Thursday, 22 January 2009

"They Planted for us to eat: We will plant for them to eat"!

That old Palestinian saying contains the philosophy of Al Zaytouna, the Palestinian Olive Tree Association, founded in 2004 a non-profit association working in all the Palestine agricultural areas that produce olives. The olive branch, used as a symbol of peace, is here a symbol of the Palestinians struggle for survival.

Palestine often said to be the home of the olive tree, has some of the oldest olive groves in the world, as much as 1500 to 2000 years old. With more than 12 million olive trees, covering nearly 200,000 acres they produce fruit that supports over half the population and dominate the agricultural landscape. But for Palestinian farmers the process of growing and selling their produce is an incredibly difficult challenge.

According to one of Zaytounas partners, War on Want, olive oil is the backbone of the Palestinian agricultural economy, providing employment for 65% of the population. But the last five years have decimated the industry with large swathes of olives groves being razed by Israeli bulldozers or burned to the ground by Israeli settlers. Large amounts of oil go to waste because it is too dangerous for farmers to harvest the crops or because of movement restrictions. Every year over half of the oil produced is literally poured down the drain due to their inability to access international markets and over the last four years the Israeli occupying forces have uprooted almost 400,000 olive trees with a value of over $60 million

This makes the hard lives of the Palestinians that much harder, but in response the Palestinian Farmers’ Union and a group of olive oil producers came together to form Al Zaytouna to find ways to protect their livelihoods and win new markets for their products. As an umbrella organization, Al Zaytouna, helps to organize farmers and focus their efforts in defense of their interests.

The Olive growers and olive pressers are organized into co-operatives with Al Zaytouna representing 14 cooperatives with a total of 1,700 olive oil producers. Six of the co-ops are organic although pretty much all Palestinian olive oil is organic because of the use of traditional farming methods and a key task is to help the co-ops obtain organic certification. Al Zaytouna is managed by an elected board of directors and run by a professional management team supported by specialized volunteer staff including several volunteers from overseas.

Just to show that the USA is not a monolithic bloc of evil doers another partner is ACDI/VOCA. The Washington based NGO dates back to the 1997 merger of Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance, two U.S. non-profit economic development organizations working largely in agriculture.

They have been remarkably successful under these astonishingly tough conditions. Al Zaytouna – supported cooperatives have eradicated the olive fly, a major threat to production, increased oil production some 40% between 2005 and 2008, created local committees that train farmers in harvest, storage and production techniques and provided improved storage equipment such as stainless steel tanks to maintain the oil's quality.

Even with improved products the growers need access to customers and this is where the UK end Zaytoun comes in. Zaytoun, a member of Co-operatives UK is a co-perative Community Interest Company. The Government developed the Community Interest Company (CIC) as a new type of company designed for social enterprises that wish to use their profits and assets for the benefit of the community. The first CICs were registered with Companies House in just 2005.

Since 2004 Zaytoun has imported more than 150 tons of olive oil (including now certified organic olive oil), as well as Nablusi olive oil soap, za’atar (thyme based herb mix), dates, couscous and almonds.

Heather Masoud of Zaytoun says that trade, while difficult in the current political climate, is the best way to make a difference: “The Palestinian people have long been associated with terrorism or victimhood in the popular media, and their rich culture and society has often been overshadowed by this emphasis on violence or extreme poverty. Aid donations, whilst necessary, rarely foster foundations for long-term prosperity and social revitalisation. Our trade with the Palestinian people has brought in excess of £1 million to their economy, and support for rural society.”

The current situation is indeed grave but as Heather says, “the current assault in Gaza largely does not affect Zaytoun’s supply chains. In the main the Palestinian producers we work with are in the West Bank”. However she adds, “The West Bank supply chain is also a vulnerable one; the Palestinian’s do not have any control of their sea or land borders or their air space. Relying on the Occupying force to ‘allow’ trade is a weak position and as we saw in Gaza the economy will be destroyed if Israel also decides to deny passage of goods there.”

In fact in Zaytoun did source couscous from a women’s co-op in Gaza but the business was no longer viable because Israel has not allowed any of their products to cross the border for the last 3 years.

