‘The olive tree is like a child. I tend its growth as I would tend my children.’

Awad Melhim sits on a rock on a sunny windy day in Anin, Palestine, and surveys his farm. Behind him, a beautiful semi-wild, semi-cultivated landscape stretches between blue hills in the background and olive trees to the fore. For me, watching from the mild, damp west of Britain, it is instantly recognisable as the dry exotic ‘Holy Land’ that featured in childhood Sunday School picture books. It would appear as if little had changed since the days depicted in those books if it weren’t for ‘The Wall’ – a monstrous blot cutting through an ancient scene, dividing the land from one horizon to the other.

The construction of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, or ‘Separation Wall’ as it is more commonly known, started in 2002. It runs for 440 miles (708 kilometres) with 85% of its length inside the West Bank, often up to 12 miles away from the actual Palestine/Israel border. As a result, approximately 13.5% of the West Bank is on the other side of the Wall, including 20 dunum (2 hectares) of Awad’s land.

Awad is sitting on a rock, talking into a microphone in a wind that sometimes makes it difficult to hear what he and his interpreter, Taysir Arbasi, are saying to those of us listening by Zoom, in offices, kitchens and living rooms across the UK. (Taysir Arbasi is Advocacy and Liaison Officer for Zaytoun – a Fairtrade company that supports Palestinian farmers.) Cathi Pawson, co-founder of Zaytoun, tries to get things in order when the sound disappears altogether, and I take the opportunity to look closely at Awad’s land and try to imagine being separated from a third of my land by a 26 foot (8 metre) high slab of concrete and wire.

The annual Fairtrade Fortnight (‘Choose the world you want’ festival) is focussing this year on the climate crisis, and Awad and Taysir are talking about climate resilience and what that means for farming under occupation in Palestine. Despite the technical difficulties, it is one of the wonders of modern technology that we, in the UK, can join them, ‘Live from the olive groves’, to hear their first-hand accounts and opinions.

It has been 14 years since Awad last had a permit to visit his land beyond the ‘Wall’ and this is the case for many West Bank farmers. With restrictions imposed on Palestinian access to artificial fertilisers, animal manure has become increasingly significant but is difficult to obtain because much of the traditional grazing land is now out of reach. ‘In better times,’ explains Awad, ‘we had flocks of sheep, goats and cows,‘ but the reduction in accessible land has made it challenging for the farmers to continue to rear livestock.

Awad believes the need for animal manure for self-sufficiency and food security in the face of climate change, cannot be overstated. With greater fluctuations in the seasons, stronger winds and long heatwaves followed by torrential rains, the land and crops are suffering and there has been a significant drop in productivity. So, he is returning to ‘the old ways’.

’I used to see my father and grandfather delivering manure to the land using donkeys and heaping it around the trees. So, I do as they did because I am interested in how they looked after the trees.’

The Anin Cooperative joined Palestine Fairtrade Association (PFTA) in 2006 and it has significantly improved the local community and the lives of its members. Being paid a fair price for their produce and securing guaranteed routes to market has made previously failing farms viable. The Fairtrade Premium earned by the cooperative helps fund equipment and community projects. In the absence of their own livestock and grazing lands the farmers’ cooperative is able to buy in the manure needed to nurture their trees and preserve moisture. Taysir flags up the need for outreach to more farmers – of the 2000 farmers in the area only 85 are members of the PFTA, and most of the farmers cannot obtain help marketing produce or buying in tools and manure.

It is not just the human connection to land that is severed when the powers-that-be build walls. Dividing ancient migration routes and cutting off feeding and breeding grounds to a wide range of native fauna has a devastating effect and in turn impacts flora that depends on animals for the dispersal of its seeds. All who depend on the land suffer and this is exacerbated by climate change.

One example of the problems caused to humans by this unbalancing of nature is the dramatic increase in the number of wild boars on West Bank farmland. Awad believes this increase is in large part due to illegal settlers releasing animals on the Palestinian side of the wall, a view that has been taken up by many commentators over the past two decades. Along with presenting a risk to the safety of the local communities, the boars destroy crops and dig for water around the roots of trees. ‘Farmers don’t want to plant almonds,’ Awad says ruefully, ‘the boars destroy everything we plant.’

Of course, Israel’s Separation Wall is not the only barrier that divides both people and wildlife. Nor is the Israel / Palestine conflict the only threat to food security, as the current disaster unfolding in Ukraine will testify.

As the price of fossil fuels, artificial fertilisers and, ultimately, food rockets worldwide, we are all getting a glimpse of what farmers like Awad have been quietly dealing with for decades. After his job as a labourer in Israel was taken from him due to the construction of The Wall, Awad turned back to his family olive grove. He understood better than many that only by returning to the age-old practices of his people could he ensure a living from his farm because dependence on chemical inputs could no longer be relied upon or sustained. He also knew that farming and the marketing of his produce would be far more difficult in isolation. Despite the loss of a third of his land, the restrictions of living under occupation and the growing effects of climate change, Awad’s faith in traditional cultivation methods and membership of his local cooperative and PFTA are paying off. Therein lies a lesson for us all.

Live from the olive groves in Palestine

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