Jemna in Tunisia: an inspiring land struggle in North Africa

Jemna is a beacon of hope for a Tunisia and needs to be supported, celebrated and emulated for the sake of its people and for our sake.

Over the past several years, the people of Jemna, a region in southern Tunisia famous for its excellent quality dates called Deglet Nour (the dates of light), have been engaged in an important and inspiring struggle around land rights.

It took around a century for this oasis community to score a victory, albeit precarious for now, through occupying and working their long-confiscated land in an astonishing experience of self-management and voluntarism that emphasised the centrality of the peasant question and the right to land and other natural resources such as water in revolutionary times.

Jemna is a challenge and a threat to the power of the neoliberal and counter-revolutionary elite and it represents resistance and an alternative to the kinds of neo-colonial, dispossessing and environmentally damaging forms of managing and exploiting the land.

The peasants of Jemna were dispossessed of their land in 1912 by French colonists who exploited it to export an original product (dates) to France. When Tunisians recovered their independence in 1956, instead of returning the land to its original and historically legitimate owners as well as (re)distributing it to landless peasants, the ruling elite nationalised the land and pursued a colonial model of intensive, mechanised modern agriculture at the expense of a traditional and subsistence one.

Land was rented to some farmers and an attempt was made to create a system of agricultural cooperatives but that failed. In other cases, land was just sold and given away to people close to decision-makers.

This was experienced as a historical injustice by many small scale and subsistence farmers in Tunisia, including in Jemna. Independence did not result in an amelioration of their plight, but rather a new form of dispossession, this time at the hands of the state. Their status as landless peasants has been perpetuated in the post-colonial period.

With the liberalisation of the agricultural sector, especially in the 1980s (with IMF structural adjustment programmes) and the generalised corruption and cronyism in the Tunisian economy, the public company that was managing the oasis of Jemna went bankrupt in 2002. This opened the door to two private investors (close to the nepotistic circles of the ousted dictator Ben Ali) who shamelessly made obscene profits while paying derisory sums to the state as rent costs.

It took a revolution and a popular uprising to reverse this state of affairs. The Tunisian revolution of 2010-2011 emboldened the people of Jemna and enabled their “Revolutionary Committee” to recover the confiscated land and expel the profiteers just two days before Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011. What ensued was a truly inspiring experience of people taking control of their livelihoods and collectively self-managing their lands and resources for the benefit of the community.

The people of the oasis showed that sheer robbery and organised corruption are no longer the natural state of things and that it is possible for the people to be the masters of their material existence. They demonstrated that the Tunisian revolution is not uniquely about narrowly defined political rights but rather a broader agenda entailing economic sovereignty (including over land), dignity and justice. Their struggle proved that accumulation of profits through dispossession is not a set-in-stone destiny for the people of Jemna and that alternatives were possible.

The first thing the community did was to set up an organisation called the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oases (APJO), which took care of the agricultural management, the investment of revenues and the implementation of developmental projects in the wider community.

The results have been inspiring. Production has doubled between 2011 and 2014 and the oasis currently employs around three hundred workers compared to twenty before 2011.

In five years, the inhabitants of Jemna under the leadership of the association allocated more than half a million pounds (made in profit) for community projects (compared to £40,000 rental costs collected by the state in nine years from 2002 to 2010).

The projects included: construction of a covered market, a sports venue, and classrooms as well as refurbishment of primary and secondary schools and of the community’s small health centre. Profits were also used to purchase an ambulance and a scanner in addition to providing financial support for local charities and associations as well as different cultural activities.

Taher Etahri, president of the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oases said to me:

“The experience is rich in lessons. We are no longer under the tutelage of the state; we act for public good. Everybody is looking up at Jemna, which makes us stronger and in more solidarity with each other.”

It is not a coincidence that the 2010-2011 Tunisian uprising started in an impoverished agricultural region (Sidi Bouzid) where speculative capital and agribusiness flourished. It is also no minor detail that the incident that set the Arab uprisings into motion was the self-immolation of a fruit vendor: Mohamed Bouazizi.

In this respect, the Jemna experience is one chapter of the revolutionary process in Tunisia and an edifying example (amongst others) of the persistence of the unresolved agrarian question.

Open Democracy

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