Lately, people speak of nothing but the Jemna case. It's become the new bone of contention. There are violent exchanges, full of cries and furor. In the State-controlled media, the most incredible arguments are raised to denounce the occupation of land by farmers. Arguments that say more about the fantasies of their authors than they do about the facts.
I do not want to add my voice to the din, but just to recall some basic data to help refocus the debate on substantive issues that go well beyond the case of this Southern palm grove.
Jemna is an oasis located in the governorate of Kebili, in southern Tunisia. A former colonial estate, the palm rove was nationalised in 1964, under the Agrarian decolonization Law. Pushing for their rights to despoiled land, the inhabitants of the oasis negotiated its repurchase with the governor. An agreement to sell was signed. A collection allowed an advance to be paid, of half of the amount requested, 80,000 DT at the time. The contract was then terminated by the public authority, which transformed the money already collected into bogus shares in semi-public companies. The palm grove was then assigned to a subsidiary of the STIL, specialising in the production and export of dates. In 2002, after the bankruptcy of the subsidiary, the grove was leased for 15 years to two private developers close to the Trabelsi clan. The occupation of land by Jemna peasants began on 12 January 2011, two days before the flight of Ben Ali. The government now wants to take it back.
Let us consider first the statutes of state land, of which the Jemna farm is only a tiny plot. State land stretches over nearly 800,000 hectares and includes a large proportion of the most fertile areas in the country. Before independence (1956), these lands were owned by settlers, French or related to the French. They were nationalised in 1964, by the law of agrarian decolonisation, after which management was entrusted to the OTD (Office of public lands) and placed under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture.
The question that must be asked is why was this the case: why did the state keep the land under its control? Is it its vocation to own agricultural land and ensure its exploitation? Is it moving out of its role when it becomes a landowner and a farmer? These lands had been forcibly removed from the peasantry by a foreign occupier. Their recovery was one of the main demands of the national liberation movement. Once taken over by the state, would not it have been more normal, more just, more healthy, to return them to their original owners?
The official argument advanced at the time - and then repeated by successive governments - was that Tunisian farmers were too technologically backward and too financially poor to exploit these lands effectively and profitably. While public management could maintain and improve production levels, create value and use the surplus generated to finance the rest of the economy.
That reasoning could have stood if it had been confirmed in practice. But that is not the case. Even aside from the short period of forced collectivisation (1965-1969), which provoked a real collapse in agricultural production, the result of public exploitation of public lands has always been a deficit. It is not a question here of bald assertions. OTD's accounts are published every year. There has not been a single fiscal surplus registered since 1970. And the scandal has been going on for half a century now. OTD is chronically in deficit, and the deficit is widening year after year.
Instead of developing modern, efficient and profitable agriculture, the use of public lands by OTD has produced only a deficit, adding an extra burden to the state budget instead of relieving it. More seriously, it generated an organised system of corruption, and this at all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy.
This sprawling corruption is not an accidental, but a necessary result of public land management. And an outcome all the more necessary since all this took place in the shadow of a political system - especially since the arrival to power of Ben Ali - who is an accomplice and protector of a racketeering and mafia-controlled oligarchy whose interests always prevail over the interests of the state and the country.
This is probably the inconvenient truth that explains the virulence of those who denounce the taking back of the Jemna farm by the inhabitants of the oasis. Once it changed hands, the farm suddenly became beneficiary, and its management became transparent: this created an unbearable precedent...
Capuccino in homage to Jemna, by Mahdi, from El Hamma, via facebook
Since 2011, the phenomenon of occupation of public farms by the farmers was not solely confined to this Southern oasis, it has involved dozens of other agricultural areas located throughout the country. It is time to ask why. Especially since this phenomenon was limited to state-owned lands and did not spread to land held by private farmers, however great the size of their properties. This means that we are not dealing with lawless abuses, attacking land ownership as such, but a reappropriation movement exclusively targeting the domain of the State .
Many thought that the revolution that toppled Ben Ali was only politicaland that it would turn out to be nothing but a simple change of leadership. This is particularly what most parties of the former opposition seem to have believed. But they were very wrong. True revolutions are political, but they are also, above all, economic and social: eliminating the illegitimate and anti-productive privileges of a minority, they aim to introduce a comprehensive reorganisation of the economy and society, to meet the needs of the majority and to promote development and national wealth.
