x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Farmers grasp olive branch

Oxfam's three-year programme to help Palestinian olive oil farmers on best practices in organic production, harvesting and getting fair-trade certification has improved their economic prospects.

There are few things more synonymous with Palestinian identity, culture and resilience than olive-oil farming.

With a tradition stretching back generations, the industry contributes an estimated US$100 million (Dh376m) to some of the territory's poorest communities, according to Oxfam International, the charitable organisation dedicated to fighting poverty and injustice.

In fact, more than 100,000 families are dependent on olive-oil production.

Mohammed Darwish, a retired teacher, is one of these farmers.

But as social and political discontent continues between the Palestinian Territories and Israel, with no foreseeable end in sight, his livelihood, and that of his six children, remains in question.

With this in mind, he travelled to the UAE this month to attend the annual Middle East Natural and Organic Product Exposition (MENOPE) at the Dubai International Exhibition and Convention Centre. Through support from a three-year project run by the European Union and Oxfam, Mr Darwish, and thousands of other farmers like him, have reason to be optimistic about the future.

Since Mr Darwish signed on to the Oxfam-implemented programme two years ago, he has joined a co-operative and been provided with the equipment and tools needed to effectively harvest olive oil for his company - Pure Palestine.

"Storing the oil in plastic bottles used to cost us Dh5,000 a year," he says. "Now we only pay Dh2,000 to be a part of the co-operative and we are offered stainless-steel tanks, which were too expensive for us before. They allow us to store the olive oil over a longer period of time.

"Through this project, each co-operative now has testing equipment for quality control and the ability to test periodically the acidity of the oil. We were able to achieve 0.3 per cent of acidity, which is one of the lowest acidity levels of olive oil across the world."

By working with Oxfam, farmers such as Mr Darwish can produce the oil more efficiently. He can now locally sell 1 kilogram (x litre) for Dh25, making a tidy 50 per cent profit. Although the products are not yet on the UAE market, the farmers plan to sell it for Dh30 to Dh35 once they start exporting here.

"Exporting in the Palestinian Territories is not easy," he says.

"You have Israeli control over the borders and it is a major issue. We have a number of private companies that are responsible for packaging, logistics, any arrangements with the Israeli and Jordanian sides as well as the final destination."

Willow Heske, a representative from Oxfam, says the project faces considerable challenges, but is large in scope. The project has 900 farmers grouped within 31 co-operatives. Each co-operative produces 100,00 litres of olive oil each year, amounting to about 3 million litres annually.

"We're also working with local partners on the project," Ms Heske says, adding that the EU has pledged €2 million (Dh9.7m) for the initiative.

"They are dealing with training for the farming co-operatives, so Bethlehem Fair Trade University is working with the farmers on the fair trade and organic certification, Palestinian Farmers' Union is working with them on how to implement best practices for organic farming and also how to improve the quantity and quality of their olive oil."

She says supporting this sector helps some of the most vulnerable communities in the area. With the industry already engrained in the culture and tradition of the people, Oxfam saw olive-oil farming as an ideal way to improve their prospects and standard of living.

"What we saw is that if we can encourage farmers to just take small measures, to take better care of their land, that their productivity will increase drastically," she says. "That's what this project is about."

However, Oxfam is hoping the farmers will eventually be able to export the product on their own and take care of the entire supply chain.

"They're making a superior high-quality premium olive oil and we want them to be able to have the packaging, marketing and business skills to go with this product," Ms Heske says.

"While they're building the capacity, we're working with exporters who can help them along the way where ultimately, we hope, it will one day be completely in their hands."

Although Oxfam is not providing the co-operatives with small- to medium-sized loans, they are offering them technical training, advice on best practices for harvesting organic production, help with the process of certification for fair trade and organic production, which is a long, costly and complicated process. She says Oxfam is also giving them support in marketing their products by linking them with exporters who have entered into ethical business contracts with the farmers. Co-operatives are able to set their own prices for the oil and gain more control over the business cycle.

Yousif Thaher, Mr Darwish's partner at Pure Palestine, says the programme has increased his income. And with four children of his own, Oxfam's influence continues to have a positive effect on his family and trade.

"We are here today because we are looking at new markets and through this project, we were able to reach markets we were unable to reach before," he says.

"Although I own 2,000 trees, I am thinking of planting new land with 600 olive trees."

The project has already managed more than 70,000 litres in exports to the UK, Scotland and Wales with Zeytoun, a fair-trade company that buys directly from the co-operatives then markets the product under the brand name.

Now, the farmers are hoping to reach out to the Middle East. The Gulf region already imports more than 13 million litres of olive oil annually.

"We believe that the Arab market is a natural extension to Palestinian olive farmers," Ms Heske says.

The farmers, who come from villages close to settlements in the West Bank, cherish the programme and emphasise its importance.

"We believe it is for the benefit of the Palestinian farmers themselves as agriculture is actually the backbone of the economy," says Shadi Othman, an EU communications officer. "Financially, when you compare agriculture to a Palestinian working in Israel, being a worker there is much better economically than waiting for an olive season every year."

However, Mr Thaler says, his lot is improving every day.

"Since the project and since we started taking care of our olive trees, the productivity is increasing and the prices are getting better because there is less competition as most of the people on the olive farms went to work in Israel," he says.

For Mr Darwish, the social component of olive-oil farming is just as important as the economics.

"More than 90 per cent of the Palestinian families harvest their own trees," Mr Darwish says.

Traditionally, the olive harvest is a family affair. Many students from local schools and universities also volunteer to help the farmers and although these olive trees were already established, the farmers are hoping to grow even more while the EU is looking to improve the country's overall situation.

"In the next two years, we are focusing on infrastructure, water, the rule of law, the private sector and expenditures of the Palestinian Authority," Mr Othman adds. "We think altogether what the EU is doing in the Palestinian Territories comes in line with the Palestinian government plan to build institutions for the state."