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Hoping for a Fair Deal
Through Fair Trade marketing, Palestinians hope that agriculture in the West Bank can be economically and politically profitable
Daniella Cheslow Beit Ummar, West Bank
grape products to Germany at a premium through Fair Trade. Fair Trade, he explains, can serve as another strategy to make agriculture profitable in the West Bank. The pro-
izens of an economically advanced country, cannot obtain Fair Trade certification. “Most of the problems with the farmers or the small producers in Palestine is the
N A WARM, LAZY SATURday afternoon at the end of May, Odeh Sabarna is all business, rattling off the names of chemicals sitting on shelves in a simple cement room. Sabarna, a solidly built man in a striped shirt, black pants and rough-cut leather sandals, smiles easily as he takes bottles from the wall to read the labels and explain what each one is for. “This is insecticide,” he says, speaking in accented English and looking at a white plastic bottle printed in Hebrew. “Here are fungicides, for fungi that attack grapes and vegetables. This one is for weeds... This is powder and this is liquid. Down here we have organic chemicals.” Sabarna, 37, is standing in the halfunderground storeroom of the Beit Ummar Cooperative for Agricultural Production and Services, a collective of about 30 farmers from the village. Beit Ummar, population 15,000, lies off the road between Bethlehem and Hebron, in the southern West Bank. A roughly paved stretch of asphalt, overlooked by a concrete Israeli military watchtower, leads from the road into the town. Some streets are filled with furniture shops, others are dotted with restaurants. As cars, tractors and an occasional horse or donkey pass by the small window behind him, Sabarna explains that he started the cooperative last year in order to make farming economically sustainable in Beit Ummar by buying chemicals cheaply, educating growers about their use, and finding profitable markets. Last year, the group of farmers sold 10 tons of fresh grapes to Jordan. Now Sabarna is looking to sell raisins and
NASSER SHIYOUKHI / AP
LEVEL FIELDS: Fair Trade marketing provides Palestinian farmers with an edge in their competition with Israeli agricultural produce
gram, which is an internationally recognized method of exchange, guarantees Third World producers a living wage in exchange for environmentally and socially responsible production. Over the past few years, Fair Trade has turned into a lucrative market for Palestinians – a market in which they do not have to compete against Israelis, who, as cit-
marketing,” says Sabarna, through puffs on successive cigarettes. “Israel has its own production and a higher quality than us, and they put it in our markets.” According to Sabarna, who says he boycotts Israeli produce whenever possible, Palestinian farmers do not play on a level field with their competitors across the
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“Green Line” border between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. According to the Oslo II agreements, signed in 1995, the agricultural produce of both sides was to have free and unrestricted access to each other’s markets. The agreement further stipulated that Palestinians would have the right to export their agricultural produce to external markets, without restriction. In practice, the isolation of the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover in 2007 has meant that West Bank farmers can directly export only through Jordan. Anything destined for Europe must go through Israeli ports, a process that entails significant military and civil bureaucracy, Sabarna says. Furthermore, whereas water for Israeli farmers is subsidized, Palestinian farmers pay the cost of home consumption for the water in their fields. They pay the Beit Ummar municipality, which gets water from Mekorot, the Israeli water company. And Palestinians must order most of their agricultural chemicals through Israel, a security measure on which Israel insists, since fertilizer has been used to manufacture homemade bombs. Sabarna complains that this means higher prices and less choice; for example, there is a ban on potassium nitrate, one of the most efficient fruit fertilizers. Combined with land confiscations and the construction of the separation barrier, Sabarna says, the result is that Palestinians enjoy less economy of scale and higher transport costs. Fair Trade thus serves to combine the decades-old tradition of using agriculture to stake a claim to the land with a modern, globalized exchange system.
