In an emerging back-to-the-land movement, Palestinian farmers are turning the rocky hills of the West Bank into organic olive groves, selling their oil to high-end grocers in the U.S. and Europe.
The move is a reflection of the growing global demand for natural, sustainable and fairly traded products, albeit with a distinct Palestinian twist. The hardships faced by local farmers, ranging from a lack of rainfall to Israeli trade obstacles, mean that organic growing is one of the few ways Palestinians have to compete in outside markets.
“The Palestinian future is in the land,” said farmer Khader Khader, 31, as he stood among his organic olives in the northern West Bank village of Nus Jubail.
Organic farming has grown into a thriving business, by Palestinian standards, since it first was introduced in the West Bank in 2004. Now, at least $5 million worth of organic olive oil is exported annually — about half of all Palestinian commercial oil exports, said Nasser Abu Farha of the Canaan Fair Trade Association, one of the companies that sells high-end organic olive oil to distributors abroad.
The West Bank-based company purchases the oil at above market prices and pays what’s called a “social premium” — extra money to farming cooperatives to improve their communities.
About 930 farmers have fair-trade and organic certification, while another 140 are “converting” their land — a two- to three-year process during which they stop using chemical fertilizers and pest controls while monitors from Canaan and the Palestine Fair Trade Association provide training and check soil for chemical levels.
Their work is overseen by the Swiss-based Institute for Market Ecology, which is accredited to certify organic products for the U.S., EU, and Japan. Hundreds more farmers are simply certified as fair-trade, where they and their workers are paid decent wages for their work and produce.
The trade is tiny when compared to major olive growers like Spain, Italy and Greece. But it’s significant for Palestinians, for whom harvesting olives is a cultural tradition that gathers even the most urbanized families.
An average of 17,000 tons of olive oil is produced in the West Bank every year by thousands of farmers, according to aid group Oxfam, which works on the olive industry. Most is for local or personal use, and only about 1,000 tons is exported a year, though that number is likely higher since many farmers sell oil informally through relatives abroad, Abu Farha said.
Organic farmers hope the high-end trade will keep them on their lands, despite difficult odds and high overhead costs.