The Tunisian uprising was supported by four major groups: the rural population, the population of suburban areas, the wage earners and the middle class . By participating in the uprising, each group had specific claims. And just because at the time they did not have the political training to be able to articulate a coherent programme, that’s not to say that these claims did not exist.
For the peasants, condemned by the former regime to live in extremely uncertain conditions, the reasons for dissatisfaction were numerous and justified. One of them - and one of the most important - concerned access to land, especially the reclamation of land which had been stolen from them by colonisation and which the national state, perpetuating this spoliation, had kept in its possession, instead of returning the land to its natural recipients.
The right to land is a recurring problem in our modern history. It has always been raised in terms of confrontation with political power. Before the (French) Protectorate, under the Bey regime, the exclusion was pushed to its limits: the peasants literally were not allowed to become owners of the land which they worked. The Bey official attributes were also very revealing in this regard. By acceding the throne, each ruler became ipso facto "Possessor of the kingdom of Tunis". The whole country was considered to be personal assets, both the territory as well as the people who inhabited it.
As the country belonged to him, he could dispose of it as he wished. In order to establish his fortune and at the same time provide a sociological foundation for his dominance, he operated a number of agricultural areas for his own benefit and distributed others to vassals, so as to keep them loyal to him. These concessions (iqtaâ) were never granted definitively. What the Bey gave one day, he could take back the next to assign to different contenders.
The peasants were not affected by these events. They clung to their territories and simply witnessed a change of masters, according to the political calculations or the whims of the Bey. After working the land for generations, they had no rights over it, especially not the right to own it.
In these conditions where the monarch remained the prominent owner of land and souls, private ownership could not appear or develop, except at the margin, in the interstices of the system. This legal vagueness also greatly facilitated the work of spoliation by the promoters of colonial land grabbing. Since indigenous people had no land titles to assert their rights, the colonial power considered it to be a situation of property vacancy, which allowed it to distribute land to its own nationals. Many settlers were granted vast areas with such tricks.
In doing so, France behaved exactly as the Bey did towards the peasantry: the land belonged to France, and it could be allocated at will. By nationalising colonial land in 1964, Bourguiba reproduced this patrimonial conduct. Even if he, unlike most former Beys, did not do it with the aim of personal enrichment, or to enrich the members of his entourage. He did not want the land for himself or his family; he wanted it for the State, within a perspective of authoritarian modernisation of the economy and society. His despotism was not self-interested, but rather "enlightened". Yet it remained despotism: a system where political power is everything and the population is nothing.
I recall these historical facts to shed light on the current debate, highlighting the fundamental difference between dictatorship and democracy. After having experienced it, we all know what dictatorship is. But it does not appear that the parties who govern us today really know what democracy is. Democracy does not mean the disappearance of the role of the state, but it requires a transformation of that role, so that the administration is put at the service of society instead of trying to bend it to its absolutism.
Democracy is inconceivable without the autonomy of the social body. This autonomy begins with its economic independence, which implies access of the greatest number to property rights. There is no democracy without civil society and no civil society while citizens - or a significant number of them - are not the masters of their own conditions of material existence. Citizenship is never built on exclusion.
In a democracy, the state has no right to stand between the land and the farmer who works it; he has no right to forbid him to be the owner of his own land. In a democracy, the state has no right to be a landowner hogging the best agricultural areas of a country, whatever legal or ideological reasons are given.
In a democracy, when existing laws prevent farmers from accessing land - and this is always the case in times of transition, as these laws have been enacted by the former regime - these laws should be changed and not used to continue to crack down on those who oppose them. By occupying public land, farmers do not violate the law, they establish it.
Homage to Jemna, by Syrian artist Yasser Ahmad
Tunisia is going through a severe crisis, which is expressed in all areas of our collective life. This crisis expresses the failure of a development model and primarily that of its agricultural component. When we think about it, we come to realise that in fact most of our social and economic problems are related to the impoverishment and marginalisation of rural areas, caused by the official agrarian policy.
