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Food, Agriculture, Sovereignty: A book that dismantles the myths of Tunisian agriculture

By Hafawa REBHI

Food, Agriculture, Sovereignty. What seems at first glance an umpteenth study on the agricultural sector in Tunisia is a polymorphic and polyphonic book.

To demonstrate the correlation between the three notions, the members of the Working Group for Food Sovereignty (GTSA), supported by the German Social Democrat Foundation, Friedrich Ebert, used all the disciplines that could have served their purpose. History, geography, microeconomics, macroeconomics, sociology, journalism ... Far from creating deformities, this mixture of genres has given birth to a 200-page book, that is well structured in time and space.

Published on June 29, the book of Layla Riahi, Wassim Laabidi and their colleagues is an eminently historical text that tells the decadence of Tunisian agriculture. It dismantles its myths and mocks its over-publicized so-called achievements.

In the beginning was colonization. Eager for exotic products, the French colonizer had, since the end of the 19th century, exploited the Tunisian territory to intensively produce more dates, citrus fruits and olive oil. In the aftermath of independence, in 1956, the promises of the State to ensure food sovereignty had quickly vanished. Not only will the orientation towards these monocultures not be changed, but the frenzy of production for export will intensify, the authorities claiming the need to bail out the State’s coffers.

The 1970s saw the establishment of giant projects, sponsored by the international financial institutions, to subject Tunisian agriculture to the injunctions of the market economy and the blind race to productivity. Cape Bon (Northeast), a peninsula with a low level of natural water availability, was granted the waters of the North-West. The course of Oued Medjerda, main and only perennial stream of the country, was forced to irrigate the fields of orange trees.

Driven by State incentives, farmers have gradually abandoned their diversified crops to focus only on the production of Maltese orange, a local variety that is destined for the European market. Over the decades, and with the disastrous repercussions of climate change, the model has run out of steam. Farmers in Cape Bon are currently overwhelmed by surplus production and Tunisia can only export 5% of its oranges.

Citrus production is just one example of the premeditated and programmed strangulation of subsistence agriculture. The book sets out, with figures, the limits of other sectors, often presented as national achievements, such as olive growing or date production.

The pace of destruction of food crops will intensify with the resolutely liberal turn taken by the Tunisian state during the 1980s. Since then, small and medium-scale farmers haven’t had only to cope with State absence and neglect.

They had also to surmount the handicap of not being able since the independence, to access to the land. In fact, 80% of Tunisian farmers own only 20% of agricultural land. They are 400 thousand persons to own only 960 thousand hectares, with an average of 2.5 hectares each. The arable and most fertile lands are owned by the State that often cedes them to big investors who perpetuate the rentier and export-oriented agribusiness.

The theft by speculative networks of any added value of the crops adds to the grievances of thousands of farmers who are left behind, often unable to buy the most basic inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides.

If the GTSA book dissects the mechanisms of impoverishment and alienation of Tunisian peasants, it has the merit of having given them the floor. The book’s content stems mainly from more than 300 interviews with farmers and representatives of the agricultural sector and from 30 local forums, conducted and organized between October 2017 and January 2019, in Nabeul and Béja (North), Sidi Bouzid (Centre) and Kebili (South).

The peasants have told the activist researchers stories of their daily struggles, but it is their attempt at organization that sparks the greatest interest. What would be the most adequate modes of organization to recover the rights of access to land and water? How to stop the negotiations on the ALECA (DCFTA with Europe), that is perceived by the majority of the peasants as a forced liberalization of agriculture? And what will be the evolution of the law to meet the needs of communities that no longer want the model of property right as canonized by Capitalism?

Layla Riahi assures that the book is an attempt to clear the ground, a preliminary work to pave the way for a much deeper reflection on agricultural policies. For her and her colleagues, the themes of at least two future books have already been clarified.