Olive oil connoisseurs, take note. I recently tasted organic olive oil that would satisfy the most discerning palates, and it has the added element of peace-building, too.
While traveling in the West Bank for the first time as USAID’s Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for the Middle East last month, I noticed the landscape was dotted with olive trees. To Palestinian farmers, olive trees represent economic opportunities and hold cultural significance. A hundred thousand Palestinian families in the West Bank depend on the olive oil industry, an important part of the Palestinian economy.
Olive oil also represents an important opportunity for peace-building in a region marked with strife
Enter: USAID’s Olive Oil Without Borders. Implemented by the U.S.-based Near East Foundation, the project builds trust, mutual understanding and collaboration through economic cooperation in olive oil. It has allowed 1,500 Palestinian and Israeli olive farmers, mill operators and olive oil distributors to meet, share farming methods in workshops, improve their skills and increase olive oil production and profit through global exports.
All of this is consistent with USAID’s mission to promote resilient, democratic societies.
In the past, olive oil prices in the West Bank fell because the market was limited and exports were minimal. One of the most striking achievements of Olive Oil Without Borders was an agreement reached in February 2013 by Palestinian and Israeli officials that allowed Israeli citizens to purchase Palestinian olive oil for the first time in 10 years. As a result, in less than two years, 3,600 metric tons of Palestinian olive oil were sold to Israeli companies. Palestinian farmers increased revenues by $20 million.
During my visit, I met Muhammed Shouly at his organic olive farm in Asira Shamaliya, in the northern West Bank. Shouly has been actively involved in Olive Oil Without Borders since its launch in 2011.
For centuries, Palestinian farmers relied solely on rainwater for their olive trees. During cross-border meetings that brought Shouly and other Palestinian farmers together with their Israeli counterparts, he learned about supplementary irrigation, a technique to provide olive trees with additional water. Shouly applied this method on his olive orchard during the summer months and it tripled his harvest.
I also talked to Miyassar Yassin, another farmer from Asira Shamaliya participating in Olive Oil Without Borders. She took part in an olive oil quality tasting seminar with Palestinian and Israeli farmers, learning to quickly identify virgin and extra virgin olive oil
The project has upgraded 18 olive mills in the West Bank and Israel, representing one-fifth of the olive mills in the area. The renovation of Qussay Hamadneh’s mill—which included the replacement of steel tanks for storing olive oil—vastly improved sanitary conditions and boosted the quality of the olive oil produced.
Olive Oil Without Borders is just one of dozens of programs that we support throughout the West Bank and Israel. Its success lies in bringing together individuals from different backgrounds to work on issues of common concern. The visit gave me great hope because participants are not only learning how to increase production, they are also learning about each other
Before leaving, I planted an olive tree. I know the farmers I met will nurture it, and I look forward to coming back to see how it has grown and pick its olives.