Palestinian Olive Oil: The Struggle to Build Markets for Small Farmers Under Occupation

Equal Exchange
November 27, 2017
By Susan Sklar & Rob Everts, Equal Exchange Community Sales 
 

Last month, we traveled to the West Bank to visit our Palestinian suppliers of organic extra virgin olive oil. At Equal Exchange, we are more than familiar with the daunting challenges and obstacles confronting cooperatives of small farmers growing coffee, cacao, and many other products. To those, we need to add all the constraints of physical movement and access to water that are everyday realities for Palestinian farmers given the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. As we met with farmers, technicians, leaders and students, and toured facilities over the several days of our visit, we were thoroughly impressed by the scope of initiatives managed by our counterpart, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC).

What follows is a sharing of what we learned during our October visit, first some observations on the general climate in which Palestinians (especially farmers) live, then a bit more on PARC and the compelling projects they are carrying out. 

Hana'a Musef sifts out leaves and stems after an olive harvest at her family's grove.

Overview

The odds are stacked against Palestinian farmers. They work land that is dry as a bone and is getting more arid due to climate change. Sixty five percent of Palestinians in the West Bank live in rural areas. Many families in those areas own olive trees but the groves are relatively small and generally contribute to only a portion of a family’s income. Though trees are able to produce olives with very little water, other crops such as wheat, almonds, and dates are limited due the severe water shortage limits imposed by the climate and by the Israeli government.

The water supply for the West Bank is only available through water mains a few times a week on an unpredictable schedule. There are restrictions enforced by the Israelis on how much rainfall can be collected. Reusing and treating waste water is restricted, as is digging wells. There is also a discrepancy in the amount of daily water usage depending upon who you are. There are currently about 2.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and about 700,000 Jewish settlers living there. If you are Palestinian, your allotment of water is 75 liters per person per day; if you are an Israeli Jew, living in a settlement, your allotment is 300-350 liters of water per day (over four times as much). Settlers are allowed to consume more water and pay less money for it. Without water and land you can’t talk about development in the West Bank. If agricultural projects could expand with increased water, PARC estimates that it could help provide 200,000 more jobs for Palestinians. 

The construction of the barrier wall separating the West Bank and Israel which began in 2003 has created countless obstacles for olive farmers. Not only did the wall itself annex large swaths of the West Bank, it also separated many farmers from their groves. Limited access times at the wall, compounded by the numerous checkpoints throughout the West Bank, prevents farmers from being able to employ the kind of agricultural practices that would maximize yields—and incomes. In addition, every year there are attacks by settlers on farmers during the harvest. 

Finally, it’s impossible for Palestinian trucks to gain direct access to seaports or airports. So they must unload their trucks to be loaded by Israeli trucks at the checkpoints on the other side of the barrier. This business has become so expensive and cumbersome that the number of Palestinian trucks carrying produce and other goods destined for export has dropped from 25,000 to 10,000. There are also very few refrigerated trucks and storage facilities for perishable crops.  Very concretely for Equal Exchange, these increased costs make Palestinian olive oil far less competitively priced than we would like, meaning we can’t sell as much of their oil as we would very much like to do.

PARC’s primary mission is to provide hope for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza: economic sustainability and independence for people who are displaced and severely restricted. The NGO has been dedicated to working with Palestinian farmers since the 1980s and predates the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture, which was established after the Oslo Accords in 1993. PARC works with 40 agricultural cooperatives made of 20-80 members. Building on relationships we established in our first trip in 2011, we came back from this recent visit with even more respect for PARC’s vision and its tangible approaches to creating economic opportunities for so many. Here are PARC projects that we visited in the West Bank.

Thyme growing in Jenin to be used in za'atar, a blend of three spices used for cooking. 