ABARNA STUDIED AGRONOMY at Hebron University and later received a Master’s in hydroponics at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania in Greece. He is also on the eightmember Palestinian Olive Oil Council, which tests the local produce for taste and quality. Studying in Greece and subsequent training in olive-oil tasting in Italy exposed him to the cooperative farming format. “We thought to start a cooperative in order to become more self-sufficient,” Sabarna says, adding that Fair Trade has the same aim. “I read on the Internet about how they work, and I believe in it,” he continues. In normal business relationships, Sabarna continues, “farmers lose money to middlemen. In Fair Trade, there are no people
between the producer and the consumer and you sell directly to the company, so the farmer earns more money. That is fair.” Farmers across the West Bank have formed cooperatives, which apply collectively for certification to sell Fair Trade products from Egypt to the U.S., from Europe to China. They also agree to audits by local and foreign inspectors and rigorous testing of their produce. To obtain the Fair Trade Labeling Organization sticker on their produce, the cooperatives must pay between 100 and 1,000 euros a year, depending on the amount of produce they produce and the extent of the aid from local and foreign organizations. Furthermore, Sabarna adds, “When the farmer earns money from marketing the grapes, he will plant more land and he will defend it. And this is our main purpose for the cooperatives – to protect the land from Israel. If the land is not rehabilitated or planted, [settlers] will take the land.” Sabarna seems to easily straddle the dichotomy of using modern marketing to preserve centuries-old traditions – he has two computers and wireless Internet in his house. And even though he is one of eight brothers and sisters, he says quite clearly that, for him, “three children is enough.” His wife, Kifaya, 33, teaches in the Beit Ummar schools. When at home, she wears pants and long-sleeved T-shirts, her hair pulled back under a wide headband. Contrary to tradition, she joins in the mixed company of men and women in her living room. However, she takes frequent breaks to prepare and serve tea and a lunch of rice and yoghurt to guests. Sabarna and his extended family share 45 dunams (11.25 acres) and the profits of their dry, hilly land planted with grapes. While last year’s harvest brought in $15,000, Sabarna’s main paycheck comes from dispensing know-how and troubleshooting for local farmers as Plants Extension Adviser at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture in Bethlehem. Last month, Sabarna received a call from Nadi Farraj, a consultant to the Bethlehem University Fair Trade Development Center. The Center matches local growers across the West Bank with buyers abroad. A German company that had already bought olive oil from another cooperative was interested in raisins and mulban, a type of dried grape fruit leather, and Farraj found the Beit Ummar cooperative through word of mouth.
Sabarna is now trying to close the deal. Farraj, a Bethlehem-based agronomist, says Fair Trade and cooperatives have a long history in the West Bank. During the first intifada, he launched the Union of Agricultural Workers Committees (UAWC), one of several groups that encouraged Palestinians to stop working in Israel and live off homegrown vegetables and livestock instead of Israeli imports. UAWC distributed seeds, animals and feed and taught farmers new technologies. Farraj tells The Report that at their peak, Palestinian farm cooperatives succeeded in dramatically raising production at home. From 1987-89, he says, the number of cattle rose from 14,000 to 18,000 and the Palestinian trade deficit rolled back from $700 million to $320 million because of farming and a boycott on Israeli products, from vegetables to cosmetics. But the surge was short-lived. According to Farraj, because the agricultural cooperatives were sponsored by political parties and were hotbeds of protests, Israel crushed them by arresting organizers and confiscating livestock. Later, the newly established Palestinian Authority adopted a businessoriented approach that advances jobs in cities, attaching less importance to rural development, Farraj says. “Now I go to the market and I find Israeli vegetables,” says Farraj. “We exported vegetables until 1990, because since 1967 Israel encouraged Palestinian farmers to plant vegetables and they bought the [produce]. But nowadays, I see Israeli vegetables [here]. It means that the agricultural sector has turned back.” According to a paper published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Palestinian milk, egg, vegetable and fruit imports from Israel tumbled between 1987 to 1989. A 1993 U.N. report notes that cultivated land in the West Bank and Gaza increased from 1,818 sq km (702 sq miles) in 1986 to 1,981 sq km (765 sq miles) in 1990, nearly reversing a 20-year decline in cultivated area that began in 1967. But a look at more recent statistics shows a different trend. While, according to data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, cultivation and the value of farm products have increased from the 1990 levels, the ever-rising cost of farm inputs means that the total profit on farming only rose 8 percent from 1995 to 2007. This gives farmers a thin margin to work with.
