Fair trade and high fashion

Israeli activists bring the concept of fair trade to Palestinian goods.

fair trade 298 (photo credit: )
fair trade 298
(photo credit: )
In November, an odd mix of activists and fashionistas encircled Palestinian farmer Nazeeh Shelab to hear what he had to say about olive oil and the separation barrier that creates a divide between his livelihood and his home. In the trendy new Bayit Benemal mall in Tel Aviv's northern port, one woman was puffing on a pipe while others sat on carpets and Vincent van Gogh stools munching pita drizzled in olive oil, spread with labane cheese and za'atar. Many of those enjoying the speech and spread were sporting knee-high boots and fashions from Comme il Faut, an Israeli fashion house known for its controversial ad campaigns in recent years - campaigns painted with anti-security fence and anti-war slogans. In 2004, the company created waves among Israelis when it shot its summer catalogue at the West Bank security barrier. Comme il Faut's marketing staff invited Shelab, along with the eco-group Green Action and charity development organization Oxfam GB, to speak to the public. The triad are partners in a new kind of dialogue happening between Israelis and Palestinians. It is being called "fair trade." Fair trade is a concept that may eventually be as well recognized as dolphin-free tuna, organic produce and free-range eggs are today. In Europe and North America, reports Oxfam, the attitude toward buying fair trade products is already influencing consumer spending in a big way. Earning a fair trade label from various certification boards worldwide indicates that a farmer has earned a fair wage, workers and land have not been exploited, biodiversity has been protected and pesticide use is minimized. An increasing number of Americans are already hip to fair trade. Laurie T mer, a photographer from Santa Fe who uses many environmental themes in her work, says she notices that people in New Mexico are asking if their chocolate, coffee and other imported items are fair trade. "In the natural food stores here - there are about four in Santa Fe - there is a sticker that indicates fair trade on products. When I don't see this sticker on coffee, I go to the other store that has it. Finding out if it is free trade is one of the only actions people can take to protect workers' rights and health, and their own health," says T mer. According to Transfair USA - a fair trade certification organization based in the US - fair trade is making a large impact on the lives of indigenous peoples where coffee and cocoa are produced. In Colombia, for example, fair trade has helped coffee cooperatives prevent the cultivation of more than 1,600 acres of coca and poppy, used for the production of illicit drugs. In Papua New Guinea, the group reports, one agricultural cooperative is investing in a medical team to increase health standards in an isolated community. In Israel, the notion of fair trade is just starting to take off. Activists such as those from Oxfam believe it's just a matter of time. Yoav Hended from Tel Aviv wrote on the Oxfam website that he is a big supporter of fair trade. "Before Green Action started importing Palestinian olive oil into Israel, I used to import it myself from Bejalla village in the West Bank," wrote Hended, adding, "Fair trade tea and coffee are not available across Israel, but they should be." People living under the Palestinian Authority are also taking stock of fair trade. The Oxfam website highlights student Tamer Abdo from Birzeit University in Ramallah, who thinks fair trade is exciting. He said, "I have studied economics and I think what is happening is unfair, especially in Latin America. People are suffering. In Palestine, politics is affecting economics. Economics should help people." The economic situation for olive growers such as Shelab has been bleak since the second intifada hit and the construction of the security fence began. By 2003, he was protesting the fence that began circumventing his family's homes in Kafr Mascha, south of Kalkilya, from their 120 dunams of olive groves. Shelab is not free to leave the area. He has been blacklisted by Israeli officials after leading protests against the barrier. He can no longer make an honest and decent living as a stonecutter since the Bidya market close to his home shut down. He and other family members (he has 10 children and 90 other relatives) now live off the hundreds of olive trees planted 60 years ago by his grandfather. Shelab and his family enjoyed the extra profits that the olive trees produced in previous years (it was usually the young children who tended the trees, while the men worked in other jobs); the olive trees and their fruit suddenly became the only hope for income to many families. When Shelab met with Green Action's director Avi Levi in 2003 at a security fence demonstration, the country's first effort toward fair trade practices was pioneered. In the beginning, neighbors and friends thought Shelab was crazy for collaborating with Israelis, but now things are starting to look different. He told Metro that other Palestinians are asking him how they can turn their groves and produce to meet organic and fair trade standards. Today, fair trade olive oil can be found at about 25 locations throughout Israel, including Comme il Faut stores and at the activists' hang-out Salon Mazal in Tel Aviv. Levi from Green Action was busy loading boxes of oil into a truck. Green Action, Israel's first activist group to couple social activism with environmentalism, was started in 1994 by Michael Raphael, an American Jew working for Greenpeace in New York. "There was no environmental activism in Israel at the time," recalls Levi, who claims that the group is still the most pro-active green NGO in the country. Green Action, he says, was the first to adopt a pro-active environmental and social agenda in Israel. "If one wants to protect the environment, it cannot be dissociated from social issues." The group is funded by the German Heinrich Boell Foundation. Levi is decidedly against the security barrier, the existence of the IDF and the suffering that Israelis cause Palestinians, such as Shelab. But creating social reform with the "enemy" is not easy, Levi