On the Road: Food Sovereignty in Tunisia

Ray Bush reports on an extraordinary tour of Tunisia organised by an innovative and exciting NGO focused on promoting food sovereignty and positive environmental transformation. The ‘food sovereignty days’ involved a journey into the breadth and range of small farmer struggles for autonomy and improved livelihoods throughout the country, focusing on the areas between the capital and the South East. 

By Ray Bush

The Observatoire de la Souveraineté Alimentaire et de l’Environnement (OSAE) is a new innovative and exciting NGO focused on promoting food sovereignty, positive environmental transformation and they do this with ideas and actions of small-scale family farmers.  Based in Tunis, the brainchild of Habib Ayeb, it has a small staff of engaged activists who in September organised food sovereignty days.  This was an amazing journey into the breadth and range of small farmer struggles for autonomy and improved livelihoods throughout Tunisia focusing on the areas between the capital and the South East Oasis town on Gabes and beyond.

The seven principles of food sovereignty are well known, or should be by now.  They are food as a basic human right; agrarian reform; protection of natural resources, reorganisation of food trade, the prioritisation of production for local consumption; the ending of globalised hunger; social peace and democratic control. The principles constitute what some have called an ‘epistemic shift’ from the mainstream preoccupation with chemicalised food production, mainly for export rather than local consumption.

The Journées de la Souveraineté Alimentaire et de l’Environnement, in English ‘food sovereignty days’, began with the important and challenging introduction to the Tunisian National Genetic Bank (BNG).  Participants from across Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Europe and US heard about the significance of ‘heirloom varieties’, why and how they were being protected including a visit to the sub-zero store rooms.  Participants heard from Amine Slim an agronomist researcher at BNG and coordinator of local seeds programme. He discussed the important work that he and his colleagues do visiting farmers to discuss and collect local seed varieties and how access and availability can be secured. The participants were then treated to a showing of Habib Ayeb’s evocative and dynamic film Couscous: Seeds of Dignity.  The film shows the life cycle of wheat production to couscous production, the labour processes involved from the field to the plate, its gendered dimensions and labour involved in harvesting and preparing Tunisia’s national dish and the problems farmers have in fighting off the pollution of hybrid or genetically modified seeds.

                                                                              Inside the Seed Bank

The road trip south then commenced – two coaches stuffed with eager and committed activists wanting to discover more about food sovereignty in general and its particular dynamics in Tunisia.  The road trip provided an opportunity to visit many of the locations and informants that were part of the Ayeb’s film.  This was important.  It enabled participants to interrogate farmers across the range of landholdings both in terms of size and across the ecological regions of Tunisia that have contributed to combined and uneven development. As we made our way to the South east of the country we visited a women’s agricultural development group, at Oued Sbaihya  – Zaghouan Goveronorate – a collective that produces bread, handicrafts and honey. Local variety seed was used for bread making, the women had links with the seed bank and they lamented that they could produce more wheat, and sell more locally produced items if only they had a local market with effective demand.  It became a theme of the week’s conversations with farmers. They could scale up production if they had more land, improved farming infrastructure and local market access, but the market had to also be effective, there had to be local or regional buyers to boost local production.  Currently the women we met noted how they were inhibited from expanding their production and marketing, and therefore also the expansion of their group’s collective interests, because the local market was dominated by more powerful merchants and traders.  How could they scale-up their activities in the context of a subordinate and uneven incorporation into local markets?

                                                                            Products from Gabes Oasis

Gabes was the groups base for four nights.  It provided a regional focus and the comprehensive framework for understanding Tunisia’s contrasting landscape and the country’s agro-ecological contradictions. It also provided a base for travelling much further South exploring new frontier farming and communities made famous by the filming of the original Star War film and where farming was constrained by very low rainfall and poor central resource allocation for, in the case of Toujane, 250 families split between two communities. Yet the 2000-year-old Berber communities in Toujane, past Matmata, have been decimated by outward migration, absence of local water and an extreme climate. Despite these adverse conditions, we found strong community organisations with impressive solidarity, water user associations and a determination to keep their children in schools despite the long distances they have to travel, which means the school-day stretches from 7am to 6pm. The community is trying to attract tourism to sell crafts, carpets and olive oil to sustain a dwindling local population. These initiatives will not necessarily save the communities but they provide a strong message for food sovereignty to embrace communities that seem forgotten as the state ignores the population in Tunisia’s most marginal arid countryside.

The Oasis in Gabes reflects the contradictions and negative dynamics of capitalist development.  These are highlighted in Ayeb’s film Gabes Labes. The Oasis is unique for its proximity to the sea. It is the world’s only coastal oasis and it is the site of a complex ecology.  It ‘grows’ as respondents who farmed there for generations told us. But it has also been dramatically, and negatively transformed in the last 40 years. With a population of about 300,000 it combines production of semolina from the steppe where there is 150-250 mm of rainfall, there is also communal and private access to land and date palms and vegetables nearer the coast. The negative transformation of the oasis is almost entirely due to the location of a phosphate plant on the coast between the sea and the Oasis. Three wells dug for the plant take 50% of the local supply of water. Wells which were of a depth of 50 metres in the 1970s are now at a minimum depth of 150 metres. The mining of water is not only the result of the two phosphate factories but also the result of private investors in the steppe.

