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Tunisian Agriculture Needs To Rediscover Its Rural Tradition

We always believed that any change in our society and in our models of development and economic system should take into consideration the rural change and take the peasant as a lever of change”.

This is the preface of Jus Resistendi: Tunisian Peasant Narratives on Climate Justice, a book published by OSAE in January 2024. It is a collective work signed by many of the representatives of the organisation and part of the ongoing mission at the core of OSAE: to privilege the bottom-up development narrative proposed by rural communities.

Like most of the global south, Tunisia is highly exposed to the worst consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, environmental degradation only exacerbates the condition of generalised social disparities , far more deeply rooted. The reasons behind this highly dramatic scarcity of natural resources and food insufficiency must be found in decades of brutal policies that intensified food dependency by relying  on  global food market imports.

In 1986, following a phase of nationalisation of agricultural lands and re-acquisition by the state, Tunisian government approved the agricultural structural reform, part of the broader Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and IMF. SAPs ushered in the free market, paving the way for fiscal austerity measures, trade liberalisation and privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

With the involvement in international markets, the fragile Tunisian economic system is threatened by international competitors. In the field of agriculture, this leads to the transfer of property of agricultural land to private companies and investors. The most notable consequence has been the change in function of State-owned agricultural lands from local food production to agricultural production primarily for exportation.

The development of an economic sector devoted to specific crops’ exportation reveals the other side of the coin: a food market highly reliant on importation of basic needs. According to data provided by the European Commission (EU Trade Relations With Tunisia), the EU is Tunisia’s largest trade partner. 70% of Tunisian exports went to the EU in 2022, accounting for a total trade in goods amounting to 26.1 billion euro.

Hamza Hamouchene, Algerian researcher, activist and co-founder of Environmental Justice North Africa And North African Food Sovereignty Network, quotes that this system entails a new form of colonial economy directly connected to traditional colonial practise, when extractive processes of accumulation and seizure were instigated in southern states to support urban centres in the north.

Water availability has been a decisive factor in shaping the agricultural map in Tunisia throughout history. The uneven distribution of water resources has spawned a natural specialisation for each region according to its climate. Therefore, in the guise of attempting to modernise agriculture and maximise profits, colonial agricultural policies pushed this specialisation to its limit, paving the way to mono-cropping at the expense of diverse subsistence farming.

Specialised export agriculture has replaced local production: by exporting crops that require a large water supply, Tunisia exports water while being unable to meet its national water needs, showing how natural resources have also been the subject of financial speculations and source of investment.

The most famous Tunisian exported crops are olives and date palms, which are also the main irrigated fruit trees, covering respectively 41% and 18% of the total land. As shown in the film "Om Layoun" by Habib Ayeb, geographer and founder of OSAE, Tunisia is not lacking water. Rather, water privatisation and its intensive use for industrial farming marginalised not only small farmers but also rural communities.

The combination of ineffective economic policies and an increasingly intrusive production system exposed Tunisia to the growing risk of a water and food crisis, amplifying an already high malnutrition rate. Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO) data shows that in the three-year average (2020-2022), 3.5 million people have experienced severe food insecurity.

As the country is highly dependent on international markets, agricultural commodities are exposed to extreme price fluctuations. A striking example is how the Ukraine Russia war affected wheat imports and left the country in the grip of inflation with a shortage of even basic foodstuffs. Tunisian politicians have traditionally responded by subsidising consumer prices for some basic foods, thereby keeping the cost of some goods fairly low. But in recent years, the government's budget deficit has made it increasingly difficult to meet the needs of Tunisians. 

According to the FAO GIEWS report, widespread drought has significantly affected 2023 harvests. Coupled with above-average temperatures during the critical crop development stages, severe drought conditions have led to widespread crop failures. Consequently, 2023 cereal output was estimated at 302,000 tonnes, nearly 80 percent below the average.

The country relies heavily on grain imports, even in years with good domestic production. Cereal import requirements’ forecasts were at 4.7 million tonnes, in the fiscal year 2023/24 , about 30 percent above the average import requirements of the previous year, wheat being the major imported grain. Data by FAO show that the most consumed agricultural products at the local level are abandoned under the pretext of high costs or the incompatibility of this type of production with agricultural infrastructure. 

In Tunisia, the policy of food security has encouraged the production of specific agricultural products such as olives, dates, citrus, tomatoes, and argan, in order to benefit from their export revenues, at the expense of essential produce such as wheat, dairy, meat and vegetables

Food security is directly associated with food provision, but without dwelling on the ways and means to provide it. Rather, security relies on imported food to meet the local needs. The dichotomy between food security and food sovereignty is at the core of Jus Resistendi by OSAE. Starting from local evidence and leading to global synthesis, the book is an attempt to investigate local communities’ resilience to climate change and their efforts to gain back sovereignty over their food system.

The concept of sovereignty not only involves the right for the state to adopt protective procedures against low-priced import, but also policies like land redistribution and a fairer share of resources, recognising the necessity to support local production and involve farmers in the policymaking process.

The book is a trip through the landscapes of a rural and traditional Tunisia, which from north to south is trying to resist. It shares a light on stories of struggle against both climate and economic challenges. Like the struggles of the fisherwomen clam collectors of  Gabes, also known as laggata, facing an unprecedented socio-economic crisis.  

Since 2016, the clam industry in Tunisia has been severely affected by a significant drop in domestic production due to climatic factors such as ocean acidification and pollution. Hydrocarbon exploitation in the southern region and pollution from the chemical groups in the Gulf of Gabes further aggravate the situation. According to data from the Directorate-General for Fisheries and Aquaculture (DGPA), the stock of clams has declined from 1,547 tonnes in 2016 to only 44 tonnes in 2020. In coastal areas, clams are a symbol of stable income that supports more than 4,000 Tunisian women (FAO).

From Tunisia's Mediterranean coast, the clams are exported immediately after the first harvest, mainly to Europe. While women fishers harvest these precious shells for just over 1 euro per kilo (i.e. 3.2 Tunisian dinars), receiving export from EU countries generates a profit ranging from 10 to 15 times more.

The book also explores positive examples of traditional land-use techniques,water  management, and traditional use of seeds. Such is the case with the production of Oued Sbaihia in Zaghouan. Oued Sbaihia GFDA, is an NGO that brings together all the small-scale farmers of  the area. The main mission of the organisation is the integration of rural women into social life, the creation of agricultural projects and of generating employment activities. In Tunisia, women in rural areas represent 70% of the total workforce in the agricultural sector.


In general, the work of OSAE should be recontextualised in the search for an awareness of the importance of local communities and their integration into development processes. It emphasises the need for action against environmental degradation that exacerbates the conditions of the local population and risks further debilitating a social, food and water crisis, which the institutions have yet to be treated. It closes with a question: is it possible to seek for change in the recovery of a primary sector born of ancestral techniques? The answer is not up to us, but certainly change is required in a production system that must be rethought in the light of local self-sufficiency. As OSAE emphasises, bringing farmers and fishermen back into the centre of the debate could prove to be a good starting point.

Photo source: Food and Agriculture Organization

Edited by: Jaya Jha

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