Working towards food sovereignty in Palestine

In the West Bank, agroecology farms and initiatives are established by Palestinians, for Palestinians.

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    Yara Duwani and Mohab Alami stand at the entrance to their agroecology farm, Om Sleiman, in Bil'in, Ramallah [Al Jazeera]
    Yara Duwani and Mohab Alami stand at the entrance to their agroecology farm, Om Sleiman, in Bil'in, Ramallah [Al Jazeera]

    Ramallah, occupied West Bank - The Om Sleiman farm in the village of Bil'in is part of a burgeoning movement of agroecology and community supported agriculture (CSA) in the occupied West Bank.

    Depending on the season, the farm grows broccoli, ginger, turmeric, kale and watermelon, as well as other fruits and vegetables. It claims to be the only farm in the West Bank to grow organic sweet potatoes.

    Currently, on four dunams (4,000sq metres) of village land, Mohab Alami and Yara Duwani - the farm's cofounders - work with volunteers and Palestinian trainees in the field of agroecology to promote principles of co-creation, efficiency, resilience and shared economy.

    Alami said he and Duwani chose Bil'in as their location to continue its tradition of non-violent resistance.

    The village has lost a large tract of land to a nearby Israeli settlement. Its peaceful and partially successful struggle to regain that land through demonstrations and via the courts has been widely cited as a model of resilience.

    "I think farming and existing in this area is non-violent resistance," Alami told Al Jazeera.

    Relatives of Palestinian agroecology trainees forage for organic produce at Om Sleiman (Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera)

    Agroecology is an approach to farming which tries to minimise its environmental impacts. In the West Bank, agroecology farms and initiatives are established by Palestinians, for Palestinians.

    One aim of the ventures is to reclaim food sovereignty and move away from Israeli produce, which is ubiquitous in local markets.

    According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2003, 45 percent of the Palestinian population worked in agriculture, including forestry and fishing. In 2017, the percentage had dropped to 14 percent.

    Within the West Bank specifically, data shows 30 percent of the population worked in agriculture in 2013, though only 16 percent remained in the industry in 2017.

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    Alami explained the reasons for such a dramatic decrease were several - from constant demolition orders handed down by Israel, to harassment by Israeli settlers, and Israel's control over water resources.

    Raya Ziada, a cofounder of Manjala - an agroecology NGO which aims to educate Palestinians in sustainable food production, believes it is important for Palestinians not to lose touch with their agricultural heritage.

    "We [Palestinians] were farmers. We used to produce our own food," she told Al Jazeera.

    "[Now] we're just trying to reconnect with who we are, with our identity as Palestinians."

    Chemical-free products

    The production of chemical-free fruit and vegetables is at the heart of agroecology's ethos.

    In the majority of markets across the West Bank, Israeli fruits and vegetables dominate, though for years the amount of chemicals used in growing the produce has been among the highest in the world.

    As far back as 2012, Israel had the highest concentration of pesticides in food among the 34-nation Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

    The Israel Union for Environmental Defense is actively drafting a bill to reduce pesticide exposure in Israel, as it states the country is far behind the acceptable global standards.

    Tareq Abulaban, the director general of marketing at the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, said that Israeli fresh fruits and vegetables are produced primarily to be exported to markets in the European Union, with the rejected produce sometimes ending up in the Palestinian market.

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    "Grades not hitting the export markets are marketed in the Israeli market," he said in a statement. "Rejected quality levels, including those with excess of chemicals, are dumped into the Palestinian market at low prices.

    "The Palestinian market pays double price for that dumping. On the one hand, this affects the health of Palestinians, and on the other hand, it negatively harms the Palestinian produce in the domestic market," he said.

    Solidarity economy

    The solidarity economy is one of the 10 elements of agroecology and is extremely important for Palestinian food sovereignty - that being, Palestinians buying Palestinian produce.

    Manjala's Ziada believes the easiest way of controlling a nation is by controlling its food production.

    "If we want to have a liberation project, the base is to start producing our own food," she said, adding that Palestinians feel a sense of pride eating Palestinian grown food.

    The ready supply of cheap Israeli fruits and vegetables also distorts market prices, making it harder for small-scale Palestinian producers to compete at markets across the West Bank.

    As a result, Palestinian farmers who grow organic produce or follow agroecology principles often sell via specialist organisations.

    Om Sleiman farm operates a weekly box delivery system, providing a variety of seasonal produce to Palestinian families.

    Depending on the quantity, customers pay approximately 900 ILS ($250) at the start of each season.

    Adel, meaning fair in English, is a Palestinian group that connects agroecology producers with consumers.

    Working with over 450 producers, Adel trains farmers in agroecology, particularly those with land at risk of confiscation, and manages marketing and distribution.

    The organisation set up its own weekly markets in Beit Jala and Ramallah, as well as a store next to Qalandia checkpoint that is open daily.

    Customers pick Palestinian, agroecology produce at the Adel fair trade market in Ramallah [Tessa Fox/ Al Jazeera]

    Reema Younis, a manager at Adel, believes consumers buy Palestinian agroecology produce for various reasons.

    "They want to buy their health and be away from chemicals, and others buy because they believe in the solidarity economy," Younis told Al Jazeera.

    "We believe that Palestinians deserve to eat these products ... free of chemicals and preservatives," Younis said.

    'Collective experience'

    Manjala's Ziada described the work of agroecology organisations in Palestinian communities as a "collective experience taking place".

    She used the Arabic word Aouna, which means help, though it relates to social connections in agricultural heritage and how people would help each other during harvest and plantation.

    One activity the groups use to spread knowledge about sustainable practices is making seed balls, which is especially effective with the younger generation.

    Farming camps are also organised by Manjala in the hope that participants connect farming with the larger social and political context surrounding agriculture.

    "When you talk about land and soil, it's important ... especially for the Palestinians to feel that connection, because at the end of the day, the conflict [and occupation] is about land," Ziada said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News