During a field trip to the region of Kebili in south Tunisia, I witnessed a surreal scene. A 70-ish-year-old peasant discovered, while talking to his fellow colleagues, that the land he has worked and cherished for the past 19 years is not his. The peasant, a date palm producer, was shocked – he screamed and yelled at his friends and insisted that it is his land, that he has documents that proves it. Around five minutes later, when he finally calmed down, his friends explained to him that the half-hectare of land belongs to the state and that he along with 154 other farmers who shared this plot of land are renting it from the state. For peasants, access to land is still key to their livelihoods. Many poor people rely on subsistence farming on small plots of land, subsistence being their way of coping with difficulties in finding sufficient work and income.
I visited Kebili as part of a research project around food sovereignty in Tunisia where I accompanied a team of Tunisian activists in their fieldwork. The Governorate of Kebili is 500km south-east of Tunis and is renowned for its date palm cultivation. Economically, the governorate depends on two main economic activities, tourism and agriculture. However, the multiple terrorist attacks that hit Tunisia in the past year severely impacted tourism. Agricultural production, and more precisely date palm cultivation, remain the main important economic activity of the region. During the agricultural season of 2015–2016, the region of Kebili produced about 150 thousand tonnes of dates, representing around 61% of the national production. Dates produced in the region are mainly exported to Moroccan and European markets. For the Tunisian state, date exports are an important source of foreign-exchange reserves, representing about 12% of the total value of agricultural exports.
For many peasant farmers date palm cultivation represents an important source of income. But many encounter great difficulties in surviving off the production of date palm due to the increased marginalisation of peasant farmers. The first act of marginalisation was the privatisation of agriculture through neoliberal policies. These policies intensified competition between small farmers and private agricultural investors, as they tended to favour private, large-scale agriculture, which intensified the marginalisation and the dispossession of small peasants. Furthermore, private investors were able to invest in new irrigation technology that is both capital and technology intensive.
The second factor of marginalisation is the struggle of peasant farmers to access water. In Tunisia, as in North Africa in general, the scarcity of water is not merely related to climate change, but it is rather the consequences of three decades of neoliberalism and its impoverishing policies.
In the region of Kebili, throughout our meetings with farmers, we discovered that most of the wells in the region are almost dried up. Moreover, in some villages of the region of Kebili, irrigated water has become very saline. As many farmers told us water salinity is due to the state’s mismanagement of aquifers. According to the peasants we met almost 20 years ago the state – through a private company – provided a well to farmers engaged in date production. The well’s coating should have been changed five years ago, but the state never carried out this work. This mismanagement has led to an increased level of salinity in the water, caused by the deteriorating well coating, which impacted the groundwater. Water scarcity and salinity heavily affected peasants’ abilities to secure their livelihoods.
The peasants we met explained to us that saline water impacted the yield and the quality of their production. For instance, one farmer in the city of Douz told us that “Before the water became very saline, the yields of my half-hectare accounted for around 10,000 Tunisian dinars [around £2,998.49]; today it barely accounts for 4,000 Tunisian dinars [around £1199.40]”.
The issue of saline water not only impacts peasants’ livelihoods but has also altered their farming methods. Most of the farmers we met in our fieldwork told us that, before the water became very saline, the majority of farmers used to produce vegetables either for their own food consumption or to sell for the local market. The increased level of salt in the irrigated water heavily affected the land, making it almost impossible for them to grow anything besides palm dates. This has led to a serious problem in the region. The region of Kebili was once able to produce enough for the local community, but today they are heavily dependent on other regions’ food availability.
Many peasants report that they have to take other jobs in order to cover their living expenses. Peasants are forced into the labour market in order to diversify their incomes; they either work as seasonal labourers in other agricultural farms or do other non-agricultural jobs.
“Our problem is water, they [the state] need to give us water”, a peasant told us during an interview. In the south peasants are often forgotten and left with little or no state support. And so, although the region is essential for the Tunisian state in terms of foreign-exchange reserves, peasants are abandoned and and left to fend for themselves. Peasants’ marginalisation is not a new phenomenon: after the independence of Tunisia from France, farmers were displaced by the state from their land. The neoliberal turn and the stranglehold of international financial institutions on the economy deepened the peasants’ precarious economic position. This war against peasants is not a Tunisian exception, but it is the continuity of the three decades of neoliberal policies that dispossessed peasants worldwide.
In south Tunisia, besides the problem of access to water, farmers do not benefit from state support such as access to seeds and fertilizers. Peasants have to bear the costs of their farm equipment and installation. “We as peasants work the land, produce, suffer while state officials are absent” complained a peasant about the state’s absenteeism.
Seven years after the so-called ‘Jasmine’ revolution, peasants in southern Tunisia are, once again, forgotten and left behind. Peasants in this region do not benefit from the foreign-exchange reserves coming from the fruits of their labour. “I only have this land and god”, a date palm farmer told me. Today, due to the rollback of state assistance, subsidies and support, this farmer might be dispossessed of the only thing he has left, his land.
By Fayrouz Yousfi