We are currently staying at Bustan Qaraaqa in Palestine and just happen to be here during olive harvest season… we are also here during an interesting time because of the Shalit Deal, where Israel swaps one Israeli soldier for 1027 imprisoned Palestinians… so, how do we link olives with the Shalit Deal??
Well, ironically, the olive leaf is a symbol of abundance, glory, wisdom, fertility, pureness and peace… but here people are oppressed, getting their olive groves and rain water cisterns destroyed by Israel as the natural water resources are monopolised (on average Israelis have access to 4 times as much water as Palestinians). People’s ability to sustain themselves is being taken away from them. In the past every self respecting family in Palestine would produce their own olive oil but now many are shifting to buy their oil as access to their land is taken away and their trees are uprooted… more about that later!
This post is all about olives – from harvesting to preserving – and hopefully you will find it useful, particularly if you live in a Mediterranean climate and grow olives yourself, or want to. If not, perhaps it will just help you make sense of things a little more… about olives or about Palestine.
The olives at Bustan Qaraaqa were picked from around 15 trees (although there are 60 in the grove, these were the only productive ones this year) by around 9 people over 2 days by ‘milking’ the branches – sliding your hands gently down the branches allowing the olives to drop onto some blankets below. The olives are harvested in the green to purple stage, and this can be done soon after the first autumn rain has fallen. As a side note, I read that canned black olives may contain chemicals (usually ferrous sulfate) that turn them black artificially. Try making sense of that…
As part of their permaculture approach, Bustan Qaraaqa grows olive trees as a polyculture rather than monoculture (as it is traditionally done). This is achieved through intercropping, for instance, with legume trees or ground covers such as chickpea which produces the much loved hommous. Data is then collected in order to assess whether polyculture improves trees’ productivity.
At this time of year families everywhere are encouraging friends, family and tourists to help them with the harvest and from our experience at the Bustan Qaraaqa farm it is a fun, social activity.
Sorting and weighing the olives
Olive trees produce every year but the amount varies from year to year. This particular olive grove had become unproductive because the trees hadn’t been pruned until Bustan Qaraaqa moved in; they were neglected and water stressed due to soil degradation and decreasing rainfall. In response, the trees were pruned, ‘fed’ with manure and lime, and swales (water harvesting ditches) were dug to increase soil humidity. The digging of the swales is thought to have the most profound effect on productivity. So now production is increasing but it is still dependent on the water received throughout the year… and rain is still low here in Beit Sahour, just 200-300 mm per year!
Cold pressed olive oil
Bustan Qaraaqa mills the olives locally, bringing home cold pressed olive oil. The amount of oil contained in the fruit differs greatly by cultivar but the outer, edible layer is usually 60–70% oil. According to what I have read, typical yields are 1.5–2.2 kg of oil per tree per year. 15 trees from Bustan Qaraaqa‘s recovering grove produced 25L this year and we’ve preserved 5kg of olives too!
The oil is the result of the first press and is a cloudy slightly green colour. The green colour fades over time and the flavour mellows. The oil from the first press is considered one of the few truly healthy oils because it is a mono-unsaturated fat with high amounts of potent antioxidants, and a low content of cholesterol. Something people often forget though is that while olive oil is good for you at room temperature, healthy properties are destroyed when the olive oil is heated (and causes free radicals).
When olive oil is produced, the byproducts are olive cake and effluent. Here in the West Bank where there is no waste disposal, these byproducts are generally dumped around the edge of town. Unfortunately, this contributes to polluting an already polluted environment. The effluent (the water used in the process) is also discharged without treatment into streams, causing nitrification.
In the permaculture way, people could turn the problem into a solution. The olive cake could be used as a fire fuel due to the oil content remaining in it – simply compressed in to brickettes and burnt! Bustan Qaraaqa sometimes takes the olive cake to compost and use as soil in their gardens. But then, this is just another of the issues they are trying to educate on here… even composting the olive tree prunings isn’t normally done in Palestine – like everything else here, it is burnt, under the misunderstanding that this is a clean way of dealing with it.
How to preserve olives
Olives are a naturally bitter fruit so they are fermented or cured with brine to make them more palatable. Freshly picked olives are not palatable because they contain phenolic compounds and oleuropein, a glycoside which makes the fruit too bitter… although apparently not unhealthy. We cut 2 slits in to our olives and soaked them in water for 10 days, changing the water every day to remove the oleuropein, which is a bitter carbohydrate. We then made up some brine (salty water at a ratio of 1:8 salt to water) and experimented with some different combinations as we packed them in to sterilised jars: olives with lemon, garlic and chilli in brine is one example, but some contained cider vinegar, rosemary vinegar, bay leaves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, dried sage and zaatar (oregano).
As a side note, we could also have fermented our olives which would have leached out and broken down the oleuropein and phenolic compounds and also created lactic acid (a natural preservative – just like when we make our natural butter!).
About olive trees
The olive tree is very hardy as it is quite drought, disease and fire resistant, and it can live to a great age.
Olive trees prefer calcareous soils, flourishing best on limestone slopes and crags which is perfect where Bustan Qaraaqa is! They grow in any heavy soil, even on clay if well drained, but in rich soils they are predisposed to disease and produce poorer oil than in poorer soil.
