Drought, pollution, higher energy costs and increasingly expensive materials

How Tunisia's agricultural policy is driving farmers to despair

ICARDA / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED)

Tunisian farming families struggle to make a living in areas where rainfall is extremely low and unreliable.

Tunisia is in the throes of both an economic and a water crisis. But while one farmer after another is getting rid of his cattle, the taps are running smoothly for textile companies and water parks. “Our government only thinks about bringing in foreign money.”

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More and more often, Nouri Mechergui, 46, walks from his farm across the busy, dusty road to Café Rafia. On this terrace in his village of Ras Jebel in northern Tunisia, he spends whole afternoons at a wobbly little table with like-minded people. Old friends, fellow farmers with a similar past, the same ideas, the same likes and dislikes, and the same love for their craft, passed down from generation to generation.

For them, everything is at stake. Their daily rhythm, in a sense their life, has been killed by a combination of factors, says Mechergui. “I am here more often than on my land. That makes me depressed. Irritated. At home, I sometimes react fussy.”

Mechergui speaks quickly and enthusiastically. His story shows exactly how climate problems are further eroding Tunisia’s near-bankrupt economy. “I recently sold all my cows. Cattle feed has become unaffordable and the big dairies are profiting from it. I don’t want to fill their coffers.”

Thousands of Tunisian farmers have done the same in recent years. Like Mechergui, they have taken stock. The cost of feed, which had risen by more than 25 per cent in two years, was eating up all their profits. Dairy industry representatives sounded the alarm: “Our milk production is collapsing.”

Thousands of small cheese dairies and several dozen large dairies now compete for the 1.2 million litres of milk that Tunisian farmers produce at peak times. This is still far less than the 1.8 million litres or so that the market demands.

Empty shelves

The milk shortage is not the only symptom of Tunisia’s creaking and squeaking economy. Supermarket shelves have been virtually empty for months. Anyone in Tunisia who needs basic products — milk, cereals, flour, sugar, rice, pasta or vegetable oil — spends hours shuffling through all kinds of grocery shops and supermarkets, walking all over the city, often in vain.

President Kais Saied generally blames unnamed “speculators” and “all those who conspire to disrupt the country’s economy.” Other analyses are also circulating. The most common is that Tunisia produces little of its own and has to buy almost everything.

“Enforcing environmental regulations would make a big difference. But the Tunisian government is not interested in farmers, only in bringing in foreign money.”

While the government is practically broke, the currency is getting weaker. On top of that, the war in Ukraine has caused prices to soar. What is produced domestically is being destroyed by drought, pollution, higher energy tariffs and increasingly expensive materials.

Saber Tebini, general secretary of the Food Industry Federation, has seen the impact on the food industry. The whole country is going bankrupt. The 400 workers at the sugar refinery in the north have not been paid for months. Another sugar refinery can only produce for two months a year because of the drought.

Meanwhile, three milk companies have gone bankrupt. Finally, supermarkets are earning significantly less while their expenses for staff, rent or energy remain the same.

Employers these days have an easy time shaking off arguments against pay rises, says Tebini, slightly out of sorts. “Right now, wages have to go up. Inflation is hovering around 10 per cent. And the more money consumers have, the more they will spend.”

An average family of four in Tunisia needs about 2,400 dinars (equivalent to €712) a month to live in dignity. This was calculated by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in 2019, long before the war in Ukraine. But the minimum wage for a 40-hour week here is no more than 390 dinars (€115.70).

Meanwhile, all of Tebini’s other ideas for escaping the economic malaise, such as investing in tourism or industrialisation, fall by the wayside due to the structural water shortage. Olive oil could offer opportunities, despite disappointing harvests due to the drought. But this market is dominated by Spain and Italy. They import our precious olive oil, mix it with their own and then package it as Spanish or Italian olive oil. It is not fair.

Colonial legacy

According to Fadhel Kaboub, the Tunisian economy is struggling as a result of historical injustices. He is a professor of economics at Denison University and president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity.

“What do you mean, Tunisia’s economic model?” he scoffs over the phone from Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Tunisia has no policy of its own. Not for industry. Not for agriculture. Nor for the energy sector. It is all imposed by Europe: neo-colonial dictates, but delicately sold as “aid” or “bilateral cooperation.” This applies to almost the entire African continent.

The structure of the Tunisian economy, built up in the years following the country’s liberation from French colonial rule in 1956, is fundamentally flawed. Everything Tunisia imports — technology, know-how, semi-finished products, even packaging — is expensive. It has high added value. But the products that our country exports in return — labour, land, energy — are actually cheap. With little added value.

“This is the logic behind all the trade agreements Europe has signed with Tunisia. Meanwhile, the debt is growing and our raw materials and natural resources are being depleted.”

Green and fertile

Nouri Mechergui waves his arms in the air. Ras Jebel used to be green and fertile. We could let the cows graze in abundance. Now, because of the drought, nothing grows and the selling price of milk is below the cost of production. He still has orange and olive trees on his land, but no matter what he tries, his land hardly pays.

Angrily, he looks out over the road that cuts through this busy residential area. Scattered among the somewhat monotonous rows of houses are several large, white jeans factories. These textile companies pump all the water out of the ground. The little that remains is dirty, salty and unhealthy.

