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Farming on the frontlines

June 30, 2016 at 2:12 pm

A mushroom farm in Jericho, an heirloom seed library, a project to introduce Kale to the Palestinian market and a local farmers’ cooperative – these small agricultural projects are the latest weapon in the fight against the Israeli occupation. They aim to tackle the policies that make Palestine dependent on the Israeli market and offer alternatives for Palestinians who find themselves forced to buy Israeli products.

After returning to Palestine for the first time in five years, Vivien Sansour noticed changes in her homeland. “All the things I had missed, like the delicious tomatoes and cheese, the things old ladies would come and sell at the front of our house, they were gone,” says Sansour. “I thought I was coming home and I found myself coming back to a place that was foreign to me where I was buying Israeli broccoli in the supermarket and that was what was available.”

In June, she officially launched Palestine’s first heirloom seed library as a way to preserve the knowledge of generations of farmers who have cultivated varieties of organic vegetables, fruits and herbs adapted for the region’s climate and soil. Due to Israeli policies and neo-liberal farming techniques, these varieties, and traditional Palestinian farming as a whole, are facing extinction. These tiny seeds, she says, have the power to stop this from happening. Anyone can borrow a packet of the library’s seeds and grow the local varieties of produce, returning seeds from the next harvest.

“The heirloom seed gives us power to resist our dominance, though our heirlooms seeds we can truly eat what we grow and stop having to be slaves to our master,” she says.

Under the Oslo Accords, around 63 per cent of agricultural land in the West Bank was designated as “Area C”, which means it fell under the control of the Israeli military. As a result, farmers whose land fell in that 63 per cent were unable to farm their land freely, as is still the case. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have mushroomed, and settlement farms are able to produce a large quantity of crops at low cost using pesticides, leaving traditional farmers unable to compete. Unequal water resources allocated to Palestinians and Jewish settlers living in the same territory makes keeping up almost impossible.

According to the Israeli occupation authorities, the value of goods produced in settlements and exported to Europe amounts to approximately $300 million a year. Israel is flooding the Palestinian market with cheap Israeli products whilst simultaneously controlling the Palestinian exports and imports. Restrictions on the importation of fertilizers has cut agricultural output in the OPT by an estimated 20-33 per cent. This pressure is forcing Palestinian farmers to leave their land, with many having to work on the settlement farms that displaced them on as little as half the Israeli minimum wage, in unsafe working conditions, and without holiday or sick pay.

“Oslo has been a disaster for agriculture in Palestine,” says Sansour. Aside from the restrictions placed on farmers as a result of the agreement, it also brought foreign donations to the agricultural section, she explains. “The aid was designed in a very neo-liberal way on the production of certain items and the elimination of people – that’s the idea of agribusiness.” This sort of funding pushed farmers away from sustainable agriculture to mono-cropping (the production of one type of crop) designed for consumer export or selling to the Israeli market, using methods relying on chemicals, she says.

Sansour highlights the Paris Protocol, an annex of the Oslo Accords, which tied the Palestinian economy with the Israeli economy. This has led to a situation, she says, where the tobacco industry is renting Palestinian land for prices small-scale producers cannot compete with. “We went from producing food to producing poison,” she poignantly adds.

The same factors motivated Lamya Hussain to implement The Kale Project – Palestine, a joint venture by organisations MAAN Development Center and Refutrees to introduce kale to the Palestinian market. Two years on and two solid harvests of three types of kale and the project is looking to expand. “There are many ways Israel controls what is produced and why and how, and we want to challenge this,” says Hussain. “We are challenging the occupation through cross diversity because one of the things the Israeli occupation has done to the agricultural sector is that it’s reduced it to a few basic crops.”

“One key issue facing small-scale Palestinian producers is the challenge to work around previously negotiated economic agreements via which Israeli goods are dumped in the local market,” she explains. “To this end, there is always the risk that Israeli producers can take advantage of the rising demand for kale and flood the market with larger quantities and cheaper prices.” Hussain continues, “It’s very difficult for people like myself or for the project, and even more difficult for smaller scale farmers who are competing against not only consumer market prices and local competition, they’re actually competing with an occupied-led system in the market.”

Fareed Taamallah was one of these small scale farmers struggling to sell his produce in this system. Tired of selling his olives and olive oil in bulk to a trader who then sells it to the consumer while taking most of the profit, he co-founded Sharaka. The organisation links Palestinian farmers and consumers directly, promoting Baladi food, a word for local, seasonal and Palestinian produce.

“In Occupied Palestine, the matter of keeping the farmer in his land cultivating and producing is more important than any other place because it is not only a matter of producing, but also a matter of food sovereignty,” says Taamallah. “Sharaka is trying to tackle part of these problems and help small-scale farmers to stay in their land by helping them to market their product at good prices, and in this way support them to remain steadfast in their groves. On the other hand, we try to help the consumer to have access to the good, healthy food and not depend on the Israeli products that are found in the local market.”

For the Palestinian farming industry, the Israeli occupation has been deadly. But these agricultural efforts are seeking to change the status quo by offering Palestinians alternatives to the Israeli products that fill up their local supermarkets. As Sansour puts it, buying the produce of the occupation is like smoking; “you pay for your own poisoning”.

Images courtesy of The Kale Project – Palestine.

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