Olive oil - from Palestine

Olive oil on troubled waters.

Palestinian olive growers on the West Bank are working towards producing fine, fair trade olive oil for European foodies, reports Louise Tickle.

Perched atop a scruffy donkey barely half his height, Abu Mohammed, 55, is frowning in annoyance as he trots down the hill to his olive fields. It’s eight in the morning – a late start in the harvest season. The sun will soon be hot in the clear November sky, and the farmer is eager to get his crop picked and bagged up before noon.

Mohammed lives in the village of Alsauuya, north west of Nablus in the occupied West Bank. Stretching along the high ridge a few hundred metres from the olive groves that his family has owned for over a century is an illegal – and growing – Israeli settlement. The roofs of its uniform rows of houses are clad in terracotta tiles that soak up the sunlight and gleam deep orange against the blue sky. Just inside the barbed wire fence enclosing the settlement is a military-style watchtower. From this lookout, the Palestinian villagers harvesting olives can be constantly observed.

With his trees now so close to the edge of the encroaching settlement, Mohammed has to get official permission from the Israeli authorities to pick his own fruit. The day before, a farmer from his village, who had duly secured the required authorization, still found himself confronted by settlers who came down from the ridge to turf him off his land. A disturbing altercation ensued, resolved only by the farmer pleading his case to the Israeli military who were called to the scene. The presence of observers from an international NGO may have helped to discourage the settlers from taking the matter further – farmers have reported cases of being shot at from settlements while working in their groves – but it is an event that has troubled Mohammed sufficiently to have asked international representatives to come to his plot today.

Attacks by settlers are just one of the problems faced by Palestine’s olive farmers. To ensure excellent quality oil, olives must be pressed within 10 hours of being picked, and the Israeli military roadblocks and ‘flying’ checkpoints throughout the West Bank cause lengthy hold-ups that discourage farmers from taking their crop for daily pressing. In the last few years, they have also lost substantial markets – the start of the second intifada in 2000 led to a loss of access to markets inside “Green Line” Israel. In the meantime, Jordan has built up its own olive industry and no longer needs its neighbour’s oil. And the dire economic situation prevailing in the West Bank and Gaza means that even local markets have diminished.

As fat purple olives thud onto tarpaulins spread beneath the trees in olive groves throughout the West Bank, a meeting is being held in Ramallah to persuade farmers’ co-operatives of the merits of getting their oil accredited with the Fairtrade Mark. This would open up valuable new markets in Europe, as well as ensuring a guaranteed minimum price for their crop and the security that comes with long-term trading contracts.

Olive growerBut creating a fully transparent supply chain and consistently excellent quality is going to take some serious effort. Investment in Palestinian olive presses has been minimal over recent years. Hygiene standards urgently need to be addressed as smoking and eating appears to be common practice in the pressing sheds. And convincing farmers to pool their olives so there are enough to press collectively on a daily basis – to ensure the fruit does not ferment, causing a drop in the quality – is clearly going to be a hard ask. As Ayoup Abuhejleh, head of the Organic Production Association of Salfit explains with a chuckle, “Of course each farmer thinks his own olives are the best, so he wants to press individually so he can sell his own! We persuaded them to join together by telling them about quality, but also about getting a better price.

“A few agreed to try it and the price was better because of it – last year olive oil was selling normally for nine or 10 Israeli shekels (a little over £1) per kg, and we were selling ours for 15 (nearly £2). After this experience, we recruited some other farmers and the number is increasing day by day”.

Together with his 52 co-op members, Abuhejleh is taking part in a pilot led by the agricultural consultant to the Palestinian Farmers Union, Thomas Cazalis, designed to gear production up to international standards. Results have been dramatic – but he is clear that it can’t be seen as a quick fix. “Most important is the sustainability of the improvement. It’s very hard to reach the top, but even harder is to stay there. So it’s better to get there step by step, not always moving quickly, because then you can fall quickly, too.”

Thomas Cazalis says that improvement will need only some small adjustments to the process. “The diagnosis of an expert taster is that there is a big potential for this oil to be marketed. It could compete with the best from Spain and Italy,” he maintains.

“Oil from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, is very different from European olive oils. There is a language for olive oil like there is a language for wine. Experts say oil from this region is soft at the beginning, and the long-term aromas linger on the palate, with a strong, peppery burn in the back of the throat.”

It is a flavour that Heather Gardener is hoping that UK foodies will acquire a taste for. As co-founder of Zaytoun, a company set up specifically to sell Palestinian olive oil on a fair trade basis, she is hoping to import 40 tonnes of extra virgin olive oil from this year’s harvest. It is all bottled in the West Bank so that as much value as possible is retained in Palestine. The oil will be sold through fair trade shops, churches and solidarity groups. It’s an enormous leap from the initial 200 bottles she and colleague Cathi Davis imported two years ago, but she knows that to make a real difference, they need to get the product into supermarkets. And for that, it needs the Fairtrade Mark.

“It’s absolutely critical to us expanding our market in the UK, and we’re working on getting the Fairtrade Foundation to come out here and evaluate the supply chain,” Ms Gardener explains. “If Zaytoun’s olive oil does get the Fairtrade Mark, it will be the first in the UK. Once we get that, the Co-op supermarket chain has expressed an interest in stocking it, and that kind of support would completely change the scale of what we can commit to buying from the farmers here.”

It would also be a step to creating a sustainable business in the long-term for Zaytoun’s founders, who together with volunteers Saleh Achala and Atif Choudhury, have worked entirely unpaid for two years. Support for the venture from organisations like the Manchester-based Olive Co-op which runs responsible tourism study tours to the West Bank, and the long-established fair trade co-op Equal Exchange has been crucial in helping Zaytoun to develop the relationships needed to create a rigorously transparent supply chain. Help from Triodos Bank in the form of a £25,000 overdraft facility – underwritten by personal supporters including former Cafédirect chairman Martin Meteyard – has meant they can offer the pre-finance required by the Palestinan olive co-ops to commit to larger orders.

It is still far from plain sailing; one container of oil meant for the Christmas market in 2004 first turned up in Italy and failed to arrive in the UK until the following February. It is also still proving tricky to explain to co-op members in Palestine why on earth British customers would choose to pay more for a fairly traded olive oil when they could perfectly easily pay less for an ordinary one. And Heather Gardener still smiles when she recalls an early marketing tactic that was gently but firmly rejected by a posh deli she was trying to persuade to stock the oil.

“We had our labels all printed up with ‘Palestinian Olive Oil – Resisting The Occupation’,” she says. “They liked the oil and wanted to take it, but said very nicely that just ‘Produce of Palestine’ would do fine for their clientele.”