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ABARNA SAYS THAT FAIR TRADE will help his village cope with a serious obstacle of finding markets, which has grown more acute over the past decade. “We have a problem with extra production because we don’t know where to go,” he explains. “Before, it went to Israel but now Israel has closed the border. They say [our grapes are] not good. This is since… the last intifada. . Before then, it was OK, they were taking our grapes... It’s for political reasons.” According to an e-mail from Daphna Yurista, a spokeswoman for the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, Israel and the Palestinians exchanged 3,000 metric tons of grapes in 2008. Yurista adds that 95 percent of the grapes pass the Ministry’s pesticide tests and that both Palestinian and Israeli crops must stand up to checks for chemical residues. Sabarna also complains that the amount of produce allowed by the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture takes a beating in traffic pileup at Tarqumiya crossing, the entry point into Israel. “They stop us at the checkpoint for three to four hours, so the grapes start to wilt,” he says. Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, tells The Report that Tarqumiya is actually a high-tech border crossing that uses external scanning machines to avoid unloading trucks. These scanners search for weapons, drugs and people who might be sneaking into Israel to work illegally or to carry out violence, he says. Farmers with produce must first show the security guards a shipment manifest, then undergo the X-ray, and finally submit to on-site quality tests from the Ministry of Agriculture. “The Palestinians cry all the time and expect that we will pass their goods without a check,” says Dror, frustrated with the claim. “The harvest hasn’t begun yet and [they] are already saying it takes four hours.” Dror also says that since the Ministry of Defense has replaced the soldiers at the crossing with trained civilian staff, waiting times have come down to an hour and a half at most – not enough to spoil produce that normally sits outside all day in outdoor vegetable markets. “Some… like to forget that the reason for the security fence and these passages is terrorism,” Dror says. “At the same time, we are doing our best to make sure that those Palestinians who want to work in Israel and want to bring goods into Israel can do so
smoothly and quickly.” Sabarna notes that some local farmers have tried to eliminate the insecurity of transporting fresh grapes by processing them into molasses and raisins. But growers who do not manage to process their grapes in time, or who cannot get high enough prices, have to sell their harvest at a loss. And those who cannot make a living from their fields are likely to leave them fallow – and they are also more willing to sell their land to Israelis. The evidence of that temptation is the adjacent settlement of Karmei Tzur, which was established in 1984, partly on lands that, Sabarna claims, were sold to the Israelis by a resident of Beit Ummar. Ultimately, the only solution to the plight of Palestinian farmers, according to Sabarna, is access to markets without going through Israeli checkpoints and bureaucracy. “Give us a four-meter gate to Jordan and everything will change,” he pleads. “Check us at the border to have control, but let us pass freely around the West Bank, and not spend two or three days with our produce in the sun.”
HE BETHLEHEM UNIVERSITY Center is one of a constellation of Fair Trade promoters throughout the West Bank and Gaza. All of them work with farmers organized into cooperatives, and the majority of the Fair Trade exports is olive oil. Fifteen years ago, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) began checking foreign markets for interest in local Fair Trade goods. PARC, like the UAWC, began as a protest movement during the first intifada and now has offices across the Palestinian territories. Responding by e-mail, Shadi Mahmoud, spokesman for the Fair Trade project, tells The Report that PARC sold 400 tons of goods abroad in 2008, up from 350 the year before. These were primarily from the West Bank but also include couscous (cracked wheat) and honey produced in Gaza. Mahmoud explains that PARC gives priority to marginal growers, including an upcoming project to market dried fruit produced by women in the southern West Bank. The PARC Fair Trade program reaches about 1,800 farmers who sold $2 million worth of goods last year, he writes. “There is competition [for Fair Trade deals]. We still haven’t supported all smallscale farmers but we are always doing our
best to support as much as we can.” Furthermore, Fair Trade sales have a 25 percent annual growth rate internationally, Mahmoud adds. “The more people know what Fair Trade is, the more sales we get. So it depends on the worldwide awarenessraising campaigns on Fair Trade.” Farraj’s UAWC also markets Fair Trade products. An employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says that Palestinians in all the different organizations export about 1,000 tons of olive oil annually. He also tells The Report that at the beginning of each season, several agricultural groups in the West Bank meet up and set the Fair Trade price based on the market and a 15-20 percent premium. Then they begin fielding calls from farmers, who send their produce to be sorted by the UAWC’s professional olive oil evaluator. Olive oil gets laboratorytested four times for chemicals and acidity before being shipped to Europe or other markets. The UAWC worker further explains that olive production is based on a two-year cycle – a good year is always followed by a poor year. Because of the regional water shortage, this year’s yield was 17,000 tons, only about half of the projected amount for a good year. Forecasts for next year are a meager 4,000 tons, he says. “Prices already started going up like crazy, and I really don’t know how we will be able to sell and to what extent the Fair Trade buyers are willing to pay,” he says. The Palestinian Fair Trade Association, headed by Nasser Abu Farha, also promotes Fair Trade. Abu Farha first learned of the project while studying anthropology and international development at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Fair Trade coffee was big in Madison at the time,” he tells The Report. “Growing up in a village north of Jenin, market access has always been a big obstacle for my community. I saw in Fair Trade an idea to potentially provide market access for Palestinians. I came back in 2003 to do research… and I started talking to farmers.” In 2004, Abu Farha established the Canaan Fair Trade company to market locally produced olive oil, couscous, za’atar (thyme) and sun-dried tomatoes abroad. Because he began during the second Intifada, he chose products that could withstand long lines at checkpoints. Canaan now markets to ten different countries. The United States is the biggest consumer and olive oil dominates the export list.
