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Humans · Economy

An Enterprise with an Olive Leaf: The Way to Fight BDS

October 02nd, 2017
in:Humans, Economy
by:Ari Libsker
located in:Israel

The activity of the non-profit association "Sindyanna of Galilee" is the proof: a quality product that commits to fair trade can be enough to break the economic embargo against Israel. The story of an award-winning olive oil that is sold around the world, and oiling the wheels of local coexistence. 

Sindyanna of the Galilee
Named after the Kermes Oak (Sindyan) – a local symbol of strength, stability, and staying on the ground – the Sindyanna of the Galilee was established in 1996 by Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women in the hope of promoting coexistence. The association is selling, in Israel and abroad, traditional agricultural produce of local manufacturers, from either the association's plots, or privately held farms. It is marketing honey from beehives in the olive grove, za'atar (typical middle eastern spice mixture, made of thyme, oregano, marjoram, and sesame seeds), almonds, carob syrup, and even handwoven baskets and natural scented soap. But above all stands the flagship product –olive oil – which is now being exported around the globe.
It started out with a focus on education and culture, but the need for marketing food products from around the area, arose very quickly from the circumstances, from the farmers' distress. "It's important to see that there are people living in the Arab villages, who care a lot about innovation and development, and they're putting enormous efforts into promoting those aspects," says 63-year-old Hadas Lahav, from Haifa, General Manager of the Sindyanna of Galilee association. "Our goal was to improve the quality of the products: make the packaging better, brand it, and sell it to the Israeli market for a reasonable price."
The entire revenue goes to the association; the manufacturers receive their payment in advance: the association is actually buying the products or the raw materials (for instance, for the za'atar spice mix it's making), and then creates the end product by taking care of the packaging, branding, and marketing. The association also supports the manufacturers, assists them with loans for purchasing and development of equipment, gives out advance payments, and so on. The profits from sales are invested in further development and assistance, as well as in various social projects, with an emphasis on the advancement of economics and employment in the area.

Olive Groves
Walking around on the lands of Jezreel Valley, just south of the Lower Galilee, there's visible difference between the very organised Jewish plots, going back to the Zionist founders' days, which belong to the Kibbutzim, growing cotton and corn, for instance, and the other ones, where mostly wild-looking olive trees and some vegetables are grown - the continuation of a local agricultural tradition that has been present around here throughout hundreds and thousands of years. The latter belong to the residents of the Arab village of Yafi'a (Yafa an-Naseriyye), lands that were not nationalised following the War of Independence.
Loads and loads of olives are waiting for the upcoming harvest. 55-year-old Riad Ouda, resident of Iksal, another Arab village in the Valley, who is responsible for this olive grove, picks a single olive from the tree and squeezes it between his fingers. A thick, yellowish liquid flows down on them, but he maintains: "It's still watery. There's more water than oil in here".
Lahav invites me to look up higher, at the nest box installed on the tall trees. This is for the barn owls, she explains, and they hunt the rodents. Biological pest control, instead of other means. Other guests on the patch, she says further, are the bees; a bee keeper from Yafi'a has hives around here. There's a tractor standing at the entrance, pulling a cart filled with cow manure for fertilizing the plot. "We prefer fertilizing with organic fertilizers, instead of chemical ones", she explains.

In Production
In a larger village not far from Nazareth, Kafr Kana, between the car salvage yards, junk yards, and small woodworking shops, the Sindyanna factory seems very organised. Organised, but small. And yet, in 2015, it had a turnover of about $1 Million, of which 95% came from export, 70% from olive oil. It employs 17 women and two men, and more than half of the employees are Arab.
42-year-old Muna Nahla from Kafr Kana, production manager, is a mother of four, who began working for the association in 2006. She went through a course in warehouse management, a single woman among 12 men. "I use the money to help my daughter through her studies at the University of Haifa," she says. "My husband is glad I'm helping with paying the bills, and my daughter is proud of me. She is following the example I'm setting, she understands that a woman has to work".
35-year-old Hanan Mandara Zoabi, from Sulam, not far in north-eastern Israel, is managing the association's visitors centre, located right above the factory. Zoabi presents the products they are selling: alongside the ones made by the Sindyanna (including the soaps, which are made in Nablus), there's also Tahini from Nazareth, for instance, and carob syrup with a story behind it, about a mother who began making it for her son, who was suffering from candida, and the syrup helped alleviate the symptoms. She then began selling it to neighbours, and now the association is marketing it.

Local and International Tensions
The association initially had to face low awareness among the general public regarding the health benefits of olive oil, as well as of the importance of the ideology behind the product. Olive oil was once considered by Israelis to be "Arab food"; that was a disadvantage, but also an advantage to some audiences. And the Sindyanna devised a way to bring the Jews closer to the oil, the "harvest it yourself" way, that has since expanded and adopted by countless other growers. "People really loved it", elaborates Lahav, who has been leading the association since its establishment, and adds a political angle: "Back then, the entire so-called left, and peace supporters, they were crazy about "asli" (genuine) olive oil."
But then came another hurdle, with the first decade of the 21st century and its economic shaking, leading to recession, restaurants closing down, and cutbacks in expenses, and then another, with the break of the Second Palestinian Intifada. On top of the exceeding tension between Arabs and Jews in Israel, the company also had to overcome the international economic embargo on products manufactured in Israel, by establishing its reputation in Israel and abroad as a renowned brand.

Beating Politics with Ideology
Parallel to making international connections and expanding its range of products, the Sindyanna kept working on perfecting the olive oil. This year, for instance, was its second consecutive year of winning the gold medal for organic oil, at the international Premio Biol competition in Italy. This medal joins dozens of other local and international awards from previous competitions, including the prestigious Terraolivo, and the Israeli First Olive Oil Harvest competition.
Ultimately, it was precisely this crisis that pushed the company towards its international breakthrough. Turns out, that the force that can help in breaking through one ideological barrier, is another ideology: production and marketing in accordance with the principles of fair-trade, securing good conditions for the farmers, the workers, and the products themselves, with an emphasis on social values, as well as health.
"We're in contact with the fair-trade movement," Lahav clarifies, "they check each case individually. The approach of fair trade is to empower social businesses that believe in coexistence. We feel that now, of all times, is when this opportunity to sell to the Israeli market really opened up more than ever, there's higher awareness to organic food and to fair-trade", says Lahav. "I think it began back in 2011, in the social justice protests. Fair-trade became part of Israeli discourse". But the awareness to fair trade and to social consumption aren't the only ones that are on the rise, racism is also growing stronger, I tell her. "It's true, racism and hatred did escalate. This is why I believe we would gain more solidarity, precisely from the people who are feeling persecuted, from those left-wing people. We can only win if we support and help one another".

Article written by:
Ari Libsker
Author
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