25 Jan 2009

NICK MATTHEWS on a co-operative keeping Palestinian farming alive.

Will be looking at the industrial action along with Tony Juniper's love of McDonalds in other posting...for the time being some good stuff from the Star! Are we going to have Greenpeace embracing nukes and the Convention of the Left backing capital punishment this week...I hope not..but a strike ballot at Britain's daily socialist newspaper and the ex-Foe supremo backing fast food ecocide, I would not believe it.

The oil of life
(Sunday 25 January 2009)
NICK MATTHEWS

NICK MATTHEWS on a co-operative keeping Palestinian farming alive.

"THEY planted for us to eat - we will plant for them to eat."

This old Palestinian saying sums up the philosophy of Al Zaytouna, the Palestinian Olive Tree Association founded in 2004 as a non-profit association working in all the Palestine agricultural areas that produce olives.

The olive branch, traditionally a symbol of peace, has now become a symbol of the Palestinians' struggle for survival.

Palestine is often said to be the home of the olive tree. It has some of the oldest olive groves in the world, dating back 2,000 years.

More than 12 million olive trees covering nearly 200,000 acres produce fruit that supports over half the population. The trees dominate the agricultural landscape.

But the process of growing and selling the produce is an incredibly difficult challenge. The last five years have seen the industry decimated. Huge swathes of olives groves have been razed by Israeli bulldozers or burned to the ground by Israeli settlers.

Large amounts of oil now go to waste because it is too dangerous for farmers to harvest the crops or because of movement restrictions. Over half of the oil produced is literally poured down the drain as it cannot reach international markets. Over the last four years, the Israeli occupying forces have uprooted almost 400,000 olive trees with a value of over £43 million.

All this makes the hard lives of the Palestinians that much harder.

In response, the Palestinian Farmers Union and a group of olive oil producers came together to form Al Zaytouna. As an umbrella organisation, Al Zaytouna helps to organise farmers and focus their efforts in defence of their interests.

The olive growers and olive pressers are organised into co-operatives. Al Zaytouna represents 14 encompassing 1,700 individual olive oil producers.

Al Zaytouna is managed by an elected board of directors and run by a professional management team supported by specialised volunteer staff including several from overseas.

Just to show that the US is not a monolithic bloc of evil-doers, another partner is ACDI/VOCA. The Washington-based NGO dates back to the 1997 merger of Agricultural Co-operative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Co-operative Assistance, two US non-profit development organisations working largely in agriculture.

The iniative has been remarkably successful. Al Zaytouna-supported co-operatives have eradicated the olive fly, a major threat to production, increased oil production some 40 per cent between 2005 and 2008, created local committees that train farmers in harvest, storage and production techniques and provided improved storage equipment such as stainless steel tanks to maintain the oil's quality.

Six of the co-ops are officially organic, although pretty much all Palestinian olive oil is organic because of the use of traditional farming methods.

Even with improved products, the growers need access to customers. This is where Zaytoun comes in. Zaytoun, a member of Co-operatives UK, is a co-operative community interest company.

The British government designated community interest companies as a new type of company designed for social enterprises that wish to use their profits and assets for the benefit of the community. The first CICs were registered at Companies House in 2005.

Since 2004, Zaytoun has imported more than 150 tons of olive oil to Britain, as well as Nablusi olive oil soap, za'atar (thyme-based herb mix), dates, couscous and almonds.

Heather Masoud of Zaytoun says that trade is difficult in the current political climate but is the best way to make a difference.

"The Palestinian people have long been associated with terrorism or victimhood in the popular media and their rich culture and society has often been overshadowed by this emphasis on violence or extreme poverty.

"Aid donations, while necessary, rarely foster foundations for long-term prosperity and social revitalisation. Our trade with the Palestinian people has brought in excess of £1 million to their economy and support for rural society."

The current situation is indeed grave but Masoud says that the "assault in Gaza largely does not affect Zaytoun's supply chains. In the main, the Palestinian producers we work with are in the West Bank."

However, she adds, "the West Bank supply chain is also a vulnerable one - the Palestinians do not have any control of their sea or land borders or their air space. Relying on the occupying force to allow trade is a weak position and, as we saw in Gaza, the economy will be destroyed if Israel also decides to deny passage of goods there."

In fact, Zaytoun did once source couscous from a women's co-op in Gaza, but the business became unviable - Israel has not allowed any of its products to cross the border for the last three years.

We have all been shocked by recent events in Gaza, but buying Zaytoun olive oil and its other products is one way to give practical help. It is time, I think, that we mounted a campaign to get its oil into our major supermarkets.

Visit www.zaytoun.org to find out where to get hold of Zaytoun Palestinian olive oil.

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