Palestinian olive oil going global
For centuries, farming crops like olives has been the primary source of income for many Palestinians. Today, it’s proving less than profitable. Between land confiscations, the inability to access markets due to checkpoints and closures and water scarcity, farmers in the West Bank are having a hard time covering their costs and making ends meet.
Olive growers have been particularly hard hit. Despite having the capacity to produce a surplus, the high cost of exporting Palestinian products makes it difficult for the oil to get much further than Palestinian kitchens.
Tael Misaf, a farmer from the West Bank village of Beni Zeid, says that just seven years ago he had to stockpile olive oil in his house. “After the second intifada, I didn’t even think about selling my oil - all the markets were closed,” he explained. “I stored the oil until it was spoiled and then I thought of giving up,” he added.
Instead of abandoning his trees though, Tael, and 31 other farmers from his village, formed the Beni Zeid Co-operative for Organic Olive Oil Production. Now Tael’s olive oil is selling, albeit in limited quantities, on the shelves of foreign specialty shops, delis and other food markets.
A premium price on global markets
Bassem Safir, Bani Zeid Co-operative: “Because the co-operative is fairtrade-certified I earn higher prices. With the money I made, I plan to build a cistern for irrigation.” Credit: Oxfam.
With funding from the European Commission and in partnership with the Palestinian Farmers Union and Bethlehem University’s Fairtrade Development Center, Oxfam GB has implemented a two year project that brings technical support and guidance to 30 collectives like Tael’s, so that their product can gain Fairtrade status and organic certification. Once their oil has been branded Fairtrade, it can reach global markets and fetch a premium price.
While Fairtrade has long been benefiting small-scale farmers across the globe, the project is the first of its kind in Palestine. The project is even more exciting because, at the end of 2008, the Palestinian olive growers’ product actually became the first olive oil in the world to gain the Fairtrade Labelling Organization’s (FLO) international certification. The prized oil is now being marketed by Zaytoun, a UK-based ethical trading company that has entered into a long term contract with the farmers to buy whatever olive oil they are willing to sell.
A competitive advantage
Jamil Hijzin, a Project Coordinator with the Fairtrade Development Center, says the most important thing for Palestinian olive growers is that Fairtrade gives the farmers new skills that can lead to financial independence. Through the project, the farmers receive training on marketing, management, pricing and reporting. Combined with a superior product, these tools can help give them a competitive advantage, no matter where they sell.
Still, olive growers know it’s hard to plan ahead. Obstacles such as the Israeli separation barrier have cut off many farmers from their lands. Others suffer from harassment from Israeli settlers. In July 2009, settlers burned 1,500 olive trees in a single incident in the Palestinian village of Burin, located right outside Nablus, which is the second most important district for olive production. Hundreds of farmers were left without anything to harvest.
There are many things Palestinian olive farmers can’t control, but Jamil believes that with the right support to the olive oil sector the quantity and quality of Palestinian olive oil can still grow.
“Because olive oil is so important for Palestinian livelihoods, I don’t like to look at this as just a project,” says Jamil.
Originally published by Oxfam Great Britain
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