“And then there’s the pollution,” he fumes. We have to use insecticides and pesticides to protect our crops. That is expensive and bad for your health. Connoisseurs know this, so our sales are down. Organic products are becoming more and more fashionable.

Take Denim Authority, diagonally opposite Café Rafia in Ras Jebel. The jeans factory produces “organic jeans” such as Nudie Jeans, G-Star Raw and Pierre Cardin. On its website, the company promises to “invest in the latest technological trends in denim and sustainability.”

A few mouse clicks later, the jeans factory reveals some details about “state-of-the-art modern equipment and machinery”: Lectra from France, environmentally friendly ozone generators from Spain, and so on.

But despite this import of expensive technology, Denim Authority still uses several hundred litres of water to produce a pair of jeans. The waste ends up among Mechergui’s orange and olive trees. To protect his trees, he uses expensive pesticides imported from Europe.

But Mechergui does not believe that closing down all jeans factories is the answer. “That would trigger a conflict as big as the war in Ukraine. At least several thousand workers from all over the region find work here. Enforcing environmental regulations would make a big difference. But the Tunisian government is not interested in farmers, only in bringing in foreign money.”

Families desperately need the monthly salary of 600 dinars (about 180 euros). Even if it is barely enough to buy basic things like clothes and school books for the children.

For reference, G-Star RAW’s exclusive premium E patti loose jeans are offered in Belgium for 299.95 euros.

More collaborations

With the gentle storytelling of a teacher, Fadhel Kaboub has since moved into the agricultural sector. Same players, same strategy, same results. Until the mid-1950s, Tunisia provided the French colonial power with a stable and cheap supply of food. Then there was a mild panic in France and among other European colonial powers.

European agricultural subsidies were introduced in 1962. “From then on, European countries — and by then, Russia and America — could grow food at bargain prices and dump it in countries like Tunisia,” says Kaboub. In no time, hundreds of Tunisian farmers were bankrupt. Their grain, peas and other products were no longer in demand.

The Tunisian government decided to focus agriculture entirely on exports. Kaboub: “Water-guzzling crops like strawberries and tomatoes contaminated indigenous grains and seeds. Fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides from Europe were needed to meet international standards. Together with monoculture, these agents killed our farmlands and our food sovereignty.”

Outdoor swimming pools

Things can still be done differently, Kaboub believes. “More cooperation within Africa is a start. Being more critical when choosing European cooperation partners. I just don’t see that happening. Do you know that in some regions the Tunisian authorities give water to hotels but leave farmers without water for irrigation?”

Slahedinne Bezi, from Bembla in central Tunisia, was one of them. Sometime in early spring, at a meeting of farmers from the region, he heard that he would not get irrigation water for a while. At most a few weeks in July and August, they promised.

He would use those weeks to maintain his 17 greenhouses for tomatoes, courgettes and chillies, he thought. It turned out to be at least six months. “I haven’t had water for irrigation since May! All the farmers in the area are unemployed. Some are borrowing money from family and friends. Others do odd jobs from time to time. I still have a few olive trees.”

Not that the area is running out of water. There are four outdoor pools at the El Mouradi Skanes Hotel; several heated outdoor pools, an indoor pool and a spa at the Hilton Skanes Monastir Beach Resort; and a water park outside the Houda Golf & Beach Aquapark.

These pools are a stone’s throw from Bezi’s empty greenhouses and parched plots. “The upper aquifers have been depleted by the hotels and factories,” Bezi sighs.

Neoliberal policies

Sitting on his couch in Tunis, Amine Bouzaine, an independent researcher specialising in fiscal justice, comes to a sobering conclusion. The seemingly intractable tangle of climate problems and economic shortcomings, he says, are “the consequences of years of neoliberal policies.”

“Our country became fully involved in the international race to lower and lower taxes.”

He is referring to the blithe application of the technocratic dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This model, he argues, is unproductive and under-regulated.

His analysis begins in the 1980s. A period of new economic principles. Free market, competition between countries and companies. As little state intervention as possible. “This has always favoured the rich countries,” says Bouzaine.

“Tunisia could not compete. It led to unbridled capitalism, smuggling, the growth of the informal economy and the collapse of local structures. Our country became fully involved in the international race to lower and lower taxes. Several times it cut taxes for the rich and for corporations.”

“The result was greater social inequality and fewer jobs. Foreign companies, taking advantage of low wages and our natural resources, did not even pay taxes for the first few years.”

After months of very difficult negotiations, President Saied decided not to seek a new IMF loan. Despite criticism of his autocratic style of government, Bouzaine sees this as “a possible positive turning point in Tunisian history.”

Faïrouz ben Salah is a freelance correspondent based in Tunisia. She publishes regularly in Dutch newspapers and magazines, including Trouw, NRC, De Groene and Vrij Nederland.

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Over de auteur

  • Freelance journaliste

    Faïrouz ben Salah werkt in Tunesië als freelance correspondent. Ze publiceert regelmatig in Nederlandse dagbladen en magazines als Trouw, NRC, De Groene en Vrij Nederland.

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