Equal Exchange in the West Bank

Susan Sklar
February 5, 2012
Categories: 

olives

In early November 2011, Equal Exchange traveled to the West Bank to meet with the members of the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) from whom we are now buying organic, fairly traded olive oil.

Equal Exchange and PARC are both grounded in the most fundamental industry on earth: agriculture. Both of our organizations are committed to enabling small-scale farmers to remain on their land by working with their co-operatives, to growing quality products, and to building sustainable markets.

Working with a Palestinian group in the West Bank is particularly compelling given that this tiny spec of land in the Middle East is the source of more enduring conflict and heartache than practically any other in the world. Equal Exchange launched its new line of organic, fairly traded olive oil after years of discussions with personal friend and Palestinian olive oil pioneer, Tania Maxwell, who has marketed PARC's oil under her Olive Branch Olive Oil brand. Tania' experience and relationships proved invaluable in enabling us to form our new partnership with PARC, and she helped arrange our visit to the West Bank and accompanied us on the trip.

PARC was founded in 1983 by agronomists and veterinarians in order to serve farmers in the agricultural sector. Israel, like governments in many countries we import coffee from, had prioritized other industries and not invested heavily in agriculture - particularly in the Palestinian Territories. Ten years later the Palestinian Authority (PA) was established from the Oslo Accords, but vested interests in the PA were similarly disinterested in prioritizing agriculture. PARC lobbied to influence these early policies and continues to this day to encourage farmers to push the PA for their rights. Consequently, many see PARC as the proxy Ministry of Agriculture, which has led to some continuing friction with the PA.

PARCToday PARC works with 41 co-operatives, each made up of anywhere from 20-80 members. These groups grow olives, couscous, almonds, dates and other products. They co-manage the plows, as well as the fertilization and harvesting of crops, and the maintenance of storage facilities. PARC's stated target constituencies are farmers, women, and youth. In addition to promoting viable and sustainable economic development, PARC has also built community-based organizations and tries to instill transparency, accountability, and democracy in these organizations.

The Equal Exchange group included the two of us, Co-Executive Director Rink Dickinson, and Tania Maxwell. We spent a day at the Al Zawyeh co-operative, one of the co-ops that currently supplies olives for our finished product, which is sold in 500ml bottles. The co-op was formed in 2008 with 18 members and has since grown to 22. Al Zawyeh was formed to counter the vulnerability of individual farmers to the greed of intermediary traders. According to co-op president Ismail Hamondo, the benefits of the co-operative are numerous: large-scale purchases, which have lowered the costs of production for farmers and the price they pay for pressing; as well as shared best practices in pruning, plowing and collection. In addition farmers are learning how to build democracy. The co-op also plays a social role in the community, which among other things, assists students in finishing high school. Fair Trade income in the first couple of years has helped build a barn for sheep, and secure and distribute organic compost.

Many of the olive trees are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. For that reason they hold an almost sacred significance for some farmers. “When I was growing up my father took me with him when he worked in the olive groves,” said Sania Shqeer, a member of Al Zawyeh. “My father has since passed away. But I loved him; and because of that I love our trees.”

Even though Sania is university-trained as a social worker, she decided to become a farmer when she inerited her father's land.

On another day of our trip, we visited an olive oil press used by the Banizaid Alsharaya co-op. The press is owned by a father and son member of the co-operative. Once the olive harvest begins, the press runs 24 hours a day for two months. The whole community helps to load and unload bags of olives and the press is a gathering point for farmers and youth during this time. At the press, we watched as the olives traveled up a conveyor belt. Leaves were blown away and the fruit was washed by machines. Then the olives were crushed - pits and All - and the oil was filtered. Later it was siphoned into containers and transported back to the co-op to be stored in stainless steel tanks. In the future the Banizaid Alsharaya co-op plans to purchase a press that is owned and controlled by all of its members. And next year, the Al Zawyeh co-op will join with three other co-operatives to buy its own pressing station.

In December of each year, which is mid-to-late harvest, PARC sits down with all the co-operatives to determine the exact price of that year's olive oil. As with most co-operatives, PARC and the co-ops establish one price for all of its members. Every year the extraction rate is different for individual farmers. Since it fluctuates every year, the co-ops have agreed to establish a single price per member for each harvest. PARC also determines prices for the domestic market, the export market, for virgin and extra virgin, and for certified organic; these always exceed the cost of production and meet or exceed the established Fair Trade price. As orders come in, PARC collects the oil at the co-op stations and bottles it at the facility of Al Reef, PARC's nonprofit exporting organization, owned by all of the co-ops. Over the last 5-6 years, there have been enormous gains in capacity, quality control and bottling equipment. We were extremely inspired by what we saw and confident that processes and skilled people are in place to yield an extremely high-quality bottle of organic extra virgin olive oil.

Two factors have contributed to the relatively recent development of co-operatives in Palestine. First, the disappearance of the Israeli market after the second Intifada in 2000 forced Palestinian farmers to pursue other export markets for their olive oil. This path led them to the Fair Trade market and its requirement for volumes and consistent quality with various elements of documentation. The second factor was the Islamic tradition of passing land on to your children. For example, if a father passes his 12 dunums (approx. three acres) of land to three children, they each receive four dunums if they are all boys; girls receive one half of what boys do. This has led to the land becoming fragmented and in turn more likely to be abandoned and to drop out of productive use. Together with the promise of profitable markets, forming a co-op meant a new incentive was created for individual landholders, like Sania, to band together.

A number of undeniable hardships are ever present for Palestinian farmers. First among them is water. Climate change-induced drought has increasingly affected the production of trees in recent years. But Israeli policies limiting access to water for collection and irrigation has likewise posed a serious obstacle to a thriving agricultural sector. In fact, most water in the West Bank is diverted either to settlements or back to Israel.

treesOn top of this is the problem of access. Numerous checkpoints and the wall pose serious challenges to optimal cultivation practices. In places, the wall separates a farmer from his or her grove and it is not possible to carry out the pruning and composting necessary to maximize productivity. Resolution of the all-important issue of water rights was deferred under the Oslo Accords until a “final settlement.”

It's impossible to separate the struggles of Palestinian olive farmers and our trade relationship from political struggles in the region: access to water, the barrier wall, checkpoints, settlements, and frustration with the Palestinian Authority. For Equal Exchange, this trip provided a first opportunity to begin learning how we might best contribute to just economic development in the West Bank. We return sober about the prospects for an enduring peace in the region but highly motivated that our smallest of roles is a contribution in that direction.