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Tunisia (1): cultivating organic and fair trade dates in the oasis of Dergine

by Redaktion (comments: 0)

In the south-west of Tunisia on the northern frontier of the Sahara, near the big salt lake Chott El Jerid, there is an arid region where desertification and the risk of getting buried in sand are permanent. The date palm is the only resource of the Jerid; the production of dates is concentrated in the palm groves of Tozeur and Kebili, which constitute 85 % of the plantations in the country. The rest is divided between the oases of Gabes and Gafsa. The governorate of Kebili accounts for 70 % of the country’s production. In the case of the variety Deglet El Nour (fingers of light), the dates are harvested from October to December. Their especially sweet taste and good storage capability make them the best dates on the export market. Organic-Market.Info went to a meeting of organic and fair trade producers in the oasis of Dergine 40-50 km from Kebili, the principal town in the governorate. (Photo: Taleb Foudhaili, the director of South Organic, with producers)
The visit took place in the company of Taleb Foudhaili, the director of South Organic (Gebana Maghreb) and Adrian Wiedmer, the director of Gebana AG. Gebana Maghreb (interview with Taleb Foudhaili in the next article) is a Tunisian company that prepares, packages and exports organic fair trade dates on behalf of Gebana AG, which is located in Switzerland. This company works with small producers not only in Tunisia but also in Brazil and Burkina Faso to develop organic and fair trade food products that are adapted to European markets. (Picture on left: Map of southern Tunisia; picture on right: typical countryside in the south of Tunisia)

On Wednesday 19 October 2011, at 10.00 in the morning, after struggling several hundred metres down a sandy track, we discover a handful of producers and date pickers in a palm grove. (Picture below on left: track leading to the oasis)

There’s great excitement, the season is getting underway and the harvest is about to begin. All the people have gathered round a date palm that they are going to strip of its dates. The sun is shining, and the picker is going to climb up into the branches (see picture below on right) bathed in light. Climbing a date palm is difficult and requires special skill. The young man takes the bunches of dates one by one from the plastic bags that protects them from the rain, the humidity and insects. (Picture: The young tree climber taking the first bunch of dates). The bag has two parts – the upper section protects against the rain and the humidity, and the lower section acts like a mosquito net against the carob moth in particular(picture).

He finally cuts the long stems, the stalks, from which the clusters of dates hang. They are then removed from the stems and suspended from a wooden beam so that they can be sorted more easily (they remove any poor quality dates one at a time and keep only the best on the branch). Elsewhere in the plantation the work is concentrated on the soil. (Picture: dates hanging from a wooden beam for easier sorting)

This is one of the most important stages of the harvest because the better they sort the dates here the easier will be the work of selection and preparation in the factory. It’s also important to pack the dates in boxes so that they are not damaged during transport to the factory. Some people lay the branches of dates one on top of the other; other people choose to lay them lightly in a circle. The dates on the branch are the ones that will be dealt with most quickly, since these are the softest and the freshest and will be the first to reach our tables.

One plot represents on average about fifty date palms. The average area of a plot is half a hectare and feeds 4-5 or even 7-8 people. Mohammed Bin Fahrart owns half a hectare and feeds 7 people. With the same area of land, Mohammed Bin Massoud supplies the needs of 9 people. A palm plantation of 100 hectares can sustain the livelihood of 200 families. A date palm bears on average 14 or 15 clusters of dates (picture) - the biggest may have as many as 20 to 22 – and they produce between 10 and 100 kg of dates. The average yield is 50 kg. A date palm can live and produce dates for 60, 70, 80 or even 100 years, although the yield does decline with age. In the meantime, nothing is wasted, not even the dates that fall to the ground.



The plot from which we harvested the dates is cultivated organically, so there is no use of pesticides or herbicides. But the tough weeds grow at great speed and are a major obstacle to irrigation. Well dried weeds are used as animal fodder, but the dung of sheep and goats must be composted.
With water so precious and in such short supply, the palms are watered only every 15 days, even though it is free, with the producers paying only for the electricity to drive the pump. This water would be better used if  they reverted to terraced cultivation, with palms, fruit trees and then vegetables or lucerne for grazing their animals. (Picture: Palms together with pomegranate trees on a plot)

The “Deglet el Nour” variety consumes a lot of water (about 0.5 m³ per tree per day, or 60 m³ per day and hectare of palms planted at 9m x 9m). In the past, springs flowed naturally from the sand and created rivers that irrigated the palms. Today, the majority of springs have been replaced with bore-holes. The water is pumped sometimes from a depth of 200 – 220 metres compared with 120 – 170 m 20 years ago, the main reason being the expansion of the plots.

For the director of Gebana AG, Adrian Wiedmer, a quality date must be “organic, ripe, uniform and carefully selected”. For Taleb Foudhaili, if the quality is not always up to the mark, it’s because the techniques used in the palm plantations rely on manual labour: tilling the soil, harvesting pollen and pollinating by hand (picture: dried flowers used for manual pollination), supporting and protecting the bunches, harvesting, the fact that the producer spends less and less time on his plot.

It’s also about prices. It’s not always easy to get the price just right in a market where prices fluctuate and are sometimes subject to speculation, during Ramadan in particular. In the contract concluded between South Organic and the producers, the price has been left open because the producers did not want a fixed price. The minimum price for fair trade dates on the branch is fixed at 0.89 euros per kilo (bulk). The producers are paid a premium of 0.15 euros per kilo exported. (Pictures: Fathi Ben Mohammed, president of the Dergine association and an organic farmer; palm plantation)

In May 2011, 25 producers joined forces to create a new associationNour” (Renaissance) and to think about the how to use the annual premium, for instance about 20,000 to 30,000 euros.

There generally are three possibilities:
-  Agriculture per se (purchase of a machine to cut the grass round palm trees in a composting project)
-  infrastructure (e.g. hedges, access to the oases)
-  living conditions (the association plans to open a training centre for girls in the villages – carpets, traditional handicrafts - and the construction of a centre for the producers’ association)

The average income of an organic and fair trade farmer varies from 6,000 to 8,000 TND (Tunisian Dinar, about half of it converted in Euros) per year and plot of land. Let’s hope there will be an excellent harvest in 2011.

To supplement this article you can access the videos made by Fair Trade Connection in July 2011 at the Dergine and Bargouthia oases by going to:

Oase dergine, Oase Bargouthia.

Tip: www.gebana.com

Contakt for distributors: Mirjam Güntert, +41 76 3273815
Contakt for consumers: +49 711 89460 8777

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