admits. Despite the fact that Levi stands on the left side of the fence defending the rights of Palestinians, the reactions from other Arab organizations around the world have not been good. "As long as you are Israeli, Arabs find it hard to work with you," says Levi, perhaps providing some insight into why Arab groups are not funding Israeli non-profit organizations, even when they benefit Israeli Arabs as well. Although Levi is quiet spoken and shy, he has caused minor amounts of havoc on behalf of Green Action in Israel. Among the better known projects Levi fought against were the Trans-Israel Highway (Highway Six) and building projects such as the Sea and Sun complex on Tel Hashomer beach. Although some may report failure on Green Action's part - the projects all went ahead anyway - Levi says he is not doing what he is doing "to come out as a winner." "While we took on issues that reeked of politics, other groups such as The Union for Environmental Defense [Adam Teva V'din] would stay away from getting involved," he says. The most extreme activity Levi has participated in was a five-day sit-in on a 70-story crane used for building the 69-story Sea and Sun complex in north Tel Aviv. The project was initially zoned for hotel development on a pristine stretch of beach, which was later revealed to be a cover for getting around complicated zoning permits required for residential apartments. "We are like the tip of the sword against the establishment, the government and the municipality," he says. "I think the wall is bad," he comments, suggesting that there are other ways to influence terrorism. Levi doesn't think that the terrorism the world feels today is an invention of Islam, rather a description defined by the West. "Colonialism," he points out, "is not defined as terrorism. When people are wearing uniforms and working on behalf of a government, they can justify antagonistic actions towards people and call them 'just actions.'" Shelab says that terrorists will get wherever they want with or without the fence. He doesn't think the barrier works to curb terrorism. "If people can prevent one suicide bomber, then they think it [the fence] justifies everything," says Levi. Through working by what his heart tells him, Levi hopes to pick up, sift and transmit some new ideas to Israel. Shelab admits that after hooking up with Green Action, some positive things have resulted from the security fence. It was Levi's idea, he says, to start selling fair trade olive oil. At the time, Shelab had heard about organic agriculture. Now he is working with Palestinian agricultural engineer Sadik Udi, who studied organic agriculture in Egypt, where practices are becoming advanced to meet the growing international demand for chemical-free produce. Although no strict body exists under the PA for enforcing organic standards, Shelab thinks that by the end of this year, he and the other farmers will be better organized and have their own standards body. In the meantime, groups like Green Action are working to help Shelab and others sell their products at reasonable rates in Israel. Some young Israelis, especially in Tel Aviv, are taking notice of human suffering close to home. Young women such as Tel Aviv University theater student Yonat Burmill volunteer at border crossings helping Palestinians to get across into Israel. Others like Rachel Ben-Shitrit help to pick olives. Levi does his part to level what his Zionistic predecessors created in the state's formative years. "Coming into a place and forcing your values onto other people is bad," says Levi, taking as an example photographs from Tel Aviv dating back to the Twenties. The pictures, he says, showed people living among sand dunes in the Levant, "sitting in cafes, wearing white suits in the desert but acting like they were in Vienna." Talking about this all goes back to reiterating the relevance of fair trade, he says. "We are trying to give people a sense of where products are coming from." Green action is also involved in importing and distributing a small selection of foreign products such as coffee and cocoa. Ishai Menuchin, a researcher for Oxfam in Israel, is behind supporting fair trade initiatives in Israel. Oxfam has been helping Green Action pay for advertising and make connections with other organizations, says Menuchin. Oxfam is also supporting crafts and basketware created by Ethiopian women in Kiryat Gat. That project is called My Sister. "The idea of fair trade is beginning here [in Israel]… People are starting to ask more about it, and the market is opening," says Menuchin, comparing Israel to what one can find in Europe where fair trade is a commercial endeavor, not something handled by non-governmental organizations. Oxfam's money, he says, comes from Europe and Great Britain. Ben-Shitrit, an activist for a variety of organizations and anarchist operative, helped kick off the fair trade products in Israel last year. "Here fair trade is on our doorstep," says Ben-Shitrit, who demonstrated against the fence and now helps Palestinians pick their harvest, as a majority of grove owners and their children are not allowed to pass the security fence on a regular basis. "This year, there weren't many olives to pick," she explains. "Olive trees produce in alternate year cycles, and this year the harvest was very small." She admits that the security barrier may prevent terrorism but is most concerned that it stands for the political and economical interests of the state. As the meeting wound down, Ben-Shitrit stood outside with Shelab and others while Shelab coolly spoke about his life inside the security fence. Whether one was wearing fashion suited for the catwalk that night or simple T-shirts advocating activism, people left the encounter with Shelab feeling that they had participated in something bigger. They would go home to their beds, but Shelab would spend the night at a stranger's house in Tel Aviv, as the border to his village was closed. As Levi packed up the last boxes of olive oil with the image of Shelab's face on their labels, he motioned for Shelab to enter his small truck. A few activists continued the dialogue well into the night. For more information about Green Action, call (03) 518-4770 or visit info@greenaction.org.il.