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Fair Trade olives from Palestine

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

During a 10 day visit to the Palestinian West Bank the Finnish organic consultant Erkki Pöytäniemi visited Canaan Fair Trade in Burqin, which is in the northern part of the West Bank close to Jenin. The basic business idea is simple: to produce and export Fair Trade organic olive oil from olives produced by local Palestinian farmers. Erkki was guest of Canaan Fair Trade and its founder Nasser Abufarha for 2 days in June 2013 and found out that there is much more to the Canaan story than that!

(Picture: Organic and Fair Trade olive oil production)

The man behind the operation is Nasser Abufarha (picture) who left Palestine back in 1983 to study in the USA. He studied IT, business and anthropology. Finally, after 20 years in the USA, his PhD work took him back to Palestine where he witnessed the increased economic marginalization and cultural isolation of Palestinian communities generally and farmers in particular under Israeli occupation. This realization led to founding Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) in 2005 and to Nasser Abufarha coming back to his home village Jalame.

The olive tree is the main crop and symbol of Palestine. 80% of farmland in Palestine is devoted to olive trees, which are often over 1,000 years old - and 40% of agricultural income comes from olives. The Palestinian food market is totally ”free-trade”, which means that products from Israel and Israeli settlements flow freely into the Palestinian marketplace, whereas Palestinians have restricted access to resources, including their own land and water or the Israeli market.


10,000 new trees are planted each year through Palestinian Fair Trade Association activities. Palestinian farmers who are caught in the conflict can generally not even cover their harvesting costs with the prices paid for olives on the local market. Therefore paying the farmers a fair price is a major way of empowering the Palestinian rural communities and building sustainable peace. Planting new trees is increasingly important due to the fact that Palestinian farmers constantly lose their land and olive groves as a result of the separation walls and fences built by Israel and due to Israeli settlers and the military uprooting olive trees. Access to water and access to their own land are the key questions for Palestinian farmers. (Picture: Pomegranate grove)

Palestinian olive groves are largely ”organic” due to lack of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But a conversion period to “certified organic” is still required. Cultivating olives is extensive, but the olive groves do need to be cared for. For example, the ancient terraces must be maintained. The olive groves and Canaan Fair Trade olive oil is certified organic by Swiss IMO to EU, USDA, JAS and Naturland standards. They are Fair Trade certified by IMO, FLO and Naturland. This is a ”good” example of the multiple certifications required from organic operators in developing countries.

By definition, fair trade is a commercial partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect. When Canaan Fair Trade started, there was no standard for Fair Trade olives or olive oil, so Canaan Fair Trade initiated the development of the standard. The first Fair Trade standard for oilseeds was published by FLO in 2008. The Palestinian Fair Trade Association consist of 34 co-ops from 43 Palestinian villages and includes some 1,700 farmers and 5,100 hectares (2011), of which 3,200 hectares are also certified organic (the rest is in conversion). Most of the farms - like Palestinian agriculture in general - are located in the northern part of the West Bank around Jenin. The hybrid partnership between a for-profit, mission-driven company, Canaan Fair Trade, and a non-profit organization, the Palestine Fair Trade Association, has worked well to benefit all stake-holders. (Picture: Muhammed Irshaid presenting apples)

On the second day of our visit we met Muhammed and Adil Irshaid on their farm to the south of Jenin in Sir. The 30 hectare farm is managed by four men: Muhammed Irshaid with his father and two brothers. The farm is bigger than the Palestinian farms in general and professionally managed. Employees on the farm benefit from Fair Trade rules. Muhammed Irshaid was recently elected as a new member to the Palestinian Fair Trade Association board. The farm cultivates nine crops, of which olives is most important. Increasingly, almonds have also been planted for the export market. Other crops cater for the domestic market: for example, apples, apricots, and peaches. The Irshaids are open to growing new crops: e.g. they have planted pine trees for producing pine seed. (Picture: Adil Irshaid enjoying a fresh almond

In total, with the help of its partners, Canaan has invested US$5m (close to €3.8m) in the business, facilities and equipment that include its state-of-the-art facility with the latest technology in olive presses, storage tanks and automated bottling and jarring. We were impressed by the facilities which were introduced to us by Manal Abdallah (see picture). Developing a quality product has also required education of the farmers to supply Canaan with good quality olives. The quality of olive oil mostly relates to how the olives are harvested. Developing their practices has resulted in the proportion of extra-virgin olive oil increasing from 15% at the start of the initiative to currently 80%. Altogether, 80 workshops are arranged for the farmers every year on different topics ranging from olive quality to first-aid.

The West Bank is land-locked by Israel. The port for getting the products to market is Haifa in Israel. Exporting involves quite a few bureaucratic hurdles, so the export of perishables is not an option. Canaan Fair Trade business is now 85-90% about exporting Fair Trade organic olive oil. The biggest market is the USA with the UK and continental Europe following. Also Asia and more recently the Middle East are growing target markets. Most of the product is sold as bulk. However, even the bulk customers like soap manufacturer Dr Bronner in the USA rely heavily on the Palestinian origin and Fair Trade in the marketing and branding of their final product. Recently an increasing proportion of the planted trees are almonds which will be the second important product for export. 

Until now the focus of Canaan Fair Trade has been mostly on developing the structures and the results are impressive. Now the focus will be shifted more to marketing and exports. Canaan Fair Trade has a great story to tell, which creates huge potential for developing a brand and sustainable business to the benefit of the Palestinian farming community. (Picture to the left: Olive oil in Arabic; picture below: Organic olive oil

Canaan Fair Trade is by far the biggest organic farming initiative in Palestine but other initiatives exist as well. On another day we had dinner close to Betlehem at the Hosh Jasmin organic farm tended by artist and filmmaker Mazen Saadeh, who combines organic and permaculture methods on the farm. The farm is in the village Wallajeh and is threatened by the Israeli separation fences approaching from both sides. No-one knows yet on which side the farm will end up.

On Saturday we visit a ”Baladifarmers’ market in Ramalah. Baladi means fresh local food and the Sharaka initiative is trying to connect Palestinian traditional farmers with consumers. We only see the conflict from a distance - but looking more closely reveals a lot of people and initiatives trying to find solutions. Going organic and fair trade could be one part of building peace in the region. 

All photos by Erkki Pöytäniemi. More pictures are available at:



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