- This is first manifested in the low crop production itself, especially grain production, the staple ingredient of popular food (bread, semolina, pasta, flour...). Our annual consumption of cereal products amounts to 30 million quintals. Depending on harvests, we produce between 10 and 20 million. Year after year, our deficit varies between one third and two thirds of our needs. We are very far from food self-sufficiency, which we know is the first condition of the independence of a country. These poor results are not explained by a single factor (rainfall level, or soil quality, or cultural methods, or public monopoly of the best land, etc.), but by several. Among these, there is one that plays a key role, because it aggravates the negative impact of all the others: the price policy. Since 1956, the selling prices of wheat and barley have been set by the state. And they are set at a very low level, which makes subsistence farming uneconomic, unprofitable, and keeps the involved farmers in very precarious conditions. If rain depends on the sky, prices depend on our government. Why do they fix them at a very low level? For reasons of political patronage. Because, since 1956, they have increased the purchasing power of urban citizens before that of rural citizens. It is no coincidence that the explosion in December 2010 initially erupted in agricultural governorates.
- This is then manifested in the proliferation of a parallel economy. The continued impoverishment of the peasantry results in constant migration from the countryside to the city. Contrary to the claims of official propaganda, this exodus is not a sign of the dynamism and attractiveness of the urban economy: it is the mark of the inability of the rural economy to keep her children and feed them. The uprooted peasants leave the countryside, but they are not welcomed by the city, where most of them can neither be accommodated nor find work. They then settle in outlying districts, which are rapidly transforming into slum ghettos, and engage in survival activities in different spheres of the shadow economy: illegal trade, border smuggling, trafficking of illicit substances, etc.
This illegal economy currently represents nearly 50% of GDP. Initially a refuge solution for people without resources, the growing scale of the phenomenon is now a frontal threat to the domestic industry, since the bulk of the products sold in the shadow market come from abroad (China, Italy, Turkey).
- The consequences of the State's agricultural policy are also evident in another key area: that of wages in the industrial sector and the service sector, especially in the administration. The very low farm labour remuneration allows, in fact, to keep wages distributed in the non-farm economy at very low levels. An example: currently, the Tunisian minimum wage is barely half that of the Moroccan minimum wage. Relative to the average European minimum wage, the ratio falls to 10%.
Price policy in the rural economy, particularly in cereals, has a direct correlation with wage policy in the urban economy. With a clientelist target, it was a matter of feeding at the lowest cost the largest possible number of employees in enterprises and in the administration, regardless of need or economic rationality. With the same causes producing the same effects, price policy has ended up destroying the development of our rural economy, just as wage policy has ended up halting the development of our urban economy. In both sectors, the lack of decent remuneration for workers has led to disinterested attitudes towards work. It all led to lower productivity and yields. And it was behind multiform corrupt practices to compensate for the shortfall in revenues from official remuneration circuits.
- The consequences become even manifest in the stresses exerted on non-agricultural activities, due to the combined effects of the above factors. The development of secondary (industry) and tertiary (services) sectors implies the existence of a large solvent demand (consumers with a real purchasing power) and thus a sufficiently large domestic market to allow for economies of scale and promote the development and upgrading of enterprises.
By itself, our population base is already low: about 12 million people. Given the number of unemployed and the mediocrity of incomes, as well those of farmers as of marginals in peripheral neighbourhoods and of the great mass of wage earners (together they make over 80% of the population), the demand for industry products and services is doomed to remain structurally limited. Our companies are fighting over a narrow market, which forbids most of them any prospect of technological progress and sustained growth. Those who look to export to compensate for the narrowness of domestic markets face other difficulties. Some may succeed, mainly through subcontracting activities, but all eventually realize that it is almost impossible to project themselves lastingly abroad without having a solid base of accumulation at the national level.
- These various failures of the economic system have created an environment behind which the nebula of the racketeering mafia was created and thrived, whose misdeeds can be observed today in many areas of our national existence. Enjoying the protection of political power and the fragility of social groups - rural people, suburban underclass, wage earners, small business owners - this nebula has gradually branched out to become a real gangrene infecting vast segments of society, as well as key institutions of central and local administration, justice, customs, media, public banks, etc.
