For Fairtrade Fortnight 2020, we are delighted to host Mohammed Ruzzi of the Palestine Fair Trade Association. In his role as manager of the PFTA, he works closely with farmers in 51 cooperatives to ensure the future of regenerative farming in Palestine. Using both old and new techniques to enrich the soil, the farmers saw an increased yield during their last harvest, at a time when they are experiencing the impact of climate change.
We caught up with Mohammed recently to ask him more about climate change, and the role of regenerative farming for farmers under occupation in Palestine. For a chance to hear Mohammed speak, check out our Fairtrade Fortnight events around the UK and in Dublin, via our Facebook events page
and on this news page.
Have the farmers with whom you work noticed any climate change patterns?
Yes, for the last few years there has been less rain – not just in Palestine but over all of the Middle East. Because of that, the productivity of the trees has declined. With the olive trees, it’s normal to have a low-yield year (‘shalatoun’) followed by a high-yield year. 2017 and 2018 were both shalatoun years. Thankfully the 2019 harvest was better.
How does the reduced rainfall affect the crops?
The olive trees are rain-fed, not irrigated – a lack of water affects their immune system, so pests and diseases become more of a problem.
Have you changed your practices to compensate for the reduced rainfall?
We’ve focussed on reducing water loss from the soil through regenerative farming practices – we use intercropping and cover crops such as clover so that the soil isn’t bare, and add compost around the trees. We have been adopting zero tillage which increases moisture retention in the soil, and we use some landrace and heritage varieties that are well suited to dry conditions.
All of these practices also add to the health of the soil – the micro-organisms in the organic compost help break down complex materials to make nutrients more available for the trees, the clover fixes nitrogen to the soil and improves biological fertility, and zero tillage helps keep carbon and nutrients in the soil.
Are these practices new to many farmers, or part of traditional farming in Palestine?
Palestinian farmers have for many generations used intercropping between the trees, and adding compost. Zero tillage is new to many farmers, and some of the older farmers have a strong belief that the more they plough the soil, the higher the productivity. What we’ve found is that some farmers are willing to adopt new practices like this, and through the network of the Palestine Fair Trade Association they then share their experience with other cooperatives, becoming local trainers. We’ve found that zero tillage works to increase productivity of the trees – so we’ve gone from 20 farmers willing to try it, to 50 farmers.
How else does the PFTA support regenerative farming?
Through the network of 51 cooperatives under our umbrella, it’s easier to showcase what works and what doesn’t. We support farmers by distributing seeds for intercropping, and research beneficial practices. We welcome visitors from overseas who come to train our farmers in regenerative practices. Not everything can be applied to the situation in Palestine, so we then work out how to adapt what we learn.
We support farmers to use crop rotation to naturally build up the soil and reduce the impact of diseases and pests. For example, this year many farmers might plant wheat, next year they will plant legumes, then potato, then wheat again.
We also distribute and collect landrace seeds. The vegetable harvests from these can be marketed and the farmers who grow the seeds are supporting us to build up a seed bank that helps us to remain resilient in the face of climate change and the occupation.
I have a plot on my family farm where I practice zero tillage and other practices we research, and I keep bees there too. I show the farmers what works well for me, personally.
How does regenerative farming support your resilience under occupation?
We run an organic program, and in Palestine that hasn’t always been easy – we cannot import or use certain organic-certified inputs because of the prohibitions of the occupation. Regenerative farming means a reduction in inputs in general – the compost we use comes from local, family farms, not from intensive farming. It closes the loop of inputs and outputs as well as builds the fertility of the soil here.
The seeds we use are ‘baladi’ – native seeds that are easier for the soil to grow and more resilient to disease and pest, meaning less need for any inputs at all. They aren’t GMO seeds, or treated in any way.
So would you say regenerative farming practices are a growing success story in Palestine?
Well, here still not so many people have taken it up. It’s been most popular amongst PFTA farmers because overseas customers have proved there is a market for their products. Our customers prefer food that is grown in this way, because it’s better for their health – the food has more nutrients – and better for the environment. Because there’s a sustainable market, it makes it viable to farm in this way.
The farmers who are using regenerative farming practices have been finding that it also creates sustainable production, increasing productivity and income. The first thing for farmers here is to establish a good living from the land. Many of them also know that intensive farming isn’t the best when it comes to health of the crops and the people who consume them – even those farmers who work their land intensively will favour an area where they grow organically, for home consumption.
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