Imagine a rugged landscape, the snow capped peaks of some of the worlds highest mountains, glaciers reaching down their sides, lakes filled with icy blue-green water and then – once spring has finally arrived in the valleys – a sea of blossoms in shades of white and pink: that’s the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan. In summer, once pollinated, the blossoms will turn into apricots, apples, cherries, almonds and walnuts.

Apricot tree heavy with ripe fruit – all the force and beauty of nature

The Hunza Valley, or the Fair Trade Mountain Fruit company to be precise is where the apricot kernel- and almond-oil we use comes from. The area has been famous for its fruit and nuts for centuries. And since 2000 some of the growing is done under Fairtrade conditions. But it’s not simply books for community schools, student grants and play grounds, generators and irrigation projects: ‘Because of Fairtrade it is now acceptable for women to work and to be in a management position’, says Richard Friend who has been involved in the project from the start. No mean feat in a traditional Muslim society. Most people in the Hunza Valley belong to the Ismaili Muslim community, known for its sponsorship of science, the art and the education of both boys and girls. Still, for the two production centres for fruit and nuts in the Hunza Valley to not only have a predominantly female workforce of nearly two-hundred, but also being successfully run by women is an achievement that needed a lot of men to think again and ditch some prejudices.

A woman carrying fruits irrigated by glacial meltwater from the Karakorum and Himalayan Mountains

Women and men are involved in the harvest. The apricots are dried on site in the villages. After a few days the stones can be removed and are sent to the nut processing unit in Damas, where they are cracked and the kernel is removed. About 30% don’t come out whole but break up; the small pieces are ideal for going into the oil press – which is where we finally get to the apricot kernel oil. (For to the almond oil the process is similar).

Sun dried fruits are grade before further process

How the Fairtrade money is used is decided by the producer executive which includes regional representatives for 6,000 farmers, several of whom are women, and of course it includes the two women who run the production facilities. It takes about eight months to deal with the annual harvest, which leaves four months in which the classes can be run in the factory, teaching the women to sew or other skills that will enable them to earn some extra income.

Fairtrade has improved life in the Hunza Valley. But carving out a living remains hard, not just because of the extreme temperatures, months of constant frost in winter and very hot summers, or because of the isolation: National Highway 35, better known as the Karakorum Highway, built in the 70s, used to connect the valley with Peshawar and Islamabad in the south and China to the north.

‘Because of Fairtrade it is now acceptable for women to work and to be in a management position’, says Richard Friend

A massive landslide in 2010 did not just block N35, it backed up the Hunza river creating a gigantic lake – thousands of people were displaced. There is still a very real danger that the lake might burst its banks and flood the whole valley. And there are the political threats.

Photo credit: Tropical Wholefoods