Women at the Heart of Agroecology and Food Sovereignty in Palestine

An Interview with Lina Isma’il

20 April 2023

Walaa Alqaisiya

is a Marie Curie Global Fellow working across Ca' Foscari University of Venice (Italy), Columbia University in the City of New York (USA) and the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK). Her work is situated across the fields of settler colonialism, decolonial ecologies, and gender and sexuality. She is the author of the book: Decolonial Queering in Palestine (Routledge, 2023).

As a Palestinian woman who was born and raised in a village in the South of Palestine, the plight of the women fallaheen (farmers) has always been a personal and a political concern of mine. I believe it all started with my late grandmother. A powerful woman whose strong connection to the land defied all barriers and taught me the essence of who I am. Despite having lost most of our land to encroaching Zionist colonial settlements, my grandmother held tight to what remained of her land, gave it the love, and care it deserved and, in return, the land gave back. Its yearly harvest of olives fed the whole family and extended care to neighbours too. My grandmothers’ Saj-bread, home-made zibdih (butter), and freshly picked vegetables maintained a world of love, care, and familial resilience that stood in the face of economic hardships. After the death of my grandmother, however, things changed. Not much attention was given to the land, most of which was transformed into housing projects for extended family members. My mother, in fact, recounts how nostalgic she remains to a time when she could wake up every morning to the taste of freshly picked inab (grapes) after a walk out in the beautiful fields. My mother’s nostalgia feeds my own, aggravating my anxious yearning for my late grandmother, her delicious food, and beautifully narrated anecdotes about harvest seasons. It is also this nostalgia that guided my interest to interview a young Palestinian woman, Lina Isma’il, and understand what role women play restoring our (Palestinian) relationship with the land. Lina is a community organiser, researcher, and activist whom I met a year ago during a workshop where she presented a paper and led a discussion about the value of agroecology in the Palestinian local context. The following conversation sheds light on the importance of the work that Lina has been doing around agroecology and food sovereignty. 

Tell us about yourself and your journey into community organising. 

I was born in Nablus and travelled abroad to pursue a MA degree programme in Environmental Sciences, Policies and Management. Time in ghurba (away from home) enforced this sense of needing to serve a cause back in Palestine. Upon returning to Palestine, I started getting involved with several eco-projects and initiatives including volunteering at Marda farm and facilitating permaculture trainings there. I also worked with international aid development agencies, and this made me realise how aid agencies are not helping us ‘develop’ but inflict a dangerous relation of dependency on us. For example, I saw first-hand how these agencies rely on the ‘expert opinion’ of Westerners, casting local Palestinian knowledge as inferior. Further, most aid, specifically conditionally aid, solidifies an idea of development that is abstracted from our own local context and struggle against Zionist settler-colonialism; effectively imposing the illusion that we live as any other sovereign nation. This is where moral dilemmas ensued for me, and I decided to leave this sector.

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I then joined Dalia Association where I have worked for the past six and a half years as a Community Programmes Officer. Dalia was an ideal place for me because it is a community foundation, working with the people on the ground to support grassroots initiatives, thereby countering growing dependency on donor conditional grants. I also became an active volunteer at Sharaka Community Supported Agriculture to promote support for small-scale traditional farmers and restore seasonal food production. I have also taken part in establishing The Palestinian agroecological Forum whose aim is to encourage reliance on the natural resources, including traditional seeds, that are accessible to farmers as a mean to be free from the chemical toxins imposed on them, directly or indirectly, via the Zionist coloniser. To speak of an agroecological model is to promote a farming and feeding system that aligns with Palestinian history and agricultural tradition, both of which lie at the core of our struggle against settler colonialism and capitalism. 

To what extent does your positionality as a woman in the multi-layered context of Palestine pushed you to this focus? Could you perhaps share your thoughts on the role of transgenerational transmission of feminist memory? How much what you do today is inspired by the work of other women including our great-grandmothers?  

Personally, there are things that I am aware of and others that I may not realise. But it is always worthy to contemplate the role of our ancestral matriarchs in passing on memories, relations of care, as well as injuries and trauma that have come to move us in certain directions. Despite my grandmother had passed away my family in Nablus still holds on dearly to the Khuskhaksh (Bitter oranges) tree from which she made juice. I also remember how my maternal grandmother used to make fresh juice out of the rose plants she grew in the backyard. All these stories and memories live with me and are a part of who I am today. There were also other, painful stories, like those that occurred at the time of the Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe, the year when the state of Israel was established.) occurred. When the bombing started, my grandmother had to run outside of the house. She rushed for her life so quickly, forgetting —for split seconds— her baby girl back, inside the house, until the panic seeped in, and she rushed frantically back to grab her child. The Nakba had a personal imprint on me and my family. It separated my paternal and maternal sides of the family from one another to this date. While originally from Asira al-Shamalia, (Village in north of Nablus) my grandfather’s family used to work and live in Haifa side by side to my mother’s family until the Nakba took place and pushed the two families apart. To be able to stay with my father back in Nablus, my mother had to give up her identity card and paid the price of not seeing her family in the North for a long while.

