The city of Bethlehem has attracted tourists seeking peace and meaning for centuries, and for local Bethlehem residents, this stream of tourists is an economic lifeline. In a region where jobs are so scarce, many small handicrafts shops have appeared, where Bethlehem craftsmen can earn an income selling olive wood carvings that symbolise the memory of Bethlehem for visitors.
There’s a darker side to Bethlehem’s woodcarving industry, though. Olive wood artisans often work in small spaces where generations of fine sawdust is thick on the walls, the floor, the roof and even in the garden outside. It takes a serious toll on the health of these craftspeople who often work with wood throughout their entire lives. They can develop coughs and respiratory problems, and even cancer.
For many of these artisans, this is just the way life goes. Their parents before them had worked in the same conditions, just like their grandparents and the generations before them.
One woman, Basma, saw the unsafe conditions faced by Bethlehem’s woodworkers and was determined to make a change. Heading up local enterprise Holy Land Handicrafts – whose wood carvings we sell in our own Global Handicrafts shop – she started making workplaces safer for the 35 workshops in the cooperative. At first, she met resistance. “Why change things from the way our ancestors have done things for generations?” the olive wood families asked her. With education and advocacy, though, Basma started to see people’s attitudes shift, and she finally found one woodworker named Raja, who agreed to let her help him adapt his workshop to make it safer and in line with fair trade principles.
An engineering team worked on Raja’s workshop for months. They re-painted the walls, cleaned out generations of wood dust, and most importantly, installed an extractor device that sucks up wood dust and coating fumes, removing them safely from the workspace. Raja coats his wood carvings in lacquer to preserve them. Inhaling the fumes for many years had damaged Raja’s health.
“Before, I was coughing all the time when I put lacquer on the carvings,” he explains. “But since I’ve been using the extraction hood, I noticed that I’ve stopped coughing. I can breathe better and my health has improved. It really changed my life.”
In such a small community, it doesn’t take long for stories to spread. The fact that Raja had suddenly stopped coughing reached the ears of other artisans and their wives. Soon, dozens of other woodworking families were begging Holy Land Handicrafts to renovate their own shops too. Thus far, 9 shops have been renovated and many more are on the waiting list! It’s literally changing the health and lives of Bethlehem’s artisans. For their wives too, it’s a relief to know that their own sons, who intend to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, might escape the health problems that have plagued generations of local woodworkers. “Before the renovation, I wouldn’t allow my son to work in this business,” said one mother. “There was so much noise and dust everywhere. It just wasn’t safe and I didn’t want to expose my child to this, even if he wanted it himself. But because of the renovation, I’m now happy for my son to follow his father.”
Olive wood carvings from Holy Land Handicrafts are popular sellers in the Global Handicrafts shop, especially at Christmas time. Now we, and our customers, can breathe a little easier, knowing that the artisans can, too! It’s a joy to know that fair trade truly is changing, and saving lives.