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“There is something special about that are necessary in applying for the the olive oil quality itself,” Abu Farha FLO sticker, Sabarna says. says. “We have trees grown organically The ministry did not make any figon hillsides. We have crop diversity, ures available to The Report; Sabarna and it’s not intensive farming but loose, says this is because Fair Trade on a with better airflow and roots that go high scale is relatively new, and there deep. It’s harvested by hand... Overall, is no database yet. olive oil produced in Palestine has a For now, Sabarna is waiting for full flavor and a peppery finish that confirmation on the raisin deal. If it lingers for a long time in the mouth.” goes through, the next step will be to Abu Farha works with 1,200 farmbuy machinery for producing dibbes ers organized into about 40 cooperaand drying raisins so the cooperative tives, mostly in the northern West can increase production. He also has a Bank. He says that as many as 90 perwebsite where donors can contribute cent of them rely exclusively on farmon-line via PayPal, and is looking for ing for a living. He adds that Fair Trade English-speaking volunteers to write programs have raised the price farmers copy. get for olive oil from 8 shekels a kilo in But even if Sabarna does start 2004 to 20 today, figures that correexporting to Germany, farming will spond to other Fair Trade organizers. not provide the bulk of his income Last year, Canaan sold 3.5 million because the family holdings are too euros ($4.9 million) of Fair Trade small. goods, up from 2 million euros ($2.8 TRADITIONALLY MODERN: Odeh Sabarna began a Five of the 45 dunams have been million) in 2007. “The free market cooperative in Beit Ommar to become more self-sufficient turned into plots for housing. Sabarna sometimes pushes prices down,” Abu claims that an additional 30 dunams Farha says. “Fair Trade offers a safety net, a also donated basic bottling equipment to the planted with peaches were declared to be minimum price.” village and began marketing the finished inside the grounds of the Karmei Tzur setgoods. Today, SAHA oil is sold in crisply tlement. BU FARHA AND MAHMOUD designed packages in nature stores in Israel In addition to working at the Ministry of promote international consumption and in some parts of the United States. It Agriculture, he is also building a second of Palestinian goods. They have fetches 45 shekels ($11.25) for 750 mL retail, story onto his home so he can move upstairs some Israeli support, too. Environmentalist compared to the Israeli organic price of 50-55 and charge rent for the ground floor. and political activist Avi Levi, 45, founded shekels for the same amount, Levi says. Like many of the residents of Beit the SAHA Fair Trade brand out of the Tel Referring to the market-wide olive oil Ummar, farming for Sabarna is much more Aviv office of the environmental organiza- price hike that Abu Farha mentioned, Levi about holding onto the land than about tion Green Action four years ago. Levi and says it does not affect most Palestinian con- being a full-time fellah, or peasant. At the several colleagues had been protesting the sumers because a vast majority get oil for outskirts of town, where Sabarna lives, Separation Barrier in the village of Messha, free from friends, family or personal trees. dozens of families have built concrete near the north West Bank settlement of Instead, it makes farming more economical- homes on the sloping farmland. All the vilAriel, when they noticed that the ly sustainable. Last year, SAHA sold 10 lage children will go to university, Sabarna Palestinians who joined their weekly tons of olive oil in Israel and the United says. demonstrations were struggling to feed their States, particularly in Seattle, Washington. “The parents worry about their children,” families. For the last two years, Levi has also sold Sabarna explains. “And they see that the “So we started to take their olive oil to Beit Ummar dibbes (grape molasses) and farmer loses money, he doesn’t gain, our homes, to our friends’ homes and to our mulban in Israeli nature stores under the because the production, they cannot send it. families’ homes,” Levi says. “But that’s just SAHA label. The producer, Taha Sabarna, is The farmer who does not earn much from certain people at certain times, it’s not a Odeh’s distant relative. Levi says that his work doesn’t want his son to be a farmer. steady income…. The project is a way to SAHA is not an internationally valid Fair He wants his son to be a doctor, an engineer, make it something they can count on.” Trade label; farmers who want to market a business man.” He adds that selling oil in reused bottles abroad must pay to apply for the global Fair He mentions that he will push his son and of Coca-Cola – the way that many of the Trade Labeling Organization sticker. his two daughters, who are 7, 5, and 3 years individual farmers would package their old, to go to university, too. “We don’t know product – is not a stable way to sell. “It’s not what our children will be,” Sabarna says. N ADDITION TO THE NON- “For my daughters [and son], I will teach something you can put in a shop in Tel profit organizations promoting Fair them about the land, I will encourage them Aviv,” he notes. Trade, the Palestinian Ministry of to stay on the land, but at the same time I Levi and his fellow protesters brought Israeli experts to the village to tweak the oil Agriculture also advances the program will educate them... so they can manage to Israeli extra virgin organic standards. They through giving farmers certificates of origin their lives.”
THE JERUSALEM REPORT AUGUST 3, 2009
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