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Olive oil on troubled waters

Olives from Palestine (Louise Tickle)
Olives from Palestine
Louise Tickle

"Oil from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, is very different from European olive oils," says Thomas Cazalis, agricultural consultant to the Palestinian Farmers Union. "There is a language for olive oil like there is a language for wine. Experts say oil from this region is soft at the beginning, and the long-term aromas linger on the palate, with a strong, peppery burn in the back of the throat." It is a flavour that Heather Gardner, co-founder of Zaytoun, a company set up specifically to sell Palestinian olive oil on a fair trade basis is hoping that UK consumers will acquire a taste for. She will import 40 tonnes of extra virgin olive oil into the UK from this year's harvest. But creating a fully transparent supply chain and maintaining quality to achieve Fairtrade accreditation for Palestinian olive oil will take some serious effort in a region troubled by conflict.

Achieving quality under fire

One of her suppliers is Abu Mohammed who lives in the village of Alsauuya, north west of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Stretching along the high ridge a few hundred metres from the olive groves that his family has owned for over a century is an illegal - and growing - Israeli settlement. Just inside the barbed wire fence enclosing the settlement is a military-style watchtower from where the Palestinian villagers harvesting olives can be constantly observed. With his olive trees now so close to the encroaching settlement, Mohammed has to get official permission from the Israeli authorities to pick his own fruit. Even with the required authorization, a neighbour recently found himself confronted by Israeli settlers wanting to turn him off his land. And farmers have reported cases of being shot at from settlements while working in their groves.

Olive oil being drawn off (Louise Tickle)
Olive oil being drawn off
Louise Tickle

Attacks by settlers are just one of the problems faced by farmers. To ensure excellent quality oil, olives must be pressed within ten hours of being picked, and the Israeli military roadblocks and 'flying' checkpoints throughout the West Bank cause delays that discourage farmers from taking their crop for daily pressing. In the last few years, they have also lost substantial markets - the start of the second intifada in 2000 led to a loss of access to markets inside "Green Line" Israel. In the meantime, Jordan has built up its own olive industry and no longer needs its neighbour's oil. And the dire economic situation prevailing in the West Bank and Gaza means that even local markets have diminished.

Working co-operatively

Gaining accreditation with the Fairtrade Mark would open up valuable new markets in Europe, as well as ensuring a guaranteed minimum price for their crop and the security that comes with long-term trading contracts. But investment in olive presses has been minimal over recent years and hygiene standards urgently need to be addressed. And convincing farmers to pool their olives to press collectively on a daily basis - to ensure the fruit does not ferment, causing a drop in the quality - is not an easy task. But as Ayoup Abuhejleh, head of the Organic Production Association of Salfit explains, those who have agreed to join together have found it worthwhile and achieved a higher price for their oil (15 Israelis shekels in comparison to the usual price of nine or ten).

A pilot project led by Cazalis to gear production to international standards has given dramatic results but Abuhejleh is clear that this mustn't be seen as a quick fix. "Most important is the sustainability of the improvement. It's very hard to reach the top, but even harder is to stay there." All the oil imported by Zaytoun is bottled in the West Bank so that as much value as possible is retained in Palestine. The oil is currently sold through fair trade shops, churches and solidarity groups, but to make a real difference, Gardner knows that they need to get the product into supermarkets. And for that, it needs the Fairtrade Mark.

Scaling up

Olives from Palestine (Louise Tickle)
Olives from Palestine
Louise Tickle

"It's absolutely critical to us expanding our UK market, and we're working on getting the Fairtrade Foundation to come out and evaluate the supply chain," Gardener explains. "If Zaytoun's olive oil gets the Fairtrade Mark, it will be the first in the UK. Once we get that, the Co-op supermarket chain has expressed an interest in stocking it, and that kind of support would completely change the scale of what we can commit to buying from the farmers here." It would also be a step to creating a sustainable business in the long-term for her and Zaytoun's three other founding members who have worked entirely unpaid for two years.

Support from organisations like Olive Co-op which runs responsible tourism study tours to the West Bank, and the long-established fair trade co-op Equal Exchange has been crucial in helping Zaytoun to develop the relationships needed to create a rigorously transparent supply chain. Help from Triodos Bank in the form of a £25,000 overdraft facility has meant they can offer the pre-finance required by the Palestinan olive co-ops to commit to larger orders.

Back in the olive groves near Alsaauya, the searing heat of early afternoon means it's nearly the end of a working day that began at 7.30am. There has been no trouble so far this morning, no shots heard from the settlements, but Abu Mohammed still has half an ear cocked as he eats a picnic lunch with his family in the leafy shade. He'll shortly be bagging up the olives before starting again tomorrow, hoping that the risks he runs to harvest the purple fruit so important to the history of this region will be recognised and valued by customers who grasp the human cost of producing Palestinian olive oil.

Written by: Louise Tickle

Date published: September 2006


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