Michael Wale meets with the founders of a London-Based company helping Palestinian organic olive farmers establish vital export business.

When a group of Palestinian organic farmers were told back in 2004 that they could get a proper price for their produce if they worked with the Fair Trade organisation they walked out, thinking they were being exploited.

Two of the people at that meeting, putting the case for fair trade , were Heather Masoud, and Atif Choudhury, who were to become founding directors of Zaytoun, a London-based  Community and Trust Company, which return profits to its Palestinian suppliers, and community projects in the West Bank.

Masoud and Choudhury shared the same views about the impact was Israel’s occupation of the territory was having on local farming communities. At the time, planning was underway for construction of the West Bank Wall, which would later cut off Palestinian farmers dependent on their olive groves.

In the past, the only option for many farmers was to sell their olive oil to Israeli traders at below cost price. Today farmers are now being paid a fair price for their organically grown produce, while an additional fair trade premium paid  to the cooperative allows for further development and training.

Neither Masoud nor Choudbury had had any previous business experience but each believed that the future for Palestinian agriculture lay in marketing the olive crop under  Fairtrade. For the UK-based Fairtrade Foundation, this was a project that took them into entirely new territory, both figuratively and literally.  To the organisation’s credit, it took what was not an easy task. 

One of the first challenges was to persuade the Israeli authorities to allow exports to pass through the ports under their control (the bulk of Palestinian exports from the West Bank and Gaza pass through Israel). Eventually, Masoud and Choudbury would found Zaytoun to do just this, facilitated in part by the presence of the internationally recognised Fairtrade logo (governed locally by the Palestinian Fair Trade organisation, on their goods.)  

Atif Choudbury recalls the first days after he first arrived in Palestine, after completing his MSc in Conflict and Development : “ We went there to help people grow and harvest their olive trees safely. There were challenges – for example, early on we were thinking about how could we stop the building of the wall. And then later, how could we help the people once it had gone ahead. Heather and myself had both been undergraduates together, and she came out to Palestine as well.”

The pair worked with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, and talked to them about selling the olive oil. They were allocated a ‘fixer’ and interpreter, Taysir Arbasi. He was already a community leader, who lives in Salfeet, an area highly dependent on olives, and an area that seen much of its agricultural land taken by Israel in order to build settlements.

Over time, Arbasi became a permanent friend and associate of Zaytoun and the Fairtrade movement too, working all the time to help local organic farmers. So impressive was his work that Zaytoun appointed him its local director.

Khader Khader planting jojoboa under olive trees

I met Arbasi recently when he accompanied Palestinian farmer Khader Khader on a fortnight’s tour of the UK. Khader speaks no English so Arbasi was his voice. Khader lives in a village near Nablus. The hills around the village are lined with olive groves, many of them have been in the same families for generations. Khader earns his living selling Fairtrade olive oil, but that hasn’t always been the case.

When he was young Khader struggled to make a living from agriculture, and for ten years he worked for a plastics factory in Israel. He explains : “ I worked at night and slept during the day. I’d stay away from home for two to three months at a time to earn enough money to bring home. It was something we had to do because the borders could close anytime, and then nobody can enter or leave. I worked in a plastics factory for years, but once I got married I could not leave my family for months at a time”.

So he returned to live and work in his village on the olive crop. But he could get only seven or eight shekels for a kilo of olive oil, which was under the cost of production.

He admits that he wasn’t too sure about the Fair Trade organisation at the beginning recalling: “ I wasn’t sure about  about fair trade, but often we couldn’t sell the oil and we had up to 40 large tins holding 17 litres each, just sitting in the house”.

So he put his doubts aside and took a small amount of his oil to the press: “There was a supervisor from the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) monitoring the processing. He bought our oil from us and paid by cheque.  The rate he offered was 15 shekels a kilo. So I sold a tonne for 15,000 shekels. It was an incredible start. I used to have to work for six months in Israel to make that amount”.

The PFTA operates the Trees For Life scheme under which almonds are used to inter crop  between the olive trees, helping provide a quicker financial return. Olive trees take around seven years before they can provide a steady income.”

In his first season under Fair Trade conditions Khader earned enough to buy a tractor that not only helped him to farm, but also help other farmers in his village of Nus ljbeil. It is there, thanks to the support of the PFTA that he has been able to expand olive tree cultivation and production.