Fair trade helps Palestinian farmers stay on their land

Palestinian goods are slowly starting to gain access to global markets.

Majdi Fathi APA images

There are many varieties of olive oil available to the British shopper at the local supermarket, but one stands out from the rest. It’s not just the fair trade symbol that marks it as distinctive; it’s also the rarely seen description on its label: “Produced and Bottled in Palestine.”

This bottle of olive oil has had a difficult journey. From the farms and olive groves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank to the shelves of a UK supermarket, such Palestinian goods, and the farmers who produce them, face hardship at every stage of the manufacturing and exporting process. And while Israel has ready access to foreign markets, Palestinian farmers often struggle to make a viable living from their crops.

Through the fair trade initiative, however, Palestinian goods are slowly starting to gain access to global markets.

Fair trade, thought up in the 1980s as a way of supporting producers in developing countries, now provides a decent price and a sustainable income to thousands of smallholders worldwide.

The initiative reached Palestine in 2004, as a group of Palestinian farmers, exporters and cooperatives came together in Jenin to form the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA), with the aim of establishing global trade links and providing a stable income for farmers suffering the impact of occupation. Despite a struggling economy, Israeli movement restrictions and shrinking farmland, farmers were able to start selling their produce overseas for a fair price.

Palestinian olive oil was first awarded the fair trade mark in 2009, and is now distributed to more than 17 countries around the world, including the UK, by companies such as Equal Exchange and Zaytoun.

“First in many ways”

According to Cathi Pawson, co-founder of Zaytoun, gaining fair trade certification for Palestinian products took a lot of time and paperwork. “Fair trade olives and oil were a ‘first’ in many ways,” she told The Electronic Intifada. “They were the world’s first fair trade olives and oil, Palestine’s first fair trade product, and the first fair trade product from a conflict zone.

“Farmers needed first to understand and appreciate the value of certification to their business — the process involves a lot of paperwork and extra training, and the certifying bodies were dealing with a new culture — farmer cooperatives work in a different way to those in Africa or South America, for example.”

Several Palestinian products now carry the fair trade mark, including dates, almonds, sun-dried tomatoes, couscous and jars of the herb blend zaatar. Approximately 1,700 West Bank farmers and producers are now part of the initiative.

One of these farmers, Odeh al-Qadi, 47, from Mazarea al-Noubani in the northern West Bank, traveled to the UK recently as part of Fairtrade Fortnight. “Without fair trade, Palestinian companies and farmers wouldn’t have access to global markets,” al-Qadi told The Electronic Intifada during an event in the English county of Sussex.

“Israelis control exporting, and they gave us very, very low prices, so it wasn’t worth going through. We didn’t get the prices we deserved. That’s why fair trade is really important, bringing our products to new markets.”

Before becoming part of the fair trade movement, al-Qadi was considering abandoning his farmland, as the price of olive oil became too low to provide a viable income. Then he was approached by Nasser Abu Farha, the director of Canaan Fair Trade, an organization based in the West Bank city of Jenin.

“Double the market price”

“He offered us double the market price,” said al-Qadi. “When he offered that, the farmers were really excited that we would sell our olive oil for a good price. Instead of abandoning the land, I started to care for it, and my production increased.”

The land of Palestine has been cultivated for millennia, and agriculture has long been an essential part of Palestinian life. According to the Fairtrade Foundation in London, Palestine is “the original cultivator of olive oil,” and today olive trees are still grown and harvested using ancient traditional methods.

“We have inherited land for hundreds, thousands of years,” said al-Qadi. “We have olive trees we call Rumi trees that existed since the Roman Empire, 2,000, even 3,000-year-old trees.”

Al-Qadi is assisted on his farm by his wife, two sons, three daughters and his 93-year-old mother. “The land has been inherited from father to son, son to grandson,” he added. “We have an Arabic saying that says, ‘They planted so that we eat, and we plant so that they eat.’”

But since the expulsion of thousands of Palestinian farmers from their land in the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing ahead of Israel’s establishment in 1948 and the military occupation of the West Bank since 1967, tending to the land has become increasingly challenging.

“The face of Palestinian farming has changed significantly as a result of the occupation,” said Pawson. “Access to crops year-round is restricted by settler-only roads, by the wall, by checkpoints and by intimidation and threatening behavior from illegal settlers. Not only harvesting, but essential pruning, weeding, irrigation and terrace maintenance are severely impacted by this.”

“We face multiple challenges,” al-Qadi explained. “But the biggest problem all Palestinian farmers face is not having access to water resources. We cannot build our own wells under our own land to get our own water, because the Israelis close it down for us, we can’t get permits.”

Israel’s wall in the West Bank is one of the most visual signs of the occupation’s impact on Palestinian farming. Stretching for almost 700 kilometers (435 miles) in and around the West Bank, the wall separates many farmers from their crops. Throughout the West Bank, thousands of olive trees lie, untended, on the “wrong” side of the wall.

“The wall goes through the land of Palestine, separating land from farmers, farmers from land, and making accessing our land difficult,” said al-Qadi. “The Israelis control the land.”