We have all been shocked by recent events in Gaza but we can all support the Palestinians by buying Zaytoun Olive oil and their other products and it is time I think that we mounted a campaign to get their oil into our major supermarkets!

Interested in where you can obtain Zaytoun Palestinian Olive Oil?
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Friday, 9 January 2009

Ish Ash Osh Happy New Year For The Woodcraft Folk

New Year is a time for the young and this year could be a particularly good one for that most important of our youth organisations, the Woodcraft Folk. Founded back in the 1920’s as an alternative to the growing militarization of Scouting the aim was to develop a new social order to support world peace, partly by introducing poorer children from urban slums to the joys of exercise, fresh air and the countryside.

Writing as The Headman ("Little Otter") the Woodcraft Folk's founder, Leslie Paul, in the 1926 book Who's For the Folk, said:

'The Woodcraft Folk seek to establish a new social order. They believe that when the worker achieves freedom from wage slavery and the fruits of the soil are garnered by the toilers, then will a new stage of development open out to man. A new epoch, rich in promise of a finer social life and a greater awakening of intellect. We are rebels ... and to this decadent civilization, we bring a new fire and a new energy. We go out of the town and away to the hills and woods with our little light-weight tents packed in our rucksacks ... after the ugliness and monotony of the smoky city we find new life among the green growing things and new health from the sun and the four winds. And this health, together with our understanding, enables us to fight tenaciously for social betterment.''

Not exactly New Labour language.

Well that was the thought back in 2005 when Margaret Hodge, then children's minister told the Folk, that it would not get its annual grant of £52,000 putting the volunteer led organization under considerable strain. The Department of Education and Skills said their claim for funding lacked detail and did not have "sufficiently robust outcome indicators". Which they said meant it did not represent "good value for money''.

So freedom from wage slavery is not a “robust outcome indicator”.

Some Folk felt that the cut was more to do with their strong opposition to the Iraq War. Having always had strong peace movement links they had affiliated to the Stop the War Coalition. A newspaper advertisement calling its members to attend the great anti-war march led to a letter from the Charity Commission about overstepping the mark. Another suggestion for the failure of their application was that Woodcraft was too “middle class”. Something the Folk strenuously rejected.

The cut caused a huge outcry from its friends including a parliamentary revolt with 113 MPs signing a Commons motion deploring the move, tabled by Morning Star columnist and Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn. Nevertheless the cut lead to local Woodcraft Groups around the country having their annual grant suspended and the crisis was compounded when Woodcraft Folk General Secretary Andy Piercy was hospitalised after suffering a suspected stroke during the campaign.

Eventually after a meeting with an embattled Margaret Hodge she offered a member of her own staff to work for the Folk for 12 months on secondment to help support them to look for ways to diversify their funding.

In 2006 the Folk acquired the skills and energy of a new and at twenty seven, youthful, general secretary Kirsty Palmer. She set to work to put the Folk on a sound footing which resulted in a new constitution agreed at the 2007 annual conference. It began, “The Woodcraft Folk is an educational movement for children and young people, designed to develop self confidence and activity in society, with the aim of building a world based on equality, friendship, peace and co-operation.”

The search began too for alternative funding. Their first major success was persuading the government’s Climate Challenge Fund, to support – “C-Change” a project which engages young people who have some knowledge and concern about climate change to raise the awareness of their peers.

Then late last year the Folk hit the jackpot when they where awarded a five-year grant of £1.26 million from the Big Lottery Fund for the TREE (Training, Representation, Equality and Engagement) project. Developed by young Woodcraft Folk members and to be led by them, in partnership with the National Youth Agency, the Co-operative College and the National Deaf Children’s Society it will engage 10-18 year olds in decision-making and the development of services, policy and practice, giving them the skills to campaign and communicate.

Among the aims is welcome plan to increase the number of Woodcraft Folk groups. Debs McMahon, Woodcraft Folk’s Membership Development Manager said “It really is a fantastic opportunity to give young people new experiences and skills, whilst making a real difference to Woodcraft Folk groups and the wider community.”

This is a great boost for the Woodcraft Folk, let’s hope they build on this opportunity, and it brings forward the day the fruits of the soil are garnered by the toilers!

Interested in the Woodcraft Folk See: