The challenges sparked a new way of thinking: Palestinians had to make finished goods that could survive the rough growing conditions and lengthy journey to outside markets.
Fair-trade, organic products that can be rain-fed, particularly olives, were the perfect solution.
"It's the future of Palestinian exports. The future is in added value, through environmental and social accountability," said Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade. "People want to know: "Where is this oil coming from? Whose life is it changing?"
The changes are visible in Nus Jubail, a village crowded with olives and pines, its 400 residents in houses with blue doors and rooftops sheltered by grape arbors. A decade ago, most residents pressed their oil for personal use. Little was sold commercially and prices were low, said Khader, the farmer.
Around 2004, agricultural activists formed the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, seeking out farmers across the West Bank. They persuaded Khader to establish an organic cooperative of five farmers, allowing them to collectively press their olives and sell better-priced oil.
During the three-year conversion process, Khader and his colleagues were taught to grow olives without chemicals, pruning and plowing instead of using herbicides and fermenting sheep droppings into fertilizer. Once certified, Khader and his partners sold their oil above market prices, attracting other recruits. Now 18 of the village's 30 farmers are organic.
This year, organic oil is selling for about $5.40 a liter — a dollar higher than conventional oil, said Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade, which purchases much of the oil. Other independent farmers are selling directly to consumers for $9 a liter, far above market price.
Farmers are going organic on other products, such as maftoul, a chewy sun-dried staple resembling couscous, as well as dried almonds and a savory spice blend of thyme, hyssop and other herbs known as zaatar.
But high-end oil is key.
In Whole Foods supermarkets in New York and New Jersey, it's sold under the "Alter Eco" brand, Abu Farha said. It's in Sainsbury's in Britain, and in boutique shops globally through Canaan and other distributers. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, a popular organic, fair traded vegan soap, sources 95 percent of its oil — some 165 tons — from Palestinian growers, the soap company said.
Even so, challenges abound. Palestinian oil production is irregular because they can't irrigate their crops and export costs are still high. Abu Farha of Canaan said some farmers have cheated by mixing conventional oil into their products.
Still, the move toward organic, sustainable farming is an important, elegant fight.
"I don't throw rocks," said farmer Khader, referring to young men who frequently hurl stones during demonstrations. He pointed to his rock-built terraces. "I use them to build our future."
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