Because of my green ID card and lack of family unification cards, I also grew up deprived of visiting my maternal side of the family. It is these intergenerational struggles that have come to shape my interest in the question of agroecology and food sovereignty as a liberatory project that ties in with the restoration of who we are as a nation. Women are at the heart of this project. When speaking of transgenerational memory, there is my grandmother but also those women who lived and fought during the first Intifada (1987-1993) to restore concepts of social and popular unity. These women played a significant role in mobilising popular committees that hugely defied and undermined the Zionist colonial apparatus. Their capacity to be true leaders, who did not wait for permission from anyone, should inspire and inform the work we do today. The work I do, conjointly with other like-minded women, is to enforce that capacity and role for our women to lead and enforce change. In 2014, together with my dear friend Muna Dajani, we launched a booklet, whose second edition was produced in 2020, titled: Conscious Choices A Guide to Ethical Shopping in Palestine. Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung published the book, which was based on extensive research that we both conducted with the aim of mapping out all locally made and grown products from foods and crafts to wine and clothes. The whole idea came about when I was looking to buy a Handala souvenir and all I could find were Chinese made ones.

Both Muna and I were extremely frustrated at how the neoliberal mode of production in Palestine had effectively marginalised a whole history of craft-making and food growing. In writing and publishing the booklet in Arabic, the idea was to make it accessible to our local readers, motivating them to engage with the farmers and craft makers in their local area, and essentially go and buy from them to help sustain their continuity. The booklet highlights how buying locally produced items supports a whole eco-system whereby, for example, getting your soap from that local factory in Nablus means supporting the farmer from whom the olive oil was taken, as well as the craftsman making soap kits. (i.e., Pottery, olive wood.) The new version of the book, updated in 2021, sheds particular light on agroecological youth cooperatives and the role that is being played by women in growing local foods (baladi) (Literally ‘my country.’  Local heirloom seeds that are seasonally grown and harvested). Indeed, since COVID19 pandemic, I have seen a growing number of women that are taking the role of farming and growing baladi foods starting with their own backyard gardens. Through agroecological farming, these women set an example of what independence looks like. By living within the ethos of ‘I eat the healthy food I grow,’ they relieve themselves effectively from a socio-economic system of patriarchal toxicity. What I mean is that most agrobusinesses are run by rich men who rely on and promote chemicals and toxins, both in terms of nature and the food we consume, as well as in terms of the toxic masculinity enshrined in capitalist-colonial economy. 

Speaking of men and capitalist-colonial economy, we are now witnessing increasing attention being paid by governments and institutions to the ‘green economy.’ Can you share your thoughts on that? Also, could you share some of the stories of the women you work with and how they interact with or challenge this system?

I have been particularly invested in the idea of knowledge production for educating and mobilising purposes. One example has been through the production of a film, launched in 2021 with Dalia, called Untold Revolution. The film documents an agroecological movement that is working towards food sovereignty in Palestine. It sheds light on incredible stories of young women farmers like Iman, from the Jordan Valley region, whose journey is one of defiance and ultimate success. She comes from a context with overwhelming reliance on large scale agricultural production led by male farmers. These projects work either in the service of Zionist economy (i.e., production for settlements) or export-oriented productions. In such a context, both her father and neighbouring farmers would laugh at the idea of her pursuing agroecological farming.

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However, Iman’s persistence proved them all wrong. Her yield was not only successful leading her to expand her project, but also her method became the talk of town during the frost season. While everyone’s crop was damaged, Iman’s stood resilient. Iman and other stories, covered in the film, have been used to inspire and inflict change for other women and their communities. In one incident, where we screened the film and held workshops around agroecology, a woman from Deir Ballout shared her story of how her land, inherited from her father and held dearly to her heart, has been destroyed by the fertilisers and plastic that were imposed through a donor funded project.

As we started working with her to restore the land through agroecology, we could see the immense psychological difference that the restoration of the land had on her and her family, whence she is in the process of restoring relation to the land in ways that echo the teachings of her mother. What I want to say here is that agroecology for me is all about that process of recovering who we are as indigenous women and the identity that we bear in relation to the place that defines us. This is distinct from the kind of feminism being promoted in the West or under capitalist economy, whose ideas for ‘female empowerment’ are hollowed out of class and ideological interests of global south and indigenous women. ‘Green economy’ discourse is symptomatic of the same problems. We are increasingly seeing projects that, under the label of ‘green,’ propose problematic notions of ‘cooperation’ between Israelis and Palestinians; encouraging us to normalise with the same occupier that is robbing us off our natural resources in the first place.

Effectively, ‘green’ is becoming another means to serve the interests of the bourgeoise class system. There is an increasing tendency to impose technological expertise and methods, such as hydroponic farming, that may not suit our farming context and may result in isolating the farmer from the organically developed ways of building a relation with her land. In doing so, these technical requirements become yet another way to marginalise small-scale farmers, whilst enforcing the power of industrial farming, now dubbed as ‘green.’ Looking ahead, therefore, I have a lot of fears in how the system can co-opt our work and turn it to serve its own class and political interests. However, our farmers are proving that they are not ignorant of what goes around them, and the spirit of defiance and hope is what we need to cultivate. 

My conversation with Lina infused in me a feeling of gratefulness for the generosity with which she shared her thoughts about her work. An important take away from her reflections, which also pertain to the kind of interest I have in relation to indigeneity and feminism is how we as women from the colonised South continue to do the crucial and often overlooked work of speaking back not only to patriarchy, but also to the dominant version of white middle class feminism. This type of feminism is not only rampant in the historical context of western capitalism but has also taken traction in Palestine’s urban middle class environment, especially since the late 90s. The Oslo liberal peace structure marked the transformation of the feminist movement from its popular anti-colonial base to that of becoming femocrats. (Short for female technocrats, where the definition of female power is restricted to occupying a given governance system that is available to them under capitalism and in Palestine’s case outright settler colonialism.) The value of the women like my late grandmother and like Lina, the fallaheen, lies in challenging an intersectional system of oppression from colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism, and in so doing in advancing an Indigenous feminist pathway, rooted in the connection with the land.

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