Occupation affects every aspect of olive oil production

Israeli bulldozers uproot olive trees in the West Bank city of Beit Jala, March 2010, along the route of the wall. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)

London, UK (IRIN) - The first day of the Palestinian olive harvest officially began on 15 October, and Rani Ali and his family — like hundreds of others — were out among their olive trees, starting to bring in what looks to be a good harvest.

But Ali and his family have a problem. Although they are not among those Palestinians who have lost their land completely to settlement building or to make way for the Israeli government’s wall in the occupied West Bank, their plot of 200 trees is very close to the edge of the Israeli settlement of Qaddomim, and they need permission to get onto their land.

“Yesterday and before yesterday we tried to harvest,” he told IRIN in a telephone interview, “but the army came and said, ‘Go from here because you don’t have permission.’”

They were only able to harvest on 15 October because their village, Kufr Qaddoum, has one of thirty agricultural cooperatives benefiting from an EU funded project, implemented by Oxfam GB. With a bit of outside intervention, permission was finally granted and forty volunteers arrived to help pick the olives as quickly as possible.

Without the extra help, said Ali, it would take the four workers in his family around a month to harvest their 200 trees. With permits often being withheld until November, and then only granted for three days at a time, that would make things very difficult. And if they harvested late much of the fruit would be spoiled and they would get a lower price for their oil.

An Israeli military civil administration spokesman, quoted by The Jerusalem Post on 15 October, said the authorities required a formal request from landowners for the “the entrance of Palestinians to the security fence area for agricultural purposes,” which needed time to be processed.

The political situation in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip affects every aspect of production for Palestinian olive farmers like Ali — their ability to care for their trees, when and how they can harvest, who they can sell their oil to, and the prices they get for it. A study published by Oxfam to coincide with the start of this year’s harvest details some of the problems.

At the most extreme this can be the destruction of the trees themselves, either by the Israeli government to make way for construction, or by hostile settlers in the area. The report quotes the UN as saying that thousands of olive trees had been damaged in what it calls “settler-related incidents” in the first six months of this year, without the authorities taking anyone to court.

Then there are the problems of selling the olive oil once it is made. Checkpoints, road closures and demands for permits make it more difficult and more expensive to get goods to market.

Gaza used to be a major market for oil produced in the West Bank. The Israeli blockade on Gaza has reduced access to that market. People in Gaza now have to rely on oil produced in Spain, Syria or Egypt and smuggled in through tunnels. Many have also had to abandon olive oil for cheaper alternatives.

The construction of Israel’s wall has likewise restricted access to the Israeli market, although Oxfam believes that substantial quantities of Palestinian olive oil still reach Israel through unofficial channels, often via Palestinian traders who hold Israeli citizenship.

Exports are hindered by having to pass through Israeli ports or airports, and the fact that oil leaving the occupied West Bank has to be unloaded at the crossing point and re-loaded onto Israeli vehicles for its onward journey. Numerous inspections at checkpoints bring the risk of damage and deterioration, and make it hard for Palestinian oil to compete on price.

Doubling incomes

Oxfam points out that agriculture is a major source of both formal and informal work in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The report notes that in a good year, “the olive oil sector contributes over $100 million income annually to some of the poorest communities.” With the right investment and agricultural practices, Oxfam estimates “that the productivity and therefore the incomes of olive farmers could double.”

The report makes recommendations at the political level — urging the Israeli government to lift obstacles to the cultivation and marketing of olive oil, and stop violence by settlers and the confiscation of Palestinian land and resources. It also appeals to the Palestinian authorities to devote far more attention and resources to agriculture than it does at the moment.

But with the political situation so intractable, farmers like Ali are likely to get more immediate benefit from projects like Oxfam’s, aimed at getting more value from the olives they do produce.

The best olive oil commands a big price premium. If Palestinian farmers can meet European standards for extra virgin oil, and get fair-trade and organic certification, their oil will reach specialty markets and get a much better price. And if they adopt improved production methods, they should be able to even out the cycle by which good harvests alternate with years of lower production.

Oxfam estimates that if they can stretch the cycle from alternate years to one low-yield year in four or five, they could increase their production from around 20,000 tons to 35,000 of olive oil a year.

Willow Heske, a spokeswoman for Oxfam in the village of Kufr Qaddoum, told IRIN that out of the 150 or 200 tons of oil a year that the cooperative produced, 15 tons could now be exported with fair trade and organic labels.

But that’s still a small proportion, and Ali’s family’s oil is not included.

“Because they can’t work regularly on their land,” Heske said, “they can’t implement best agricultural practices, and they won’t be able to get the certification.”

Even so, as the first day of the harvest drew to an end, Ali was happy. Thanks to the volunteers they had got in a lot of the olives, and — he added — “this year is going to be a very, very good harvest.”

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