“There are 7.6 million olive trees in Palestine. Over 2.1 million are inaccessible to Palestinian farmers. That’s completely lost income,” said Manal Abdallah, promotions and media manager of Canaan Fair Trade, who also traveled to the UK for Fairtrade Fortnight. “If Palestinian farmers had access to water resources and all the trees, they could easily double their production.”

Confiscation threat

Though production is limited, fair trade can bring much-needed stability to farmers facing the daily difficulties of occupation.

“Because of the occupation, land confiscation is a constant threat for the olive farmers and access to their olive trees can be very difficult,” said Senga Gall, managing director of Equal Exchange, a UK distributor of fair trade goods. “Due to these restrictions a large part of the country’s olive harvest goes unsold each year. Fair trade helps provide a route to market and can offer much needed pre-finance during harvest time.”

Although fair trade has allowed production to increase in many cases, Palestinian organizations still face the challenge of exporting their produce overseas. Delays caused by Israel often mean that stock cannot be reliably delivered. The Fairtrade Foundation has reported that as little as one-third of the 15,000 tons of oil olive produced in Palestine each year is exported.

“We have had problems with meeting demand in the past,” said Pawson. “The occupation means it is difficult to get things from the UK to Palestine quickly and reliably, such as new labels for oil bottles.”

“Although on paper the export route is now a tried and tested one, at any time the arrival of goods to port by a specified date may be delayed by ‘security checks,’” she added.

Due to travel restrictions, Palestinian goods leaving the West Bank must be unloaded at Israeli checkpoints, thoroughly checked and then reloaded onto Israeli vehicles on the other side. According to Oxfam, this process often adds significant delays and costs for producers, as well as compromising the quality of the goods.

“Sometimes the trucks wait for 15-20 hours to cross a checkpoint,” Rebecca Wynn, Oxfam’s Media Coordinator for the Middle East, told The Electronic Intifada. “[This] can seriously affect the quality of the olive oil through deterioration in direct sunlight. Often the bottles are damaged and oil leaks.”

“Excessive time delays, increased transport, labor and equipment costs, security checks, lack of access to proper storage facilities and damage which occurs during handling reduce the competitiveness of Palestinian agricultural produce and introduce high levels of unpredictability in terms of quality and delivery times,” Wynn added.

“Restriction of movement makes life, farming, in Palestine much more challenging than in other countries, in addition to difficulties of exporting and not having access to markets. Everything is more difficult because of the occupation,” said Odeh al-Qadi.

Exporting from the West Bank is difficult, but for producers in Gaza, the Israeli blockade has made foreign markets inaccessible. Products from Gaza used to be exported as part of the fair trade scheme, but this has been impossible since the blockade began in 2006.

“We were proud to sell Gazan maftoul [couscous], but the lockdown of Gaza makes this now impossible,” said Pawson. “Zaytoun now imports solely from the West Bank.”

“Economic resistance”

By providing a stable income and investing in the community, the fair trade initiative has meant that farmers such as al-Qadi have been enabled to stay on their land. For many, even the act of remaining is an act of resistance.

“Fair trade gives us a fair price that allows us to stay on this land and gain an income from our production,” said al-Qadi. “Instead of abandoning our land, now we are producing and investing in it.”

“For me fair trade not only helps to give farmers access to markets, it helps them in a way resist occupation,” said Manal Abdallah. “The occupiers want to uproot us from our land. They want to frustrate the Palestinians and make their lives so miserable that they leave.”

“But when they are able to invest and gain income, they are able to stay and produce from this land,” she added. “And in a way, that’s resisting occupation in a peaceful way, a sort of economic resistance.”

Through the extra income al-Qadi gained by selling his oil for a fairer price, he was able to build a bigger house for his family and send his son to university. On top of this, the fair trade premium, a sum paid to producers for investment in social development projects, allowed members of cooperatives to invest in their local community.

“Last year with the premium we were able to buy farming tools for all the farmers on the land, and it also contributed to building a new mosque in the village.”


While Palestinian goods are still relatively new to the mass market, they are becoming increasingly available in supermarkets. Through fair trade, consumers around the globe are able to show solidarity with Palestinian farmers.

“We stock Palestinian goods because our mission has always been to support some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged small farmers in the world and provide market access for their products in the UK,” said Senga Gall of Equal Exchange. “When we speak to the farmers in Palestine, it is not only the sales and financial support which makes the difference but the sense of solidarity and support that they receive from the fair trade community.”

“Time and again when we visit Palestine, and take new visitors with us, our visitors ask the farmers, ‘What can we do to help?’” said Pawson. “The farmers always respond, ‘Tell our story. Don’t leave us isolated. Take what you have seen and heard and experienced back to your friends and families.’”

“It is very important for the people here in the UK or other parts of the world to buy Palestinian olive oil,” al-Qadi told his audience in Sussex.

“I respect and appreciate every single penny spent buying this olive oil, helping the farmers in Palestine to stay on their land, regardless of the challenges and difficult situation we live in. You supporting us means we are able to stay on the land and live in dignity.”

Emily Lawrence is an independent writer currently based in the UK. She can be followed on Twitter @EmilyWarda.