Olive groves outside of Afrin. Photo courtesy of Bertramz.

The gov­ern­ment of Turkey has been accused of steal­ing olives from neigh­bor­ing Syria, press­ing them into oil and sell­ing that oil to European Union coun­tries, includ­ing Spain, labeled as Turkish olive oil.

These rev­e­la­tions came to light after an exhaus­tive inves­tiga­tive report from Spanish news­pa­per El Público, Turkish gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments obtained and pub­lished by Firat News Agency (ANF), obser­va­tions from the United Kingdom-​based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and infor­ma­tion seen by a Swiss politi­cian.

The Syrian Observatory learned that thou­sands of olive oil tanks were stolen from olive com­pres­sors in the Afrin coun­try­side, by fac­tions oper­at­ing in the ‘Olive Branch’ oper­a­tion, and they were sold in sev­eral mar­kets.- Syrian Observatory for Human Rights observer based in Afrin

“In Turkish-​occupied Afrin, the olive groves are being pil­laged by both Turkish forces and the mili­tias they sup­port,” Bernhard Guhl, a Swiss Member of Parliament (MP) from the coun­try’s Conservative Democratic Party, said. “The olives they steal have been sold to Spain, and the sale will con­tinue.”

Turkey invaded the north­west­ern Syrian province of Aleppo, in which Afrin is located, in January 2018 in an effort to pro­tect its inter­ests in the region. Known, as Operation Olive Branch, the effort was meant to help sta­bi­lize the region, but many in the area say that Turkey is exploit­ing Afrin for eco­nomic gain. Turkey is the third largest exporter of olive oil to the European Union, after Tunisia and Morocco.

See more: Olive Oil Fraud

Saleh Ibo, the Agricultural Council Deputy Chairperson for the dis­trict of Afrin, told AFN that Turkey has made at least $80 mil­lion from the seized Syrian olives.

“They have also been con­fis­cat­ing the fields and olive groves of peo­ple who have had to flee Afrin due to the Turkish state vio­lence in the months since the inva­sion,” he said. “We can say that 80 per­cent of the olives in Afrin are being taken to Turkey with no cost through the [para­mil­i­tary groups] and the coun­cils they formed.”

According to local sources who spoke with El Público, the Syrian olives are pressed in local mills that have been taken over by these para­mil­i­tary groups. The result­ing oil is then trans­ported over the bor­der to Turkey where it is blended with and labeled as Turkish olive oil, before it is then sent on to European Union coun­tries, some­thing that has been made much eas­ier after a recent trade deal was signed between the two.

This infor­ma­tion has not been con­firmed inde­pen­dently by Olive Oil Times. However, it lines up with what sources for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have seen on the ground in Afrin. The group mon­i­tors human rights abuses in the coun­try, which is enter­ing its ninth year of civil war.

“The Syrian Observatory learned that thou­sands of olive oil tanks were stolen from olive com­pres­sors in Afrin coun­try­side, by fac­tions oper­at­ing in the ‘Olive Branch’ oper­a­tion, and they were sold in sev­eral mar­kets,” the Observatory said in a state­ment on its web­site.

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights mon­i­tored the con­fis­ca­tion of thou­sands of olive oil tanks and the olive har­vest, and the cut­ting of hun­dreds of trees to be sold as fire­wood,” the state­ment con­tin­ued.

According to inter­views con­ducted with Turkish sources by El Público and the doc­u­ments released by ANF, at least 5,000 tons of olive oil have been pro­duced in this man­ner, which in today’s mar­ket is worth about $80 mil­lion. The same fig­ure that Ibo esti­mated.

Of the $80 mil­lion, as much as $22 mil­lion has been returned to the var­i­ous para­mil­i­tary groups and coun­cils, which have been work­ing with Turkey to main­tain con­trol of the region. Local sources believe that Turkey and these allies are prepar­ing to con­tinue this process in the future.

While Turkey has not for­mally acknowl­edged these accu­sa­tions, Bekir Pakdemirli, the Turkish Minister of Agriculture, told state media late last year that the gov­ern­ment would be con­fis­cat­ing olives grown in the region in order to pre­vent them from being processed and sold by the Kurdish forces that pre­vi­ously occu­pied the area.

Turkey views the Kurds, who are spread across Turkey, Syria as well as Iraq and have been seek­ing an inde­pen­dent state of their own for the past 70 years, as var­i­ous ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions. The Kurds have been staunch U.S. allies in the fight against the so-​called Islamic State.

A Turkish board mem­ber for the International Olive Council and a board mem­ber of the Aegean Exporters Association both declined to com­ment on this story. The Turkish Olive and Olive Oil Producers Association did not respond to mul­ti­ple requests for com­ment.

Meanwhile, in Spain there has been no for­mal com­ments on these rev­e­la­tions by the National Association of Industrial Packers and Edible Oil Refiners (Anierac) nor the Spanish Association of the Olive Oil Exporting Industry and Commerce (Asoliva).

However, Luis Escalante, who runs the small Andalusian olive oil com­pany Aurum, told El Público that he had received sus­pi­cious sales solic­i­ta­tions from Turkey recently. Escalante has pur­chased olive oil from the Middle East for many years and said that noth­ing like this has hap­pened before.

“Only a few days ago an export com­pany from Adana called Ozcelic Trading con­tacted us to offer us oil, and the truth is that this is not the usual thing,” Escalante said. Adana is located two hours away from the Syrian bor­der.

Spain is seen as an ideal des­ti­na­tion for Turkish olive oil, par­tic­u­larly fraud­u­lent oil, because such large amounts are imported and exported each year that it is hard for cus­toms agents to check all of it.

“It is not sur­pris­ing that the Turks have resorted to Spain,” Escalante said.

He points out that Spanish com­pa­nies also have been known to re-​export oil from Tunisia and Morocco labeled as Spanish olive oil. Last year, DCoop was crit­i­cized for import­ing and export­ing prac­tices per­tain­ing to olive oil acquired in Morocco.

“Nor is it unlikely that there are Spanish com­pa­nies involved in these ille­gal activ­i­ties because in our coun­try there is a long tra­di­tion of import­ing oils from coun­tries like Tunisia, to be mar­keted later as their own to third coun­tries,” Escalante said.

Guhl, the Swiss MP, said now that aware­ness of this type of fraud is increas­ing, it is imper­a­tive that European Union coun­tries work together to stop it.

“It does­n’t mat­ter if the final des­ti­na­tion is Spain or Germany,” he said. “I believe that it is very impor­tant that the coun­try or coun­tries con­cerned launch a crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion to deter­mine whether com­pa­nies are trad­ing stolen olives or olive oil.”

At the time of writ­ing, no crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion had yet been launched by Spanish or European author­i­ties.




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