Olive Oil Press

We visited a modern olive oil press at the Mazare’ Al Noubani cooperative near Salfeet. There are 86 members of the co-op who use the press, plus four other groups that pay a fee for its use during harvest season, which lasts 6-8 weeks. During this period the press is open 24 hours a day to receive sacks of olives from farmers’ trucks. 

PARC was able to secure a bank loan to purchase the Italian machinery used at the press on terms. It will gradually pay off the loans when it receives fees from farmers after the harvest; then it will finish constructing the building. Funds for the press building came from Oxfam, the Palestinian Farmers Union, the French Palestinian Solidarity Association, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. 

We viewed the process from beginning to end. Olives are ideally pressed for oil within an hour of being harvested. The olives get a quick wash and branches and leaves are removed. Heated water is added to make the olive mash easier to crush, but the press temperature can’t be higher than 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the oil, water and pits must be separated out. A good olive tree produces about 16-20 liters of oil.

It’s an energy efficient system as well. The pumice (from the olive pits) is used to fuel the boiler and to heat the water. The olive oil is pumped into stainless steel holding tanks at the press. Finally, it is labeled and sent to PARC’s bottling station at its headquarters in Ramallah. Equal Exchange purchases about 25,000 bottles of extra virgin olive oil each season from PARC. 

We learned about the “We Are With You” campaign, in which volunteers serve as witnesses to offer Palestinian farmers protection while they harvest their olives near the wall. PARC has helped to organize these volunteers for the past 15 years. They come from a range of countries, such as Australia, France and Canada, and stay in farmers’ houses for 1-2 weeks at their own expense. 

Mohammad Hmidat, Al Reef Quality Assurance Manager, samples fresh olive oil at the press. 

Almond Cooperative

We met Nabeel Munmod Abu Ara, the head of the Aqqaba Almond Cooperative in Jenin. The co-op has 87 members, 57 of whom grow almonds, an initiative that began 10 years ago. Three out of the nine members of the Administrative Commission and 19 members of the co-op are women.

Almond trees were introduced by PARC as a part of a pilot land reclamation project. Now there are more than 200 hectares of trees. To prepare the land, the farmers had to remove rocks from the soil, built retaining walls, compost, and added other organic soil supplements. As the farmers started investing in their trees, they saw that it was a feasible business. In Jenin, unemployment is 15 percent below the national average (versus 27 percent overall in the West Bank and 44 percent in Gaza) partly due to the Arab-American University of Jenin, its student body of 12,000 students, and the resulting higher level of education in the area. 

There is, however, a serious shortage of rainfall in the area, and farmers need supplemental irrigation for the trees. December through March is the rainy season. However, this past year the last day of rain was February 20. Nabeel experimented with irrigation in March and July and the productivity of the trees more than doubled the output. He had to purchase the additional water, increasing costs considerably. 

Nabeel Munmod Abu Ara, head of the Aqqaba Almond Cooperative in Jenin, shows the difference that irrigation makes. The almond trees on the left were part of a PARC project

Experimental Organic Farm

The Holy Land Cooperative in Zababdeh near Jenin is comprised of 28 men and eight women. PARC supported them on their transition to organic; and once they had initial crops, PARC helped them with marketing. The co-op has constructed a fish farm in a greenhouse; and the pond water is piped through the rest of the greenhouse and used as fertilizer for grapes, strawberries, and pineapples. This achieves four times more growth than plants grown in the ground; no water is wasted. 

PARC has helped the cooperative to cultivate varieties of fruits and vegetables, such as cabbage and melons that are high in productivity quality. The cooperative also grows and dries thyme, which is an ingredient of the Middle Eastern spice blend called Za’atar, together with sesame seeds and sumac. They sell their organic produce and spices at the local market for better prices. 

Women’s Couscous Cooperative

The Machtas Couscous Cooperative in Jericho started with a $2,500 loan from Al Reef, PARC’s  commercial and export arm. The building was given to them by PARC., and PARC’s staff trained the women to make couscous. It was a way to create jobs and to continue making a staple that is part of the Palestinian heritage. In the beginning there were 15 members, and today there are 30 members, from age 20 to 70. The co-op is structured as an open meeting with all members allowed to contribute to discussions and to help making decisions. Three women are elected to serve as the governance committee. 

