Issue No.
168, April 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Seasonal fruit-veggies basket. Courtesy of Sharaka. “Basket of seasonal fruit sold at Sharaka’s summer farmers market.”
Dates from Gaza. Photo by Sharif Sarhan.
Separating the olives from the leaves. Photo by Sharif Sarhan.

Where Does Our Food Come From?
By Aisha Mansour
It is safe to say that most Palestinians have no idea where our food comes from. When my friend visited me from the United States, she was in complete awe of the huge and diverse “farmer’s market,” otherwise known as the hisbeh, located near the Manara in Ramallah. I tried to explain that these were not farmers, and a majority of the products sold were not even grown by Palestinian farmers. More confusingly, most of the falahat (rural female farmers) sitting on the sidewalk just outside the hisbeh are neither farmers nor producers. While some of them may purchase items from local producers, most of them purchase their products directly from the hisbeh.

Although I never got to meet my grandparents, my mom’s stories lead me to believe that they were part of the Palestinian fellaheen (rural farmers). Each year, my grandfather and his sister harvested the grapes that they grew in the hills of Al Asbahiya, today known as Sateh Marhaba. After the grapes were loaded onto the donkey, my grandfather walked from Al Bireh to the Old City in Jerusalem to sell his harvest. Market systems were simpler in those days: locally produced for the local market, and, in many cases, sold directly by the producer.

The nearly 64-year Occupation of Palestine and the post-Oslo neoliberal economic interventions have created a much more complex market system, integrating the Palestinian market into the Israeli and global market forces. Palestinian produce that meets international standards tends to be exported through the various mechanisms of private agribusiness and fair-trade companies that provide the farmer with a slight increase in income, while Palestinian and Israeli produce that flunks international standards is dumped in the local Palestinian market.

Israeli Occupation
Agriculture was a major sector of the Palestinian economy prior to the establishment of Israel and the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In 1967, the Palestinian agriculture sector was approximately equal to that of the Israeli sector. During that period, the West Bank exported 80 per cent of its vegetable production, and 45 per cent of its fruit production, according to a 2000 report from the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ). But the 1967 Occupation turned Israel into the main market for Palestinians, because they could no longer access other markets without involving Israel as the intermediary. The Occupation further limited Palestinian agricultural production by controlling access to Palestine’s natural resources, land, and water; limiting movement between the West Bank and Gaza; and constructing checkpoints and barriers within the West Bank.

Israeli labour policies transformed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza into an unskilled workforce serving the Israeli market. As the Palestinian unskilled workforce increased, Palestinian agriculture declined. Farmers were able to earn double their income working as labourers in Israel. The agricultural workforce shrunk from 46 per cent in 1969 to 27.4 per cent in 1985, according to ARIJ. Local agricultural knowledge and skills slowly diminished as more Palestinians sought work in Israel.

Oslo Accords
After Oslo, Israel continued to control and distort the Palestinian economy. Under the Paris Protocol, Israel was involved in every aspect of Palestinian imports and customs policy. Israel determined what products, and in which quantities, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was allowed to import and export. According to Article VIII on agriculture, the movement of agricultural produce between Israel and the PA should be free of customs and import taxes. However, in reality, Palestinian produce has not been provided the same market access to Israel as Israel has been provided to the PA areas, and Israel has not fulfilled its obligation under this agreement.

With the push of the post-Oslo donor interventions, the PA adopted neoliberal economic and free trade policies that inhibited the development of the local private sector. In this policy environment, the wealthy capitalist countries benefit from the neoliberal trade policies that grant them access to markets around the world. The impact on less developed countries, such as Palestine, has been disastrous. The Palestinian producer cannot compete with the mass of imported products that are cheaper in price and greater in quantity. In 2011, for example, the Palestinian market was flooded with cheap imported olive oil from Syria and Turkey, causing a hardship to those Palestinian farmers who were dependent on the local market to sell their oil.
While developed countries are promoting free trade policies in the developing world, these same developed countries are protecting their own local industries and farmers. The US, for example, subsidises its own local agriculture and exports it to developing countries, where it is sold at lower prices than local agriculture. This policy has been detrimental to the poor in developing countries. Subsidised Israeli agriculture has affected Palestinian farmers negatively as well. Israeli farmers are subsidised by their government and are able to sell their produce at much lower costs. Palestinian farmers, who are not subsidised, cannot compete against the lower Israeli prices. In this environment, Palestinian farmers are not able to make ends meet. They often work side jobs, depend on remittances, or leave farming altogether.