The older an olive tree is, the broader and more gnarled its trunk appears. Some trees are claimed to be 2,000 years old! And in some cases it has been scientifically verified too… although, apparently it is quite difficult to age as they rot from the inside out. There are also two ancient giant olive trees in the Arab town of Arraba and 5 trees in Deir Hanna, in the Galilee area, which have been determined to be over 3,000 years old. We have heard that here in Palestine there is an olive tree in Al Wallaja which is claimed to be somewhere between 3000 and 7000 years old (depending on the carbon dating method the scientist uses)! However, they only attain that age thanks to human ‘management’ (pruning, watering, etc). This then shows cultural continuity in the region, whereby farmers take care of the olive trees generation after generation.
To finish on olive trees, we know a lot about them, but… we still don’t know where they originally come from! It is thought that they have originated either in South Caucasus or in Yemen.
The politics of olive harvesting in Palestine
It is to be noted that at this time of year, there is always a massive peak of violence related to access to olive trees. What once was a social, happy event that brought much to the Palestinian economy is now stressful because of the violence which is now related to control of the olive tree fields. As this interesting article explains:
Palestinian farmers have had their land stolen, their crops set on fire, their trees uprooted, and their farms fenced-off beyond their reach and bricked up behind the Separation Wall, and so on. Their orchards have been razed to make way for the building of ever more illegal settlements and racist settler-only roads, and to make way for the continued construction of the illegal “apartheid” wall as well as for no other reason than simply to grab more Palestinian land.
Whereas in the past the olive harvest traditionally provided employment for thousands upon thousands of people in each region, with families working together to bring in the crops, to press the olives, to manufacture the by-products (and to export them), there are now fewer people who can earn a living this way; as a result, Palestinian families are struggling desperately. In 2010 alone it is estimated that “Israeli forces and settlers uprooted or burnt at least 10,346 olive trees in the West Bank.” In Gaza it is estimated by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Agriculture, that Israeli forces have “destroyed at least 114,000 olive trees in the strip since the outbreak of the Palestinian Intifada in 2000.” In fact, conservative estimates put the number of olive trees destroyed by the Israelis since the creation of the Zionist state on Palestinian land in 1948 at more than one million; of those, around half have been destroyed since 1987.
The article also explains that Israeli authorities destroy the crops of Palestinian farmers by levelling the farmland using armoured tractors and bulldozers and simply razing the crops and groves. Other times, Israeli soldiers themselves are responsible for much of the destruction by firing small bombs into the fields which catch alight and burn the crops. Sometimes Israel issues military orders demanding that farmers refrain from picking their crops and then arrest them if they refuse to comply. This year, we heard an account of the soldiers telling the Palestinian farmers that too few people were on the land harvesting to prove the land was being suitably used so that next year they’ll be denied access… while other groups of people have been told to stop harvesting and leave because only the owner (in this case the old grandfather of the family) is authorised to harvest. Settler attacks also take many forms, including the burning of fields and trees; digging-up trees, both ancient and saplings; beating-up farmers who tend their crops, and so on.
How does Israel justify their actions?
Well, in brief… soon after the West Bank and Gaza Strip fell under the Israeli occupation in 1967, land transactions became forbidden without a written permit, which implied that land registration was compulsory from that date. Since then, many orders which affect the land directly have been issued. Among these was the reclassification of land in the occupied territories. Some land was classified as “rocky lands, unsuitable for cultivation”, others as “nature reserves”, and a third class as “essential military territory”. The result was the confiscation of more land, redefined as state land, to be used to build Israeli settlements.
In 1980, the Israeli government adopted a new “legal” approach to state lands. This approach declared uncultivated, unregistered land as state land. This means that land which is not cultivated for 10 years or more can be claimed as state land under the reasoning that they are “neglected” or “abandoned” by its owners and therefore confiscated to ensure “proper” and “efficient” use. You can see from the stories above how the interpretations by Israel, the soldiers and the settlers on how land is being “cultivated” (or not) can vary according to their desires to grab land and hence the tensions during olive harvest…
It is evident to anyone visiting here that Israel has stolen great quantities of land from the Palestinians and used it to establish many settlements in the West Bank, like the large imposing one on the top of the hill in the photo to the left. Israel prohibits Palestinians from entering and using these lands, and uses the settlements to justify numerous violations of the Palestinians’ human rights, such as the right to housing, to earn a livelihood, and the right to freedom of movement.
The destruction of Palestinian olive groves and orchards is just another human rights issue here as people already struggling under the threat of occupation, arrest, harrassment and death are also denied a source of income and sense of normality in carrying out their traditional livelihoods. Additionally, it is an environmental issue with the destruction of agricultural land and burning of crops… not to mention the effects of land and water pollution by the Israeli regime and its impact on people, plants and animals.
This is why Bustan Qaraaqa are here and why we are so interested in learning what can be achieved using permaculture under such difficult circumstances. Please take the time to read their website and if you can, donate from their website to help this very low budget project of dedicated and inspiring people continue their incredible and challenging work.