It appeared in the 1970s in the shadow of the Nouira government, and the disease peaked with Ben Ali, when the Trabelsi clan seized power. The 2010-2011 uprising did not eradicate the phenomenon. It only disrupted it momentarily, before the drift started again, aggravating economic chaos and perverting the population.
Reduced to its basic structure, an economic system is a set of relations, a scaffold where all the pieces are connected. We have seen how the agricultural policy has produced a rural exodus and a shadow market. We saw how it induces the policy of low wages. And we have seen how the combination of these elements contributed to blocking the development of our businesses, while clearing the way for the constitution of a wheeler-dealer, mafia-like oligarchy.
I just spoke of scaffolding. It is, in this case, a very special kind of scaffolding, a kind of vicious circle. Every mistake, every error in calculation made at one point of the circle spreads, while expanding in impact, to all other points. It is this perverse system that was the real target of the uprising. The fall of the regime demanded by the demonstrators aimed at dismantling the old scaffolding, in order to substitute a vicious circle for a virtuous one. In this perspective, we understand the strategic nature of the agrarian question. It is the origin of everything. This is where the Gordian knot lies.
The economic basis of the old regime was based on the planned impoverishment of the peasantry. The basis of a democratic regime should be a policy which, by giving back the peasants their rights, would make working the land profitable and productive for the greatest number. By beginning to unlock things at this level, we could provide the means to release them gradually at all others.
The agrarian question is at the heart of the democratic revolution. By removing arbitrary monopolies - state monopoly on the most fertile land, state monopoly in defining the prices of cereals, etc. - we will not only integrate rural areas into the market economy, we will make it possible by giving it the population base necessary for its operations. By developing agricultural production, and increasing farmers' income, we acquire an essential lever to stimulate the increase of production in all sectors of the economy and improve the purchasing power of all other social groups. Democracy can happen in a country where poverty reigns. It cannot be maintained safely if mass poverty is perpetuated.
The solution of the agrarian problem appears to be a necessity, conditioning not only the overcoming of the old economic model, but also long-term stabilisation of the new political system. The challenges ahead are many and complex. We have especially emphasised the issue of state land and that of the price policy for grain farming. But there are several other challenges.
They include, in bulk, the water resources problem already mentioned, or that of distribution channels, where there is a shady middlemen mafia, which eats away at both rural producers and urban consumers, and whose networks today dominate all regional wholesale markets. There is also a serious infrastructure problem: inadequate road and rail routes, lack of storage capacity and cold storage, lack of suitable means of transport, etc.
There is still the problem of the extreme fragmentation of small properties, of paramount importance in view of the return of state-owned lands. This restitution may, in fact, contribute to reducing the phenomenon or, instead, amplify it, assuming an indiscriminate distribution. We are here in a situation where you have to find the best trade-off between two imperatives that are not always easily reconciled: the need for justice and the need for effectiveness. It is obvious that only a strong government with a strong popular legitimacy, could impose such arbitration.
As we see, there is immense work that needs doing before rural Tunisia can thrive. It requires thoughtful strategy, determination, a lot of teaching and above all, the full mobilisation of the main players. Will the current power prove itself to be up to the task? Given its initial reaction to the Jemna case, doubt is permissible.
In truth, we are faced with two possible scenarios: either we make the effort to listen to the legitimate demands of the peasants, or we remain deaf to their demands and relentlessly preserve the status quo. In one case, the country will progress in unity, in a responsible and disciplined way and we will cheaply consolidate the material foundations of democracy. In the other, we will divide the country, repression will aggravate the anarchy and disorder and accumulate losses and delays. In the end, however, in both cases, the change will happen anyway. Because the change was introduced into the depths of society, and by now nothing and nobody can stop it from running its course. Rearguard fighting will not stop the wheel of history from turning.
1- Similarly the acts of vandalism directed against property recorded during the uprising in December 2010-January 2011, never targeted the rich as such, but only individuals close to Ben Ali, whose fortune came from the extortion and cronyism that this proximity allowed.
2 - Aziz Krichen, The promise of Spring, pp. 388-416, Script Edition, Tunis, 2016.
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