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The struggle - and success - of growing mushrooms under Israeli occupation

by Chloé Benoist

A large white hangar tucked away on the outskirts of Jericho stands amid palm trees in the already stifling heat of February. The headquarters of Amoro might look unassuming from the outside, but that would be underestimating the impact of the only Palestinian producer of mushrooms in the West Bank.

<p>Amoro co-founder Mahmoud Kuhail shows mushrooms grown by his company in the West Bank town of Jericho, on February 20, 2016.</p>

Amoro co-founder Mahmoud Kuhail shows mushrooms grown by his company in the West Bank town of Jericho, on February 20, 2016.

(Chloé Benoist)

One year since its inception, the small Palestinian company has already built up a famous reputation. Its short history illustrates the trials and tribulations of working in agriculture under Israeli occupation.

Mahmoud Kuhail and Sameer Khrishi, two of Amoro’s four co-founders, have known each other since childhood. Several years ago, tired of their careers in the international aid sector, they decided they needed a job that had meaning, and more closely adhered to their vision of what development should mean.

“The work we did with everybody else included writing reports, assessment papers, proposals. You write those, then it’s put on a shelf at the end of the month,” Kuhail tells Equal Times.

“That is not development. Development means employing 15 people, as we do now; development means giving good wages and great working conditions for workers; development in our philosophy means to empower Palestinian companies in other sectors, like the cardboard containers we sell our products in,” he adds.

“Development is giving people the choice when they go to the grocery store.”

The Amoro co-founders all shared a desire to do something different, in alignment with their values.

“Our education, our culture, the way we were raised by our families did not allow us to buy Israeli products,” Kuhail says. “We wanted to do a business for ourselves, and we wanted to separate ourselves from the Israeli economy in a way.”

However, the road for Amoro, named after the Amorite civilisation which lived in the region more than 4,000 years ago, has been an arduous one, as they faced numerous obstacles caused by Israeli policies in the West Bank.

The first was finding land on which to install their mushroom farming facilities in Area A – the parts of the West Bank under full Palestinian control. In 2013, the World Bank warned that restrictions on Area C – the 61 per cent of the West Bank under complete Israeli control – were “particularly detrimental” to the Palestinian economy.

Agriculture only accounted for 4.8 per cent of the Palestinian GDP in 2009, down from 13 per cent in 1993 – a large drop directly attributed to Israeli land confiscation and control over natural resources, a Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) report found.

“One dunam (1,000 square metres) in Ramallah will cost up to US$1.8 million,” Kuhail says with a wry smile. “It’s comparable to New York or London.”

Although Amoro’s founders live in Ramallah, they settled their little enterprise in the more-affordable Jericho, well known for its agricultural land. However, the distance also means unexpected delays and detours when Israeli checkpoints close down.

 
Facing the competition

Though Amoro prides itself of not using Israeli goods in their production process, they nonetheless rely on Israeli ports to import from the Netherlands many of the elements necessary to grow mushrooms, which costs them up to US$10,000 in fees and taxes for every container transiting through Israeli customs.

“The reviews of our product are very positive in terms of quality and freshness, and these are qualities we can compete with,” Khrishi tells Equal Times. “But the high amount of taxes you have to pay on both sides (Israel and the Palestinian Authority) is a burden for such a small-scale economy.”

Competition from Israel’s five big mushroom producers has also proven problematic.

Although Israeli mushrooms prices had been stable for close to 15 years, at 60 to 65 shekels (US$15.37 to US$16.65), they recently dropped suddenly to 35 shekels (US$8.97), just as Amoro began to emerge – a change Kuhail believes is far from being a coincidence.

“This is the competitive strategy they’re using. They know that we are price-sensitive,” he says.

Some Israeli mushroom producers have also begun playing with their packaging to appear Palestinian despite being based in Israel or in illegal settlements, a preexisting marketing strategy to circumvent Palestinian efforts to boycott Israeli products.The Barham brand, sold in West Bank grocery stores, notably claims in Arabic on their containers that their mushrooms are “Palestinian by excellence,” despite listing an Israeli telephone number.

“When you talk about the occupation, it’s not only political or geographical – it’s mental, cultural, economic, social – everything. Buying Israeli products is one of the tools the occupation uses to enhance their grip on us,” Kuhail adds.

One year on, many difficulties remain for Amoro, as the Palestinian business still struggles to break even. But the team remains enthusiastic about the future, as they see encouraging signs of their growing momentum.

In the year since its debut, Amoro’s production improved by 80 per cent, Kuhail says, and their mushrooms are currently sold in nearly 30 stores across the West Bank. They aim to produce 80 to 90 tons of mushrooms per year in the near future.

“People really like the product,” Kuhail says. “People have started looking for it, and asking for it if it’s not available.”

Beyond the growing appeal of their mushrooms, Khrishi believes Amoro provides a vision for an alternative model in Palestine, as he recounts that several individuals have come to Amoro to seek advice and inspiration for their own businesses.

“It’s not just a small enterprise as much as it’s a social model,” Khrishi says. “It’s the baby steps of building an economy not dependent on forms of donation or aid, especially conditional political aid.”

 
Resistance?

However, the Amoro team remains split on whether their work constitutes a form of resistance against the Israeli occupation.

“Resistance comes in many forms. It does not just come in the form of violence, of soldiers in a uniform or youth wearing a keffiyeh it comes in many, many parts,” Kuhail says. “And this is one part, doing something that resists the status quo.”

Khrishi remains more cautious.

“It’s a bit dangerous to use that word, because who defines resistance?” he notes. “I don’t think we should mix our work and our mushrooms with the political context, but that does not negate that they intersect somehow...We are simply working and producing. We are simply responding to our reality. I’ll leave it up to you if you want to call that resistance or not.”

In the meantime, Amoro has only one wish for the future.

“More mushrooms, more mushrooms, more mushrooms,” Kuhail says. “Now that we’ve started something, there’s no turning back. This is our life from now on.”

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