Palestine’s Olive Oil in North America

An economic market with international growth potential that has emerged recently is the fair trade of Palestinian products in North America. Farmers in village cooperatives and farming collectives have the opportunity to sell goods, such as olive oil and olive soap at fair prices. Moreover it enables Palestinian farmers, workers and press operators to sustain an integral part of their culture that goes back centuries.

Although fair trade has been around for many years it was in 2003 that Nasser Abufarha founded the Palestine Fair Trade Association. The idea was to export Palestinian extra virgin olive oil that adheres to the fair trade guidelines. After the International Fair Trade Organization goes to Palestine and certifies the olive oil, an official fair trade logo from the Fair Trade Labeling Organization for olive oil is anticipated by next year.

“The olive oil suffers from a lack of markets,” he said. “Farmers were losing interest because many avenues (for selling) closed down.”

For almost 39 years Palestinians have been living under Israel’s military occupation, which causes economic hardships for the people. With checkpoints, roadblocks, closures, permit and curfew restrictions, Palestinian farmers struggle to bring their crops to market.

Since the 1950s Israel’s Ministry of Agriculture has been confiscating Palestinian land and reallocating it to Israeli settlers. According to The Applied Research Institute –” Jerusalem since 1967 thousands of Palestinian families lost over one million citrus and olive trees to Israeli occupying forces. The Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture reports that from September 2000 through June 2004 the Israeli Army uprooted approximately 400,000 olive trees, with $60 M in annual revenue loss.

Several factors affect olive yields: olive harvest are biennial, so one year has a low yield but the second year can have a threefold yield; also, olive trees begin producing olives when they are five years-old, but mature yields require decades of growth (50-70 years-old). Where a tree is located (hill or valley) and how much sun and rain it receives determines its fruit yield.

According to Zatoun, “one tree produces enough olives for 4 to 10 L of olive oil or average of 10 bottles of olive oil (each 750 mL).” In 1967 if one dunum (1,000 meters squared or one-fourth acre) that holds 16 mature trees are uprooted out of production, then in one year the farmer, worker and press operator lost income on the sale of 160 bottles of olive oil. Over 39 years the loss equates to 6,240 bottles. What these figures illustrate is how the occupation forces exponential, financial losses for the Palestinians. In the short-term these agricultural losses cost millions of dollars and in the long-term billions of dollars. For the most part, these economic losses have not been covered by the media.

Moreover, Israel’s continued construction of a wall eight meters high confiscates dunums of Palestinian land and prevents Palestinians access to their olive and citrus groves, located on the other side of the wall. According to the organization Stop the Wall, “the wall’s total length will be 730 km…twice the height of the Berlin Wall with armed watchtowers and a ‘buffer zone’ 30-100 meters wide for electric fences, trenches, cameras, sensors, and military patrol. The Apartheid Wall costs some $3.4 B, approximately 4.7 M per km.” U.S. taxpayer dollars pay for the wall.

Once complete, Palestinians will lose access to an estimated 2,000,000 trees. When Palestinian farmers lose access to their trees not only do they suffer income losses from lack of harvests, but the losses are permanent if the trees die of forced neglect. In some cases the trees are uprooted and sold to Israeli settlers. In turn, the settlers may try to sell the olive oil from these trees to their original Palestinian owners.

Olive trees make up almost 80 percent of Palestine’s cultivated fruit trees and 4.6 per cent of the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product (ARIJ). PGDP is the sum of all goods and services produce and invested in Palestine, including exports (minus consumption and imports). Despite obstacles and crushed, economic opportunities Palestinians produce 30,000 tons of olive oil annually and they consume 15,000 tons, which leaves approximately 15,000 tons of olive oil for sale. With the restrictions in movement it is difficult for Palestinians to create markets inside Israel.

Palestine Fair Trade Association

In 2004 various representatives of fair trade olive oil producing cooperative from Jenin, Salfit, Nablus, and Ramallah areas convened in Jenin.

