Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Palestine’s success story of organic, fair trade olive oil

By Rhiannon F. - November 02, 2017
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [Olive Trees] [economy] [Jenin]

There is a strong smell of freshly pressed olives as you arrive at a large warehouse, ten minutes drive out of Jenin in the north of Palestine. October is a busy time of the year for Palestinian families. The first rains of the year marks olive harvest season. Even so, there is a very relaxed vibe on entering Canaan Fair Trade. Local farmers are bringing in handpicked olives on trailers drawn by tractors while others sit and sip tea while waiting for their oil to be pressed.

“Harvest time is very special for Palestinians. Everyone enjoys it together,” Canaan Marketing Assistant, Lamis Zamzam expresses, before welcoming another farmer to the press.


A local woman delicately sifts through Freekeh, picking out broken grains and assuring quality.

Canaan is the only organic olive oil production company to export from the West Bank. Considering most families in Palestine have their own olive trees and produce their own oil at local village presses, most Palestinians don’t need to buy oil through local markets. Due to this, there has also been a big opportunity to export overseas. For Canaan, this year’s season is the start of an 800 tonne expansion of their olive oil storage units, a highlight of their ever-growing success.

Canaan was opened in 2004 as the marketing and export branch of the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA), the first company in the world to certify olive oil as fair trade. The PFTA is a non-profit organisation now managing almost 2000 farmers and 54 cooperatives across the West Bank. Of these cooperatives, there are six women groups, with between 12- 20 women in each.

The farms working with PFTA are small scale, each farmer owns and manages between 48 and 100 dunams of land. The company exports to almost 25 countries around the world and also has warehouses in the US and the Netherlands. “We mainly work with fair trade retailers, who have the same ethics as us,” Zamzam told Palestine Monitor.

Almonds are sorted by seasonal, women workers. The broken nuts are separated and made into oil.

Zamzam explains in 2004 the agricultural sector was plummeting in Palestine, particularly around Jenin and Nablus. “At the time, olive oil prices were about eight shekels per kilogram, which is nothing for the farmer,” Zamzam said. Canaan began buying olive oil from farmers in 2008 at 16 shekels per kilo, the fair trade price at the time. “Now we buy it for almost 27 shekels per kilo, where the local price is around 21 shekels. It’s a far better deal for the farmers.”

Buying olive oil at a higher price has an overall social benefit for the farmers. “With the premium price we add, farmers use this to develop their community. They often use the money to [support infrastructure] in their village, renovate their schools or buy eco friendly tractors,” Zamzam said proudly. Before there was a fair trade market in Palestine, farmers often had to work other jobs in order to bring in enough income.

“This meant no one could really take care of their land, now though, farming is their main source of income,” Zamzam explains. “We’ve always been a farming nation and 50% of the agricultural income in Palestine comes from the olive sector,” Zamzam continued. “So if we had abandoned the olive sector it means the whole market in Palestine would have collapsed.”

The local Jenin oil displayed with the new Canaan labelling. 

Initially Canaan had problems exporting oil out of the West Bank, due to the Israeli occupation. All the shipping containers are required to go through the port of Haifa, in Israel, which means they must first pass checkpoints on the border.

“At first, we weren’t [authorised by Israel] to go through Jalameh checkpoint, which is only half an hour from here. We had to travel an extra two hours to cross into Israel, so this was money and time wasting,” Zamzam said.

The most current issue for the farmers Canaan deals with is water shortage. Due to the limits enforced by Israel, water in the West Bank and Gaza is only used for human consumption, not the agricultural sector.

“Our farmers all depend on rain-fed crops, otherwise, you would have to buy water and this would be very expensive,” Zamzam explained. “Farmers would find it really hard to profit from their land if they were going to buy water.” Through providing a good source of income to the farmers, Canaan hopes to provide them with a good life, despite the pressures from Israel. “The direct way to support the family is to establish a sustainable market for them.”

Olive farmers deliver their harvest to the Canaan press.

While Canaan sells their own labels of olive oil, including a special Jenin local oil and various infusions, they also sell the raw product to private, international brands such as Zaytoun or Equal Exchange. Seeing as olive oil production is cyclic with the season, Canaan also specialises in other Palestinian specialities. Za’atar, sesame, freekeh, almonds sundried tomatoes and maftoul are among the organic 'raw materials’ Canaan produces, with the help of seasonal workers, mainly women, on three month contracts.

Freekeh is a type of green wheat, easily marketed as a super food overseas. “In Palestine, we used to depend on freekah. We only started importing rice 50 years ago,” Zamzam said. Through focusing once again on freekah, Canaan hopes to keep the traditions of Palestine alive and also benefit the health of the local people.

“We’re trying to bring the idea of health to Palestine, we have a good cuisine but at the same time, people are not so aware about their bodies. People are eating junk food, they’re more into trendy stuff, like Coca Cola and KFC.” The export market for freekeh is biggest in Asia, whereas the majority of Canaan’s almonds are sold to Ben and Jerrys for their vegan ice cream and almond oil to Lush cosmetics.


The Canaan warehouse near Jenin

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