Palestinian farmers turn to organic farming

Associated Press Modified: November 9, 2012 at 7:31 am •  Published: November 9, 2012
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NUS JUBAIL, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian olive harvest, an ancient autumn ritual in the West Bank, is going upscale.

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., E.U., 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.

Palestinians seek the West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state. Most of the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank live under a semi-autonomous government. But Israel, which captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, wields overall control. Roughly 500,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and neighboring east Jerusalem, taking away resources.

The situation makes exporting difficult for Palestinian farmers. Outside markets for fresh produce aren't profitable. Goods must cross through Israeli-controlled export crossings with security measures that cause delays, lowering quality through exposure to sunlight and constant reloading from one truck to another.

Farmers face other problems. More than 120 Jewish settlements dot the West Bank, often encroaching on Palestinian farmlands or preventing farmers from reaching their land. According to U.N. estimates, nearly 10 percent of Palestinian farmland falls on the "Israeli" side of the separation barrier Israel has built to prevent militants from entering from the West Bank to carry out attacks.

Israel also controls more than 80 percent of the West Bank's water in lopsided sharing agreements, said Palestinian water official Ribhi al-Sheik. In other areas dilapidated water pipes have wasteful leaks. Most farmers depend on rain and unlicensed wells, depleting already-stressed aquifers. In some parts, Israeli military authorities also ban rain-collecting cisterns. Badly planned Palestinian towns have paved over fertile lands.

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