During their first meeting they developed uniform guidelines for Palestine’s fair trade that are consistent with the certification guidelines of fair trade. Subsequently, the PFTA became a Palestinian national union of grassroots fair trade farming cooperatives that represents over 3,500 members.

One of the challenges of entering the international market is that the occupation’s restrictions in movement causes added expenses for Palestinian farmers. Stiff competition from neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Syria makes it more difficult for Palestinians because they have to factor in contingencies associated with the occupation. Restricted movement impacts the transport of goods thereby increasing costs and adding to the debilitated economy.

For instance when farmers deal with checkpoints, a shipment of product can be held up, which causes delays in the transport and trade of goods. A halted market facilitates economic stagnancy. Even though Israel transferred approximately 8,000 Israeli settlers from Gaza to the West Bank in August 2005, the military occupation of Gaza affects the Palestinian economy. For the past, six months Israeli Occupying Forces continue preventing the flow of goods and people at border crossings, which includes the transport of farmers’ crops.

The IOF has confiscated Palestinian land and groves of trees that took decades of growth. In a matter of hours settlers with chainsaws and soldiers in bulldozers destroy trees generations old. The olive tree symbolizes Palestinian history, so the destruction of their land is the dispossession of the people from their culture.

Through fair trade farmers, laborers and press operators have the opportunity to sell their products at a fair price, which results in fair wages. Moreover the trade and production encourages fair and equitable relations between the farmers and the workers; and between the farmers and the press operators/owners.

The PFTA has had a significant impact on the price of olive oil sold in Israel and Palestine. Before they entered the economic system a liter of olive oil sold for nine New Israeli Shequels (NIS). Through the fair trade market the price increased to 15 NIS a bottle. Now a liter of olive oil will not sell below 18 NIS and can sell as high as 25 NIS ($5.50 US dollars). Within a couple of years the dynamics of fair trade doubled the farmers’ income. Needless to say when the farmers heard about fair trade there was tremendous enthusiasm.

When Palestinians first convened to discuss fair trade, agricultural engineers hosted a public workshop and educated the farmers about the PFTA’s Olive Oil Specific Guidelines and Standards. For example olive oil sold through fair trade must come from olive trees that rely on natural rainfall. There are olive oil standards, such as acidity and peroxide limits. Olive oil from Palestine derives from village cooperatives, not agribusinesses. Families own and run their farms. One of the unique aspects of Palestine’s olive oil is that it is organic, which means they use no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. After the USFDA visits Palestine and inspects the olive oil process, a logo for organic certification is expected as soon as this spring.

This certification, along with the anticipated fair trade certification and logo later this year will give Palestinian farmers a marketing edge in international markets.

Any by-products of olive oil must be used so there is no waste. After farmers press the olives they use the dried husks of the olives as fuel for stoves set in a ground clay oven called Tabun. The bread baked over the husks of pressed olives is called Tabun (bread). Another by-product is bars of olive oil soap, which sold as an unofficial fair trade product in the US in fall 2005.

Whether it is olive or olive soap, the product is ready for distribution to organizations that draw awareness to the Palestinian narrative and the struggles this indigenous people face to continue their cultural livelihood amid impoverishing conditions.

Zatoun and More Organizations

One distributor of Palestinian olive oil and olive soap is Zatoun (the Arabic word for olives). Robert Massoud founded Zatoun in spring 2004 because he wanted to help farmers.

“I wanted to find a way to draw awareness to Palestinians and to help Palestinians,” he said. “I had the feeling people are tired of all of this vengeance cycle.”

In North America organizations that sell Palestine’s olive oil are: the American Friends Service Committee, Canaan Fair Trade, Holy Land Olive Oil, World Centric, and Zatoun. In Europe, one organization that sells it is Zaytoun. In the Middle East people can choose from Canaan Fair Trade, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees and Palestine Fair Trade.