According to local fishers the plant has spewed out 6,000 tonnes of toxic waste into the sea following the transformation of raw phosphate mined and then transported from Gasfa, in the west of Tunisia. Pollution has poisoned the sea.  We were told by local fishers and trade unionists of the time when boats would be tethered all along the coast.  Not any more.  Just one month prior to our visit the fishermen described how there had been a dump of ammonia into the sea and the coastal waters were filled with dead fish. The air too sears the throat. After only 15 minutes during our seaside inspection we had each developed sore throats from the plants pungent odour. The local hospital, we were told, is inundated with child and the elderly suffering from respiratory complaints but the authorities, locals believe, are under instruction not to report the complaints as phosphate poisoning.

                                                   Listening to how pollution has destroyed fishing

Gabes was the centre for a vibrant fishing community before the plant and there were clear links and relationships between farmers and fishers and multiple occupational roles that sustained each activity.  Fishing is still an important component of the local political economy but boats are forced to motor much further offshore to find fish stocks and local crews face tough competition from boats from the EU. The need to be at sea for longer, also necessitates larger vessels at extra cost.  As a consequence, fishers inevitably have increased their indebtedness, while many who used to fish are now simply unemployed. The phosphate plant closed for four months after the 2010/2011 uprisings and in that short time the sea returned to its previous azure colour.

Perhaps the most evocative moments of the tour took place with a visit to a local seed collector and preserver of heirloom varieties.  A respondent in the Oasis town of Chenini has collected local variety seeds for decades. He described to me on a former visit, during the making of the film Fellahin (made with Habib Ayeb) how important the Oasis is for the preservation of life. He reinforces his organic relationship with the Oasis by committing his life to ensuring that local seed varieties predominate in the Oasis. He makes his seeds available at local markets where they are popular among local farmers because they are resilient, productive and can be reproduced. This resilience is crucial to a small farmer’s autonomy and family survival. For if the seed that is produced cannot be re-produced, stored and re-planted in the next growing season  rural livelihoods will be increasingly vulnerable. GMO seeds, produced by big parma to expand corporate market share, are not viable for small scale local farmers. In contrast, small and medium farmers all noted how local heirloom variety seeds were more resilient and stable than imported varieties while the crops that the local seed produced tasted better.  Productivity, taste, stability and resilience were words that farmers used repeatedly in engaged conversations over six days. Ensuring a sustainable access to local seeds at a cost that is affordable is clearly a central plank in food sovereignty.

                                                                        Phosphate production at Gabes

The contrast between the Oasis and Tunisia’s new frontier developments is immense.  The contrast is one of scale, market power and wealth. It reflects a contrast between food security and food sovereignty.  New investors in the frontier lands of Limaoua near Gabes in the steppe reminded us of the need for patience and a large wallet. Buying new land in the steppe, funding over 150 meters deep well digging and maintenance and accessing equipment is extremely expensive.  Costs could be shared if there were more than one farming family.  The investor we spoke to shared land with three brothers and he estimated the set-up costs for his farm of peppers, melons and citrus cost him €60,000. Well digging now exceeded 160 metres with immense cost to non-reusable aquifers. We imagined how a dozen families could work the land these three brothers farmed and how that could be possible with appropriate state support and reformed local markets.

These were captivating days, framed by the showing in Gabes of Soraya el Kahiaoui’s moving film Landless Morrocans. A horror story of the dispossession of the collective lands of Guich Loudaya (Rabat). The dispossession of 400 hectares by the Moroccan state and the dramatic transformation of a communities’ life and livelihoods. The film stunned and shocked.

On the last day we went further South, and well off the main roads to the village of Demmer.  It is where Habib Ayeb has his family ancestral home, here we ate lamb cooked traditionally in underground ovens, with bread and vegetables: food sovereignty at its very best.  While seemingly off the beaten track, certainly on the ‘roads’ that we navigated, Demmer offers another dimension to understanding food sovereignty. The traditional undergound house, now renovated, illustrates how livelihoods historically worked directly alongside and as part of the rhythms of the agricultural calendar and the relationship between farmers, livestock and arable farming.  Demmer also shows the promise of a possible sustainable food sovereignty map where agricultural initiatives, struggle to keep land in the hands of local families rather than absentee landlords, can put a break on the destructive aspects of modernity.

We were promised that these days will be repeated next year.  The schedule will vary but the issues will remain, but we hope the range of contacts will enlarge as the messages regarding the benefits of food sovereignty are heard.  Food sovereignty is the agenda for change in the contemporary moment of capitalist crisis.  We know that without its embrace, and the rural transformations and necessary urban adjustments needed to deliver it, hunger will continue, and the planet’s survival jeopardised.  OSAE is helping set an agenda for change.

Ray Bush is Professor of African Studies at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds. He is also a member of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies (LUCAS) advisory board and member of the Review of African Political Economy’s Editorial Working Group.

All photographs were taken by Ray Bush.


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