The 70-year occupation of Palestine and its obstructive restrictions make it difficult for individuals to earn a living in their own communities. In 2004, when Zaytoun co-founders Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson were working as volunteers in Palestine, the farmers were selling their olive oil for less than the cost of production. Cathi and Heather set about finding a marketplace in the UK which would allow the farmers to sell their produce for a fair price.
Since then, the range has grown and is now both a celebration of the exceptional quality produced in Palestine, and a means of sustainable livelihood for the growers. It includes the world's first certified Fairtrade organic olive oil, za'atar and rain-fed almonds, as well as Great Taste award-winning maftoul, freekeh and Medjoul dates.
“When we initially explained the concept of fair trade to farmers, some were sceptical. Fair trade and organic certification requires a commitment of time, energy and money – and it wasn’t immediately obvious to farmers how they would benefit,” explains Cathi Pawson. “Enough of them agreed to give it a go however, and over ten years later not only does the fair trade farming community benefit from a revitalising source of income, but this community also provides a network for sharing knowledge and experience which could help the farmers overcome tough growing conditions.”
Regenerative farming and climate resilience
Unfortunately, agriculture in Palestine has been aggravated in recent years by shifting weather patterns. “For the last few years there has been less rain – not just in Palestine but over all of the Middle East,” comments Mohammed Ruzzi of the Palestinian Fair Trade Association. “Because of that, the productivity of the trees has declined. With the olive trees, it’s normal to have a low-yield year (‘shalatoun’) followed by a high-yield year. 2017 and 2018 were both shalatoun years, but thankfully the 2019 harvest was better.”
In response to these challenges, Palestinian farmers have begun to adopt new practices to compensate for the reduced rainfall. “Regenerative farming” refers to a collection of techniques that can improve soil quality, as well as landscape health and resilience.
“We’ve focused on reducing water loss from the soil through regenerative farming practices – we use intercropping and cover crops such as clover so that the soil isn’t bare, and add compost around the trees. We have been adopting zero tillage which increases moisture retention in the soil, and we use some landrace and heritage varieties that are well suited to dry conditions,” adds Mohammed.
Mohammed believes that the fact that these practices can be more easily spread between farms is an additional benefit of being part of a fair trade community. “Through the network of 51 cooperatives under our umbrella, it’s easier to showcase what works and what doesn’t. We support farmers by distributing seeds for intercropping, and research beneficial practices. We welcome visitors from overseas who come to train our farmers in regenerative practices. Not everything can be applied to the situation in Palestine, so we then work out how to adapt what we learn.”
It's still early days for regenerative farming in Palestine, and there are farmers who are resistant to switching to these experimental techniques. However, Mohammed thinks that the farmers of the Palestinian Fair Trade Organisation can set an example of best practices which might encourage more widespread adoption. He himself keeps a small plot where he is practising zero tillage. “I show the farmers what works well for me, personally.” Ultimately, Mohammed believes these methods could ensure a more sustainable income for the farmers and their families.
Zaytoun is a social enterprise, community interest company and Triodos Bank customer. Founded in 2004, Zaytoun supports Palestinian farmers through fair trade and aims to change the narrative about Palestine to include its rich cultural and culinary heritage.
Visit Zaytoun’s website to find out more
Why we finance fair trade
Smallholder farmers in developing countries do not necessarily reap the rewards of a complex international trade system. By financing fair trade enterprises we aim to make sure that individuals and their families are paid fairly for their products.
Visit our fair trade page to find out more