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Story Publication logo September 19, 2013

Palestine's Budding Fair Trade Olive Oil Industry


Image by Adrian Fadil. West Bank, 2013.

In the face of Israeli control of West Bank water sources, land expropriation, and settler violence...


Among the 650 olive trees within the terraced groves of Mahmoud's Samara's West Bank farm are some Rumi olive trees, a variety that has been cultivated in Palestine since Roman times. These particular trees have been passed down through generations of the Samara family, producing an olive oil that is full and pungent while providing the family with an important source of income.

But, at the turn of the 21st century, during the second intifada, olive oil prices in the local market fell as low as eight NIS (about $1.75) per kilogram, bringing in less money than it cost to harvest. In addition, Samara says neighboring settlers were uprooting some of his Rumi trees and replanting them in Israel, claiming them as their own. While the agricultural sector's contribution to the Palestinian GDP continued to drop, and the olive trees—an important symbol of Palestinian culture—were uprooted, it became increasingly difficult for Palestinian farmers to sustain a livelihood. Many left their lands.

So when Nasser Abufarha, founder of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) and Canaan Fair Trade, approached Samara in 2004 offering him double the market price for his olive oil, Samara thought he was joking. He wasn't. Samara sold his olive oil to Canaan Fair Trade for 16 NIS per kilogram when the market was offering him only eight NIS, and he became one of the first of 375 farmers in 13 village-based cooperatives to join the PFTA and Canaan Fair Trade in 2005.

Although formed in partnership, the PFTA and Canaan Fair Trade are distinct organizations that collaborate to promote marginalized and isolated Palestinian farming communities.

The PFTA is a non-profit that organizes Palestinian farmers into cooperatives, educating them on the concept of fair trade and organic produce, environmental accountability, and how to integrate new farming techniques into traditional methods so that they can increase the quality and yield of their product. Canaan, on the other hand, empowers small-scale farmers by virtue of being a commercial entity that produces, processes, packages, and exports Palestinian fair trade and organic foods to like-minded companies abroad.

On entering the global market in 2005, however, Canaan found that it needed to create its own international fair trade olive oil standards; surprisingly, none yet existed. Following the models of the Fairtrade Labeling Organization International (FLO), Abufarha drew up his own fair trade olive oil standards. This move led Canaan to eventually become the first ever FLO-certified international supplier of fair trade olive oil. Today, Canaan is the largest supplier of fair trade olive oil in the world.

"The whole idea of bringing the farmers into the modern economy is that it brings international awareness to the struggles that Palestinian farmers [experience]," Abufarha said.

Even in the portion of the West Bank over which the Palestinian Authority (PA) allegedly maintains civil and military control, and where the majority of Canaan's 49 current cooperatives exist, water management projects proposed by the PA must first, under article 40 of the 1995 Oslo Peace agreement, be approved by Israeli authorities.

Since few proposed Palestinian water resource systems have received permits from the Israeli authorities, the number of Palestinian wells in the West Bank has declined from 774 in 1967 to 328 in 2005. Many farmers must rely on un-permitted wells to irrigate their crops. Samara, for instance, provides 30 different farming families with water from his un-permitted well. He says every day he fears it will be demolished.

The Israeli government also creates difficulties for Canaan's exportation of goods—every shipment costs around $1,000 extra because Canaan must comply with Israeli security requirements. Although products are shipped out of the country from the port city of Haifa in northern Israel, Canaan must travel out of the way to a checkpoint where their produce can be scanned, hire a second truck outside of the checkpoint to deliver their produce to port, and then employ the Israeli company, UTI Logistics, to ship the produce abroad.

Even with all of these obstacles, the PFTA and Canaan Fair Trade give Palestinian farmers and their communities a glimmer of hope. In Canaan's impact report, farmer Saleh Ayasi said, "I have great pride that my Palestinian product is reaching all over the world. Some people may not know about Palestine, but my product raises the spirit of Palestine. Canaan's products make a name for Palestine." In a way, Canaan Fair Trade gives Palestinian farmers the chance to promote the culture they feel Israel has appropriated from them.

Now, nine years after its inception, the PFTA has grown to include approximately 1,700 small-scale Palestinian farmers in 49 West Bank cooperatives, including six women's cooperatives, whose members collect and process sun-dried tomatoes, za'atar (thyme), couscous, capers, and soap.

With the support of both the men and women's cooperatives, Canaan today sources a variety of fair trade certified and organic olive oils, herbs, tapenades, dried foods, spices, spreads, and cosmetics to distributors in 15 different countries across five different continents. The social premium included in the price for Canaan's products is reinvested into the farmers' communities—used for community contributions such as farming equipment, paving village roads, and buying computers for schools.

Today, Canaan rakes in 22 NIS per kilogram of olive oil for Samara. Rather than keep the money in his pocket, Samara plans to buy more land—and more trees. "The olive trees are like my children," he said. "If anybody offers me 10,000 NIS to uproot one tree I would say no. Even 100,000. Here, in our traditions, the farmer doesn't leave his trees until he dies."


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