Is Palestinian ‘green gold’ the next big thing in olive oil?

Is Palestinian ‘green gold' the next big thing in olive oil?

Palestinian farmer Mohammad Zen Aldin owns 500 olive trees in the Jenin region, north of the West Bank. He now sells most of his crop to a fair trade cooperative that enables him to earn a higher income from his olives. 15 August 2017.

(Mathilde Dorcadie)

When Nasser Abufarha talks about Palestinian olive oil, he has no shortage of stories and praise for a product that has meant so much to generations of Palestinians. He welcomes his visitors to the vast, brand new premises of the cooperative and export company that he founded in 2004, Canaan Fair Trade.

A few kilometres from Jenin, a city north of the West Bank, the headquarters of the company is literally surrounded by olive groves.

This omnipresent tree, ancestral and majestic, is often seen as a symbol of peace. And in this disputed territory it has also been synonymous with resistance. For generations, families have habitually owned at least a few trees, enough to produce at least enough oil for their daily consumption. There isn’t a dish that is not cooked without this Mediterranean delicacy. Often, a simple piece of bread soaked in oil and spice constitutes the first meal of the day.

“In this region, we’ve been consuming it for 5000 years. It is the primary source of fat in our diet, and essential for our brain cells. Every home must make sure it has enough in stock for the year to come. In the past, two things were important: flour and oil. Now you get flour in the supermarket. But families still produce their own oil from their own olive trees,” says Nasser.

The government still grants children and students a day off to help with the harvest in the fields.

For Salim and Fouad Al-Rantisi, October is a month of intense activity at their oil press, as in the 270 or so others in the West Bank. The family has been extracting the precious liquid for over a century: first in the city of Lod, where they originate from but has since become a part of Israel, then since 1948 in Ramallah where the family took refuge.

Residents in the region come to them to turn their olives into oil, which they take away in large bottles. They store the bottles carefully at home somewhere cool, such as a cellar or an old well.

Olive oil is by far the biggest agricultural product in the Palestinian territories, where dates and vegetables are also grown.

Yet despite thousands of years of expertise and a high level of production – 24,000 tonnes a year – which earns a living for 100,000 homes, their olive oil does often reach beyond the local market. Palestinian oil production has been so “homemade” and so decentralised that, until recently, it has been too unstructured to reach foreign consumers.

Supporting Palestinian traditions and identity

After studying anthropology in the United States, Nasser turned his attention to the situation of small farmers in the country of his birth.

First he created a cooperative aimed at improving the income of producers by offering them fairer prices. “They were being cheated on the price. We offered them double the price per litre they were getting before,” Nasser explains.

In 2005, only 13 villages were affiliated to the cooperative. In 2017, there are 55 of them, throughout the northern West Bank, covering a network of 200 small farmers.
“This is the social empowerment of the small farmers. It is both economic, helping them to become more competitive and to grow their business, and political, by supporting Palestinian traditions and identity,” he says.

“We are also campaigning for agricultural diversity, against the intensive farming model of the Spanish, Italian or Israeli oils.”

Canaan thus claims to be the first fair trade olive oil brand in the world.

It is a label than can comfortably be applied in a country with a socio-economic structure, and also a political context, whereby there are only small farms (with on average between 500 and 700 trees). There are also no big landowners due to the narrow breadth of the territory, as well as the fragmentation and heavy restraints caused by the military occupation.

Mohammad Zen Aldin is one of those farmers. His family has been cultivating the land around the village of Al-Yamoun for generations. On his well-maintained parcel of land, between the mosque and the nearby border with Israel, almond and olive trees grow side by side in accordance with the permaculture technique of “mixed cropping”. He also grows vegetables, beans and lentils.

Since he joined Canaan seven years ago, he says his standard of living has improved, with higher earnings. “I am beginning to expand and develop my farm,” he announces proudly.

The impact of occupation

Mohammad’s only concerns at the moment are about the water supply. Since the Oslo II Accords, the Israeli authorities have controlled access to water. Palestinian farmers have to ask their permission to dig wells, but only get it very rarely. As a result, they are dependent on quotas and prices fixed by Israel. Farmers also regularly suffer cuts in their supplies.

“If I didn’t have to pay so much for water, it would be perfect. Because of the lack of water I have lost almond trees this year, and that makes me lose money,” he tells Equal Times.

In addition to the problems over water supply, olive producers have to put up with the destruction of their trees. Since 1967 the olive tree has been at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, heavily rooted in the dispute over territory.

Cut down on the orders of the army, burnt or poisoned by extremist Israeli settlers, about 800,000 square feet have been destroyed over the last 50 years, according to estimates by the Palestinian authorities.

In some regions, farmers have seen their land cut up by demarcation lines, a military route or access to a colony. They can only get across when escorted by the army, which complicates their farming routine.

The harvest season is often tense, particularly when the groves are close to the colonies. The Israeli army is usually present to prevent confrontation, but it isn’t always avoided. When the trees or the crops are attacked, few farmers dare complain.

“When the trees are attacked, it is always a tragedy for the owner, who has cared for them as if they were his children,” says Nasser. “But on a national scale, we are replanting at a rapid pace. The number of olive trees in the West Bank has remained steady at around seven to eight million, covering 50 per cent of farmland.”

Despite the constant uncertainty over irrigation or the fear of losing part of their crop, the farmers are hopeful that 2017 will be a good year.

In April this year, Palestine became a permanent member of the International Olive Council (IOC), a status long-delayed for political reasons (because the IOC is a United Nations body).

Thanks to an exchange of knowledge with other members of the organisation, which includes producers and consumers, the Ministry of Agriculture hopes that exports will rise in the next few years.

In 2015, about 6,500 tonnes were exported, about one quarter of total production, to the Gulf States, the United Kingdom and the United States, with Canaan amongst the exporters.

Nasser believes that Palestinian olive oil can stand out from its competitors thanks to an emphasis on organic farming and sustainable development.

“Olive trees are highly resistant and can live up to 4000 years. This is where olive trees originated. They are in harmony with the land thanks to centuries of adaptation. We don’t need to treat them with chemicals,” he says. “Our olive oil is, by its very nature, organic!”

Nasser, who has also published ethnographic studies on the Palestinian people, adds: “Sustainable development is, ultimately, something that applies naturally here, because in a way it is rooted in our traditions. The people here have always worked with their hands and their hearts.”

This story has been translated from French.