Olive trees have been rooted in Palestinian soil for millennia. There are surviving olive trees in the region which date to before the reign of King Herod in 37 BCE; olive trees which predate Christianity; and even trees which existed before Judaism – which was founded over 3,500 years ago. Al Badawi is a gnarled, twisted olive tree in the Al Walaja village in the district of Bethlehem, which experts believe to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old – making it one of the oldest surviving olive trees in the world.
It’s no wonder then, that the olive tree is integral to Palestinian cultural identity. Ancestral farming families have passed olive groves down to their descendants for hundreds, often thousands of years. The olive tree is rooted in tradition, giving Palestinians a nostalgic claim to their homeland; land, which has been confiscated over the course of the past century, under an illegal Israeli occupation.
With over 10 million olive trees growing on the hills of the West Bank and more than 100,000 rural Palestinian families depending on them for economic survival, bringing olives to market is no mean feat. Under imposing export limitations, the olive trade became over-saturated within Palestine’s diminishing territories, and farmers needed to think globally in order to reverse their falling produce prices.
In 2004, Canaan Fair Trade was founded – a farming cooperative which encourages self-sufficiency amongst over 2,000 farmers in the West Bank. Described as ‘agro-resistance’ by members of Canaan, the cooperative has helped Palestinian farming families to unite against unfair and competitive pricing systems at ports and borders and to work together as a collective. The cooperative also created the world’s first Fairtrade Certified olive oil, which it brought to market in 2009. Today, Canaan is the largest Fairtrade business in the Middle East and works closely with global companies to get Palestinian produce onto the world’s shelves.
One of the companies that Canaan works closely with is the UK-based community interest company, Zaytoun. Zaytoun was created in 2004 to bring Palestinian produce to the UK, whilst paying Palestinian farmers a fair wage, promoting fairly-traded Palestinian goods, and investing profits back into supporting Palestinian livelihoods. Zaytoun works closely with farming cooperatives in the region – such as Canaan – in order to promote produce of Palestine on the world stage.
“Our company name is the Arabic word for olive, and early on, we were focused on olive oil,” says Heather Masoud, co-founder of Zaytoun. “Over the years we have developed a range of Palestinian products and our focus is on supporting Palestinian farmers through ethics-driven trade.
“When we started with the olive oil, farmers were selling locally at below the cost of production. Our initiative started with trying to do something constructive in response to having picked olives with farmers in Palestine ourselves, and tasting their delicious oil,” she says.
Atif Choudhury– another of Zaytoun’s founders – travelled to the war-torn region with the International Solidarity Movement in the early noughties in order to take part in the annual olive harvest. Choudhury spent his time with farming families who were situated near to Israeli settlements and those with issues due to the erection of Israel’s annexation wall. It was during these early trips, witnessing first-hand the farmers’ steadfastness – or‘sumud’ – during the annual olive harvest; and their unfaltering love for their land, that the idea behind Zaytoun began to take root.
“When back in the UK, we started contacting different groups – faith groups, solidarity groups, food buying groups,” says Masoud. “We found an interest from people who were willing to club together to buy a shipping container of oil. We had a pledge from different people, who paid in advance for the oil, and gave us enough money to start the company.”
As with any fledgling company, comes a learning curve, especially a company which had no experience of food importation; Zaytoun’s early days show the determination to succeed, and the passion for its product.
“We didn’t have experience in food importation and distribution,” says Masoud. “So, from when we took people’s deposits, to when the container arrived in the UK – there was quite a time lag.
“The first shipment arrived in boxes within a container. We didn’t know that they had to be loaded onto a pallet, for example. Atif had got some warehouse space gifted to us in London, and we opened it to see hundreds of bottles toppled all over the place. We had to put a call out for volunteers to come and help us unload it. We were set up with forklift trucks, not with lots of people who could help us to move boxes. We had a lot of breakages. We started Zaytoun with a steep learning curve of understanding how you import food from Palestine to the UK.”
There was little to salvage amongst the debris of broken glass and pools of spoiled olive oil. Undeterred, the team at Zaytoun went again, this time ensuring that the shipment was packed properly, and would arrive in time for Christmas in the UK, so its first cohort of customers wouldn’t be left disappointed.
“The second container was accidentally sent to Italy,” says Masoud. “We had a container arrive just before Christmas, and people had come to our depot to collect their olive oil and distribute it to their communities. There were people from trade unions, people from faith groups – all ready to fill their car boots with boxes, to take out to their networks. We opened the shipment to find bottles labelled in Italian – not what we had ordered at all.”