Through these organizations people not only find individual solutions to the problems that arise out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they interact at the cultural level.

“Palestine is not a wasteland, a blank slate,” Massoud said. “There’s value in creating an awareness that is Palestinian history.” He further explained that Palestine is a country that has not benefited from trade and globalization.

In spring 2004 Zatoun ordered 1,200 bottles of olive oil through the PFTA. The next order quadrupled to 5,000 bottles and the most recent order was 8,000 bottles. Why has the demand increased in a short period of time?

“People try it for the first time for solidarity then come back for taste,” Massoud added.

In autumn 2005 the organization sold 400 bars of olive soap in a week. With the unexpected high demand they ordered another 4,000 bars for shipment to buyers in the spring.

When the international community purchases Palestinian goods their money is an investment in Palestine and in the people. The more demand there is for their products more job opportunities will be available for Palestinians in the future. One example is the bottling and labeling involved in olive oil production, which could be done by Palestinian workers.

When Zatoun sells a bottle of Palestinian olive oil for $15 Canadian dollars one-third pays the farmers, one-third is for oil preparation, shipping, labeling, and bottling (including USFDA fees for inspection through customs) and the final one-third is for projects, such as Focus Hope and the Trees for Life campaign. Zatoun’s goal is to order 100,000 bottles every year for distribution throughout North America.

The American Friends Service Committee purchases olive oil from Zatoun and Holy Land Olive Oil for distribution in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. However people can buy olive oil from Canaan Fair Trade, Holy Land Olive Oil, World Centric, and Zatoun (which sells bars of olive soap also) directly. In another upcoming, investigative article I will report more about these organizations, including the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees.

For every bottle of olive oil sold through Zatoun, $1 will go towards the purchase of an olive tree sapling in the Trees for Life campaign. Donations for the campaign are accepted also. Throughout February and March tree saplings will be donated to Palestinian farms that have lost trees to the occupation. According to Zatoun “farmers are selected according to damage suffered by the occupation, need, commitment to fair trade practices, ability to care for trees.” Each farmer will receive 25 –” 50 tree saplings.

Internationals, Olive Harvests and Hope

Every October international delegations travel to Palestine to help Palestinian farmers during the olive harvest season. The people appreciate the protection they feel when internationals are present. Why do Palestinians need protection?

During an interview with an American who participated in the last harvest he said: “The people were in fields adjacent to settlements, so it was dangerous for Palestinians to harvest their own fields.”

It is not uncommon for settlers to attack Palestinians because in most cases Israeli soldiers turn the other way. Settlers have destroyed farmer’s groves, orchards, cattle, and farming equipment. When the destruction of personal property occurs the settlers responsible are not held accountable for their pogrom activities.

At the time the American harvested olives the Israeli soldiers were civil. When they crossed an Israeli by-pass road the soldiers descended upon the harvesters. News arrived that during a drive-by shooting a settler killed a Palestinian man. The international delegation walked to the crime scene and laid flowers where the man died. The murderer was never brought to justice.

While the international delegation and the Palestinians harvested the trees Israeli settlers watched them from a nearby apartment building (that was built over Byzantine Church ruins). “Every field we picked will not be able to be picked next year,” he added. Sometime this year the Palestinian olive groves where he harvested olives is land expected to be used for more Israeli settlements/colonies and by-pass roads funded by US taxpayer dollars. As a result the farmers will lose their land and/or accessibility to it. Palestinian families picked from trees hundreds of years old…possibly for the last time.

The American sensed overwhelming feelings of hopelessness among the people. “What is happening is terrible,” he said. “It’s like an open-air prison.”

Yet the international community is silent.

However, he felt a quiet courage and determination among the people also. While he was there he had the opportunity to plant olive trees also. He said it was memorable because one woman in the delegation just celebrated her 70th birthday. When her family members and friends hosted a birthday party for her she requested that people give her money for olives trees in lieu of birthday presents.

While she was in Palestine, she planted 700 olive trees.