Cusop Hall was full last night for the talk organised by the Hay Fairtrade group - and Ange Grunsell, who sells Zaytoun products as the volunteer distributor for the Hay area. Zaytoun is Arabic for "olive", and it was olive oil that started the Zaytoun brand.
Taysir Arabasi, who has been working for Zaytoun since the beginning in 2004 and is their Palestinian director, started off the evening with some basic information about the situation in Palestine. There is a map, showing Palestinian and Israeli territory over the years, with the area available for the Palestinians getting smaller all the time.
Meanwhile, the Israeli settlers have been moving in, despite UN agreements - and they get priority for the water supplies. This has made it difficult for the local farmers, many of whom have had to stop growing certain vegetables - and the shallower wells they have access to contain salty water, which also limits the sort of things they are able to grow. Taysir said that one farmer he talked to was planning to do as much as he could in the next ten years, because after that he estimated that there would not be enough water for him to do any farming.
Another difficulty the Palestinian farmers have is actually being able to export their produce. Cathi Pawson, who is one of the people who started Zaytoun, said that she had been in Palestine in 2004 as an observer, and as a "protective shield" for the Palestinians - if a white, European observer is there, often the Israeli troops will back off from doing bad things. At that time, there was a glut of olive oil, and the farmers had nowhere to sell it. Cathi and the group she was with decided to try to help, thinking at first that it would be on quite a small scale, but when they announced what they wanted to do back in the UK, they got a huge number of orders, and money sent to them, with the people sending the money saying that they were prepared to wait for the olive oil for as long as it took.
From that small beginning, they worked with a Palestinian NGO to get the olive oil to Haifa, the only port they can use. The olive oil is quite expensive, and this is not only because it is Fairtrade and organic, but because of the extra costs of transporting the products, by sea, and transferring from one truck to another at checkpoints. Also, the containers can only be loaded to the height a sniffer dog can jump, rather than be filled to the top.
There are two sorts of Zaytoun olive oil, clearly labelled - one being the organic Fairtrade certified, and the other being olive oil from the same co-operatives where the farmers couldn't afford the certification, but Zaytoun felt that they were still producing a quality product and deserved the chance to sell it.
As time has gone on, they have added other products to their range, such as almonds, herb mixtures, maftoul (a nutty Palestinian grain made from bulgar and wheat flour), freekeh (another sort of wheat grain), and medjoul dates. There was also some olive oil soap on sale on Ange's stall.
They do a lot of work with women farmers, especially with the herbs. One lady farmer was supposed to be coming to the UK to speak about her work. In fact there were supposed to be three visiting Palestinians, but only Taysir was able to get a visa. Bassema Barahmeh and another lady had their visa applications refused, but were only told two days before they were due to fly out - too late for them to appeal the decision. The reason they were given for the refusal was that they didn't have enough money in their bank accounts,and lack of family dependents to prove sufficient ‘ties to their home country’ - even though Zaytoun and Fairtrade were paying for everything while they were in the UK.
A member of the audience said that this also happens when people from Timbuktu try to come to Hay, for twin town events.
Taysir emphasised how important it was for the whole household economy to be improved by trade, which meant that it was important to involve the women of the families. What they wanted, he said, was to live a life with dignity - they weren't interested in what sort of political solution would be sorted out - One State, Two State, Three State - as long as they could live with dignity and continue to farm. The land is fertile, if there is enough water to irrigate in the summer.
And if they had access to their own land - often the olive farmers are only allowed to visit their groves for one month of the year, to harvest the olives, which means that any problems with the trees during the rest of the year cannot be dealt with.
One of the benefits of Fairtrade is the community dividend, which can be spent on projects that the local co-operatives agree on. This can be new classrooms for the local school, or a clinic, or roads - and again they have problems, as the Israelis demolish what they have built. Taysir spoke of one village where they have rebuilt the school five times in a year and a half, and said that this was the best way to resist - they keep knocking it down, and the Palestinians keep rebuilding. But it does mean that a lot of projects from charities such as Oxfam have their money wasted, because they pay for buildings which are then knocked down. Some farmers prefer to put the community dividend into tools, which are moveable.
And finally, a positive story from Hay:
A lady in the audience said that there had been a baptism last year, and when Father Richard arrived to take the service, he had forgotten the oil to anoint the baby. So the lady dashed home and got some olive oil out of her kitchen. The baptism proceeded as planned, and at the end, she was able to tell them that, not only was it Fairtrade and organic olive oil that had been used, but that it had come from the Holy Land, because it was Zaytoun olive oil!
At which Taysir smiled and said that some of the olive oil actually comes from Bethlehem, so is the holiest oil of all!
And Cathi said that a lot of British cathedrals now use Zaytoun olive oil in their services where anointing is required.
The Zaytoun website can be found at www.zaytoun.org