Since the occupation of Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank began in 1967, Israeli military forces have been weakening Palestine’s claim to its ancestral lands through confiscation and reclassification of land; restricting water resources; and the uprooting and burning of vast swathes of olive groves. Forces are even attacking farming families when they head into the fields to harvest their olives. Israel’s separation wall, a 700-kilometre concrete barrier, on which construction began in 2002, ensured that hundreds of thousands of olive trees were snatched from the farming families who have harvested them for centuries, forcing them into a form of industrialised humiliation, seeking jobs in unskilled and dangerous sides of Israel’s economy.
Khader Khader’s family had farmed the land in Palestine for generations, until he was forced to find work as a labourer in a plastics factory in Israel. “I was working in an Israeli factory – I had no choice. But I had a family and my children to think about, so I came back to Palestine to work on my farm, and establish my family income through farming,” Khader tells me. “I joined a cooperative in my local village first, then I joined the Palestine Fairtrade Association. The quality of our produce began to improve, our family farm expanded, and we were able to diversify our products.
“Fairtrade has helped us to achieve a further quality step towards our environmental protection, income for my family, and income for our women,” says Khader, who is now a full-time farmer and a board member of the Palestine Fairtrade Association. The Fairtrade premium, which is earned from every bottle of Palestinian olive oil that is sold in shops around the world, goes a long way to improving the livelihoods of Palestinian people living in the occupied territories.
“We use [the premium] in public facilities and the farmers collectively decide where to spend it. It improves agricultural roads, transportation, schools; lately we’ve been using it to invest in women’s productive assets in order to improve equality of production. In my village we have rehabilitated a building which became the centre of production for the women’s activity [women produce za’atar, a Palestinian spice mix] – the first floor contains a kinder garden, the second floor is a language school and the third floor is used for drying the herbs and also as a common space for the farmers to have their meetings,” says Khader.
He adds, “The farmers and the farming community seek trade, not aid. We want to keep improving our produce and expand our marketing in order to support the wider farming communities in Palestine.”
Zaytoun’s Masoud picks up the conversation: “The Fairtrade certification gave the olive oil a route to market. In the early days, we had a focus on trying to get the mark for the oil, because a lot of the hardships that were faced by farmers in Palestine, are the same reasons that Fairtrade supported chocolate, or coffee, or tea, in that farmers were selling below the cost of production, and had trouble accessing markets.”
Even with the Fairtrade Certification, which Zaytoun, Canaan and others are celebrating this year, as the mark turns ten; there is still a huge barrier to getting Palestinian produce from farmer’s field to shop shelf.
“The European export market is really stringent in terms of what can be called ‘extra virgin’,” says Masoud. “The farmers have worked really hard in the last 15 years to meet the export criteria within a short time frame. That’s one aspect.
“The other aspect is the unnatural set up of living under a military occupation. Some villages near Israeli settlements have difficulty accessing their trees; others near the wall must get prior military coordination to access them,” she says.
“There is a monopoly from a few companies that can drive between the West Bank and the Israeli ports; so, the price of moving produce is above what it should be. Transport is one of the major barriers to getting the product out of the country. It’s been just over ten years now since the borders of Gaza were effectively sealed – the only Palestinian port is in Gaza, and no boats have left from there since the late ‘60s.”
However, the Palestinian farming cooperatives are resilient, and they’re determined; adapting to their ever-changing farming landscape and dealing with water shortages (the water supply into Palestinian territories is controlled by Israel, and permission must be requested to dig a well, for example). Working with companies such as Zaytoun, means that the farmers can sell their products to conscious consumers in the UK.
And, it’s not just olive oil that Zaytoun specialises in – although that was its first love. The company also sells medjool dates; maftoul – a hand rolled Palestinian cous cous made from bulgur and whole wheat flour; za’atar– a condiment from dried herbs; freekeh – a smoked durhum wheat; and much more.
Each Palestinian product that Zaytoun specialises in, has its own unique story of how it came to be; the challenges it met with when growing under a strict military occupation; and its eventual journey to market.
But these are stories for another time.
Next time you spot a bottle of Zaytoun olive oil on the shop shelf, put it in your basket and take it home with you – to the final destination on its long, dangerous and very difficult journey…