Reshaping Olive Industry to Boost Palestinian Economy

October 25, 2009 By Howard Schneider

Palestinian farmer Mur’eb Kaileh, 70, with bags of olives that will eventually be processed for oil at a facility on the outskirts of Ramallah. (Muhammed Muheisen/associated Press)

BERQIN, West Bank – For centuries, olive harvesting here has been a mostly local industry. Farmers, their relatives, and neighbors beat the trees with sticks or strip the olives from branches by hand, then cart them to a local press and sell or trade the oil in nearby markets. Harvest workers keep a share of the crop for their labor, and olive press owners keep a share of the oil – a testament to the small-scale, bartered nature of the undertaking.

That model can help sustain a household, but in a new factory on the outskirts of this northern West Bank village, an effort is underway to reshape the olive industry so that it can help sustain a national economy.

With savvy marketing in the United States and Europe, and fair-trade and organic certifications that attract top dollar from Western consumers, a six-year-old farmers cooperative is breaking some of the traditional bounds of the olive industry and beginning to pull in hard currency from abroad.

The Palestine Fair Trade Association now has 1,200 farmers and 20 olive press owners who take advantage of a guaranteed “fair trade’’ price from Canaan Fair Trade, an affiliated company set up to market Palestinian-made products abroad. The arrangement means higher prices for the farmers and, perhaps as important, a way to turn the year’s crop into a lump sum of cash, rather than the trickle of money many received by selling oil or olives through the year.

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