Palestinian olive oil’s Fairtrade journey

An olive press in Gaza City, October 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

In spring 2008, several years of careful negotiations finally culminated in the first Palestinian olive oil being awarded Fairtrade status. The oil, sourced from the Palestine Fair Trade Producers Company (PFTPC), based in the West Bank city of Jenin, is both the first Palestinian product to receive Fairtrade certification, and the first olive oil to be allowed to use the mark.

The accreditation means that PFTPC’s oil can now carry the distinctive green and blue mark, used as a guarantee of fair conditions for producers by schemes which are members of Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLOI). FLOI member groups operate in the UK, US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand and 14 European countries, so the move could be a major boost for the Palestinian olive oil market. Surveys show that the label is recognized by 70 percent of British consumers, and total UK sales of Fairtrade labelled products such as coffee, tea and fruit topped 700 million British pounds ($1 billion) in 2008.

The Fairtrade olive oil story

The effort to persuade the British Fairtrade Foundation that Palestinian olive oil was worth accrediting is largely the work of Zaytoun, a social enterprise founded in London in 2004 by a pair of women who had visited the West Bank with the International Solidarity Movement and the International Women’s Peace Service.

“It was an accidental business,” said Heather Masoud, one of those women. “We thought we’d bring in a few hundred bottles as an experiment, for friends and family, but we got a really strong response through word of mouth, then had people chasing us for Palestinian olive oil. So we thought we’d better make it happen properly.”

Zaytoun was established as a Community Interest Company, a structure which includes an “asset lock,” meaning that profits are plowed back into the firm.

By 2007, Zaytoun’s turnover was around 260,000 ($380,000). Its product range has extended beyond olive oil to include almonds, couscous, dates and Nablus soap, and it is involved in the Palestine Fair Trade Association’s Trees for Life olive planting scheme. But moving outside the Palestine solidarity and politicized fairtrade markets proved a challenge. The help of mainstream health food wholesaler Equal Exchange proved invaluable in getting the oil into independent retail outlets.

But while several of the olive oil suppliers Zaytoun sources from have organic certification, the Fairtrade accreditation process — which includes several site visits by FLOI and scrutiny of the ways in which money is transferred to producers — has taken a lot longer.

Fairtrade accreditation has been a big new step for Zaytoun and the Palestinian olive oil it wholesales. From its beginnings on stalls at Palestine solidarity events, the label has meant that the oil can now be found on the shelves of mainstream supermarkets. The Co-operative, a chain which has 2,500 stores across the UK and is the country’s fifth biggest food retailer, is now stocking the oil. A British government minister joined Jenin farmer Mahmoud Issa and Zaytoun, Equal Exchange and Co-operative Group staff at the oil’s London launch, and the Fairtrade Foundation’s press release included a personal commendation (without a touch of irony) from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Benefiting Palestinian farmers

Of Zaytoun’s turnover, around 40 percent goes directly to the farmers who produce the olive oil. Another 20 percent is spent on processing the product — bottling, packaging, labeling and transporting it. A high proportion of this value stays in the West Bank, and the company is also looking into having leaflets and posters printed in the West Bank, ensuring that the money goes to a wide range of economic sectors, not just olive farmers.

But the difficulty of guaranteeing supplies that have to come through Israeli security means that warehousing costs in the UK are also high, because Zaytoun always has to keep large stocks in reserve.

“The suppliers have to go through a lot of bureaucracy to get movement certification to have the oil picked up from the West Bank and taken to Haifa to be shipped, and it changes all the time,” said Masoud. “So Canaan Fair Trade, for example, have to stack their pallets at a height where a sniffer dog can jump over them, and this is not a very commercially viable thing — you want to be able to stack pallets as high as you can. Another problem is that the nearest checkpoint, Jelameh, is pretty much permanently closed, so they have to go via Tulkarm.”

Shipping the oil via the container port at Haifa has also presented problems in the past.

“It’s not something we can definitely say is intentional,” said Masoud. “But we’ve had a couple of containers go astray, one ended up in the Netherlands and one in Italy. And because pretty much all of the people at our suppliers have West Bank IDs, no one can go to Haifa and see what’s happening when things go wrong,” said Masoud, referring to Israel’s permit regime that controls Palestinian movement.

As well as benefiting a variety of West Bank industries, Zaytoun is also committed to working with different groups in Palestinian society. Its couscous is produced by a women’s cooperative, and the jarred olives it’s been trialing in the UK are also processed by women. While the olive oil comes mainly from the Jenin, Nablus, Salfit and Tulkarm areas, Zaytoun’s dates come from the Jordan Valley, and couscous from Jericho.

“We did have one delivery of couscous from Gaza, via PARC [the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees],” said Masoud, “but that’s impossible at the moment. We’d like to have more products from Gaza in the future.”

Fairtrade and the Palestinian economy

Fairtrade has, believes Masoud, a significant role to play in improving the health of the Palestinian economy. PARC has also applied for accreditation, although this is likely to take some time to approve.

“In terms of not being a donor-dependent economy, we think that Fairtrade has a really important role,” said Masoud.

“There’s a lot of charitable focus on Palestine, especially from a lot of the Muslim charities, but we think the trade focus is so important in building a long-term future.”

Zaytoun’s work has not just been about buying olive oil from Palestine, but helping to increase the capacity of the farmers’ cooperatives which produce it. European Union regulations, for example, include strict requirements for the chemical composition of extra virgin olive oil, and this has meant that the plastic storage vessels used for domestic storage had to be replaced with stainless steel processing equipment.

Cooperatives have also had training to strengthen their collective voices, empowering them to reject Israeli traders who often paid individual producers below the cost of production for their oil. And the social premium which is a condition of Fairtrade accreditation will help programs like educational scholarships for the children of farmers to continue.

But, Masoud stressed, real support for the Palestine economy needs major changes in how Western governments view Palestine.

“There was a conference in December 2008 with Gordon Brown and [Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East] Tony Blair and all this talk of private sector investment saving the Palestinian economy. But these dialogues go on in a vacuum where no one talks about the occupation and the fact that Israel is pretty much intentionally destroying the Palestinian economy,” she said.

“If you look at ethical trade initiatives they are driven by awareness of what Israel is doing, so these small-scale projects have a real place in addressing that. The large-scale negotiations are just talking in another world where we don’t have checkpoints and Israel controlling all the sea, land [and] air borders.”

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2003-04. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine.

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