Further, Israeli produce enters the Palestinian market early in the season, prior to its Palestinian counterpart. Equipped with Palestine’s natural resources, technology, and oftentimes, genetically modified seeds, the Israeli farmer is able to produce beautiful looking, perfectly shaped fruit well before the Palestinian farmer. The Israeli farmer enjoys the peak price for his produce, while the Palestinian farmer enters the market after the price has decreased. One farmer in Al Khader, south of Bethlehem, explained that he no longer harvests his grapes because it is not cost effective. The Israeli grapes enter the Palestinian market several months before the Palestinian grapes. By the time the Palestinian grapes enter the local market, market prices have already plummeted.

Post-Oslo Interventions, Towards Export
Many of the donor-driven interventions in the Palestinian agricultural sector have focused on building capacity in order to export. Projects focus on the production and export of manufactured food items, such as pickles and jams, or the production of cash crops that are in demand in the Western market, such as cherry tomatoes and sweet peppers. Local producers are trained to meet international standards, such as GlobalGap, in order to qualify to export. GlobalGap was created in Europe during the 1990s, and consists of a set of standards to ensure systematic farm management and good agricultural practices. Palestinian produce that meets these specifications is rewarded with the opportunity to export abroad and potentially earn a higher price. Those that do not meet the requirements must sell to Palestinians in the local market.

USAID interventions, specifically, have focused on enterprise development in the agricultural sector. In Far’iah, for example, several large landowners were awarded USAID funds to establish an herbal agribusiness for export to the US, UK, and Russia. This agribusiness produces dill, chives, and tarragon, among others, and packages them for export abroad. Prior to this initiative, the farmers were growing seasonal produce for sale in the local market. Today, they are producing foreign products for sale to a foreign market. The labourers in this agribusiness consist of small-scale farmers who have opted for a wage-paying job to increase their income potential.

Similarly, the company Sinokrot entered the agribusiness arena through initial support by USAID. Today, Sinokrot operates Palestine Gardens in Al Ouja in the Jordan Valley, where cash crops, including cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, and Madjool dates, are produced and packaged for export. Local farmers who meet the requirements opt to sell their products to the agribusiness.

International fair-trade companies have also decreased Palestinian self-sufficiency. These companies offer local farmers a slightly higher price for their products than the price in the local market, but the real price of this practice is that high-quality local (baladi) produce is removed from the local market and sold to the global market at much higher prices. This has increased inequalities in Palestinian society, creating a minority of wealthy businesspeople, and leaving an entire population with low quality, imported food.

Advocates for the export-driven initiatives claim that the local market is already satiated with local products. However, as a consumer who always asks for the source of my food, it is clear that Palestine has become a net importer of food for the Palestinian market. Vegetables and fruit from Israel, raisins and prunes from California, grains and legumes from Turkey, chestnuts from China, and many other products whose sources are nameless and unknown. In many cases, there are so many intermediaries prior to the point of contact between the seller and the buyer that it is impossible for anyone to know where the particular produce originated. Add to that the prolific black market of smuggled food items, and we have an enormous problem knowing what we are actually eating.

Although today’s Palestinian market is a web of interconnecting forces that leave consumers ignorant of the source and quality of the food that we are feeding our loved ones, it’s not all gloomy. There are still many examples in Palestine of small-scale farmers working on their land using the traditional and environmentally friendly techniques of our ancestors. These fellaheen are feeding their own families and local communities healthy, seasonal produce and dairy. And, in some cases, these fellaheen are able to sell their excess produce in the local market. But finding these treasures is challenging in today’s market.

How can we access the rewards of our land? As local consumers, we should recognise our small-scale farmers for maintaining our agricultural heritage. Venture out of the city to the Palestinian villages and get to know these heroes. Build relationships and purchase your family’s nourishment directly from them.

Aisha Mansour is a co-founder and volunteer with Sharaka - Community Supported Agriculture, a local Palestinian movement focused on preserving our agricultural heritage and reconnecting the consumer with small-scale traditional Palestinian farmers.

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