The women use a special black wheat that is produced in Jenin in two co-ops. Members order the quantity of wheat they need and run the operation. The women mix whole wheat flour and water by hand sitting on the ground in the traditional way, using a series of strainers. The wheat clusters are then steamed in an oven at 100 degrees for 25 minutes; afterwards they are dried. The process is like semi-cooking and gives the grain a shelf life of two years. 

The co-op negotiates costs, prices and quantities. Income is tied to productivity, and members determine their own schedules, which can be very flexible. Most work from 7 a.m. to 12 noon. Then they return to their homes for family and social life. The work is virtually year round with December through February generally being down time. With Jericho serving as a key center for a lot of PARC / Al Reef production activity, the women are able to earn additional income in several other capacities including making the Za’atar spice mix and fumigating and shelling almonds. In September and October they work at the date-filling station. Co-op members rely upon PARC technicians for quality control, while promotion and markets are handled by Al Reef. 

Women from the Machtas Cooperative make whole wheat couscous by hand in the traditional manner. 

Date Filling Station 

Before the 1993 Oslo Agreement, farmers in the West Bank were not allowed to grow Medjoul dates, due to unwanted competition with Israeli growers. When this law changed many farmers started growing Medjoul dates. This is an important crop for West Bank farmers since date palms can grow with some salination in the water—a phenomenon resulting from Israeli settlement pulling vast amounts of fresh water from the natural springs in Jericho. Palestinians on the West Bank are legally allowed to retrieve partially salinated well water (which is beneath the fresh water in wells). Dates are a crop that can bring in added income with scarce resources. In 1996-97, PARC purchased Medjoul date palms for $100 each and sold them to Palestinians for $20. In 2001, they produced just a few hundred pounds of dates. By 2009, the amount had increased to thousands and they needed a more modern filling station to wash, dry, sort and pack the dates. They have a beautiful new plant with sophisticated and more computerized systems. 

Medjoul dates are sorted for size at the date filling center in Jericho. 

Dates are another crop like olives with a short harvest season: mid-September to the end of October. The dates are received and sent to be dried and fumigated for 72 hours. They are sorted by weight and by the quality of their skin. The plant also makes date paste and date molasses. The line sorters are the women from the couscous cooperative who work shifts during the date harvesting season. 

Left to right: Al Reef General Manager Saleem Abu Ghazaleh, Susan Sklar and Rob Everts, near date palms at the filling station in Jericho.

Agronomist Training Centers

PARC has two agronomist training centers for college graduates who spend a year practicum in agriculture (PA), which is completely subsidized by PARC. When the PA began in 1995, PARC wanted to train fresh agronomists after they graduated from four or five-year programs from the university. They created ways to provide hands-on training for them through the centers. The government of Luxemborg supported this effort and built the academy in Jericho three years ago. 

Over the last 20 years they have expanded their focus to dates, eggs and dairy products. Every year 40-50 students graduate. Half spend their time in Jericho, the other half are in Zabedi. Students get practice on animal farms, plant farms, and factories for agricultural projects. The agronomists choose a focus among different aspects of farming, such as soil or water. There are lectures in classes and two hours a day working on a site. 

The PARC Agricultural Academies have graduated a total of 1,600 students. Eighty percent of the people who work in the PA’s Agricultural Ministry come from these centers. In fact, the current director graduated in 1997 from the center’s first class. 

While part of the mission is to promote organic farming, what stood out most powerfully for us was the confidence that these young women and men gain from both the educational and social aspects of their year in training. With an overriding mission to build hope for the future among the Palestinians, PARC is, with good reason, deeply proud of this success. 

Students from the PARC agronomist training center in Jericho.