the early morning, usually 6am, and dusk (this is, however, dependent on the day, the soldier, their orders …).
This has meant that people’s relationship with the land has changed, and is no longer in line with organic production. Traditionally, agricultural workers would come home during the hottest part of the day to eat and rest, but for the unfortunate farmers with land on the ‘Israeli side’ of the Walls, this is no longer possible. Families are not able to participate in the olive harvest, which is usually a yearly, communal affair that takes a few weeks. Another issue is that the certifiers cannot get to the land to assess it. PFTA olive oil that comes from the Palestinian side of the wall and is certified organic and Fairtrade. Produce which has been grown on the other side of the wall is not – another of the many almost invisible but significant effects of the occupation.
The PFTA is made up of around 1,700 Palestinian farmers, organised democratically, with the smaller co-operatives represented on a national level. It has educated all of these farmers in organic and Fairtrade production and has made some remarkable achievements. It provides the biggest source of organic certified olive oil anywhere in the Middle East, more than Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, even Israel. Its projects include women’s micro-finance programmes and an access to education project, which has a scholarship fund that has enabled children of farmers in disadvantaged rural areas to get a university education. The PFTA’s annual Olive Harvest Festival is enjoyed by people from around the world.
The PFTA’s mission is to “provide social and economic empowerment of small, marginalised, and excluded Palestinian communities through the concept of Fair Trade”. Its website states that:
Fairtrade is both sustainable and socially transforming. The Fairtrade exchange of goods and services is much more than a financial transaction; it engenders positive social, economic, and environmental benefits. Fairtrade increases economic value in the community, reduces poverty and inequality, regenerates the resource base that produces the original product, and engages producers and workers to participate in their organization.
For me, selling fairly traded Palestinian produce is not just about distributing goods, its about building solidarity with the Palestinian people. Fantastic initiatives such as the PFTA deserve our acknowledgement, respect and support. Palestine is a shattered place, but her people are resilient and intelligent, and have a generosity of spirit that I have not encountered elsewhere. Zaytoun’s ever-growing popularity has demonstrated that there is the will to support them in a sustainable way. In the co-operative sector, we are perhaps best placed to continue to build and strengthen this movement.
Olive Co-operative is a small social enterprise that has been running since 2004. There are three aspects of our work: selling fairly traded Palestinian produce, organising educational tours to the West Bank and Israel, and raising sponsorship money for olive saplings to be planted in West Bank.
All of this is possible because of the excellent grassroots and civil society organisations that exist in Palestine, so in some respects we exist in order to present a view of Palestine and Palestinians vastly different to the one which regularly, and usually tragically, hits the 6 o’clock news.
The Palestinians are no strangers to co-operatives. Our suppliers range from small co-operatives of a few women who collect wild herbs and provide us with the delicious herb mix za’atar, to the collective of artisans who produce the beautiful range of goods sold by the Holy Land Handicraft Co-operative Society, which is based in Bethlehem.
In an area that has experienced such extreme levels of suffering, co-operatives make sense. They are the foundation of sustainable livelihoods, and nobody gets exploited. Our main supply chain, which brings us olive oil, dates, almonds and other food items, is a chain of several co-operatives or co-operatively-run businesses. Farmers who are part of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, a national union of co-operatives, export their products through the company Canaan Fair Trade, which is managed by farmers. The products are imported into the UK by Zaytoun, which began life as a workers’ co-operative and evolved into a Community Interest Company a couple of years ago. And Olive isn’t the only co-operative at the end of the supply chain: in 2009, The Co-operative Group announced that certified organic and Fairtrade Palestinian olive oil would be available in their stores. When Olive was set up, we were the main distributor of Palestinian olive oil in the North West; now, it is available nationally through the wholefood distributors Suma, Infinity Foods and Essential, all of which are worker co-operatives.
Since 2006, Olive has raised approximately £53,000 for the Trees for Life project. This has enabled olive saplings to be planted in areas where olive groves have been destroyed by the Israeli military or settlers, or to be given to farmers who have lost land behind the Walls, which Israel began constructing in 2002. In 2009, our fundraising was given a big boost by the Greater Nottingham Co-operative Party, which raised approximately £2,300.
If you would like to support our work, would like more information about the issues raised in this article, or you would like to support the Trees for Life Project, email info[at]olivecoop.com
Leonie Nimmo has been a member and director of Olive Co-operative since early 2006, when she had recently returned from a six month trip to the West Bank and Gaza. She has been actively campaigning for a just peace in Palestine and Israel since her first visit in 2002. Leonie is also a member of Ethical Consumer Research Association, where she is a writer, researcher and dedicated coffee-maker.