Public Will and the Success of Agricultural Cooperatives: Tunisia’s Jemna Oasis

2017-01-20    |   

Public Will and the Success of Agricultural Cooperatives: Tunisia’s Jemna Oasis

Jemna Oasis and its village are located in Tunisia’s southwest. The farm and the village are both classified as state land. The state acquired the property –which comprises around 400 hectares– via the agricultural decolonization law [of 1964],[1] which transferred agricultural properties that had been usurped by the French colony to the state. The farm’s elder residents came to call the property whose periphery they inhabited “Hanshir Mu’mar” (“the Colony’s Estate”), while those who never experienced the colonial era called it “STIL Oasis” (“STIL” being the name of a public-sector company).[2] These unique choices of names indicated the inhabitants’ alienation from their geographical area. In the early days of the revolution of January 14, 2011, the people of Jemna seized the opportunity presented by the decline and weakness of the authorities and took over the farm, declaring it their own land to be administered by an association they had formed. They named the association the “Protection of Jemna Oases Association”,[3] thereby ending their alienation from their land. For the first time in their history, the inhabitants of Jemna practiced –via their association– the right to ownership, which the post–independence Tunisian state had denied them. Consequently, the were portrayed as usurpers and outlaws.

The Jemna Oasis Rebellion: A Success Story

By exploiting the property that had belonged to their grandparents before the colony had appropriated it, the people of Jemna were able to achieve notable development, as confirmed by the association’s president Tahir al–Tahiri.[4] They used the income from their farm “to build a gymnasium for the secondary institute in Jemna; to build classrooms, a reading room, and sick bays in the two primary schools; to build an enclosed date market for the municipality; to grass the sports stadium; to acquire an ambulance for the Tunisian Union for the Support of Persons with Mental Disabilities (a public institution), and to donate 50 palm shoots[5] to this institute so that it will be able to generate its own resources in the foreseeable future. It also provided office materials (computers, copiers) for the National Guard station, the public library, and the local hospital; funded cultural festivals; and provided scholarships to students of the village with low incomes. And it still invested in the farm by planting 2,500 new palms”.[6]

The collective, not–for–private profit management of a property encompassing approximately 200 hectares treed with palms[7] achieved development affecting the farm’s natural environment and the oasis. The Tunisian state, with all its personnel and resources, had failed to achieve the same success. The State Lands Office, the institution that administers 193,000 hectares of Tunisia’s most fertile lands, could not achieve fiscal balances and thereby put an end to its losses, which were worsening year by year.[8] The association’s success in its experiment embarrassed the government authorities which had in turn been exhausted by their failure in managing public agricultural properties. As a result, these authorities convinced the association’s activists in 2012 to convert it into an agricultural revival company, i.e., an investment company. In practice, this meant that they would become agriculture businessmen seeking private profit, and their experiment would become part of the system of institutions failing to manage agricultural properties. However, they quickly aborted the creation of the company in order to resume completing the voluntary, collective management of the farm, and thus continuing their success story.

The political authority saw their behavior as a challenge to its laws and institutions and decided to confront the experiment with the law. The confrontation between the two sides really took off at the beginning of the 2016 date-harvesting season, when the Jemna Oasis Revival Association declared that it was resolved to sell the oasis’ yield on the crowns of its palms[9] to the highest bidder. The government warned the association against continuing the tenders procedures and obtained a summary court ruling to block the sale.[10] But the association merely delayed the auction date to October 9, 2016, deeming it to be in compliance with the court decision. Because of the experiment’s success and credibility, a significant number of rights groups, along with several MPs and political parties, mobilized to support it.

Ultimately, this support enabled it to carry out the sale of the 2016 yield. The experiment’s supporters successfully appraised their accomplishments and publicized data revealing its significance. For example, the farm, which had employed just seven permanent workers before the revolution, now employs 134 permanent workers in addition to seasonal workers. Likewise, while the government had been leasing the farm to private businessmen for no more than TND20,000 [US$8,650] per annum, the yield of the same farm was sold in 2016 for TND1,700,000 [US$729,570].

Nevertheless, the government endeavored to freeze the association’s account, threatening the buyer of the yield with legal repercussions. This stance received support in the media, official political circles, and even in legal circles, support stemming from a desire to preserve the state’s authority and restore law and order. The State Secretariat for State Property and Real Estate Affairs proposed to the organization that it cease its public activity in exchange for a government pledge to return the amounts prepaid in the work of the agricultural season, and to settle the workers’ wages.

To end this confrontation, Minister of Agriculture, Water Resources, and Fishing Samir Taïeb ultimately convinced the association’s members to develop their experiment into an agricultural production cooperative, which would bring them into compliance with the law while preserving the experiment’s ideas and principles.[11] In the same vein, the minister proposed to the Cabinet distributing 11,000 hectares of the state’s agricultural property among 20 new agricultural cooperatives, including Jemna.[12] Hence, the positive reading of the Jemna experiment led away from the idea of conflict between the state and its citizens and resulted in the cooperative economy being considered a mode of production that preserves both the public property balance, and the right of the local community connected to a public property to manage it.

Jemna thus presented an alternative model for improving the performance of state agricultural lands, something that the Tunisian state had sought to do, and held symposiums and consultations for, without producing practical conceptions.[13] The Jemna solution to managing public agricultural properties was based on a call to retry the cooperation experiment that Jemna and Tunisia [as a whole] had attempted half a century earlier, and that had ended in failure.[14] Reviving the experiment raises the question of the differences between the first iteration and the second, differences that may explain the apparent variation in outcomes.

Cooperation Based on Public Will

In the beginning of the 1960s, the Tunisian government chose the cooperative economy as an official mode of production and issued the legislations that govern cooperatives.[15] The government tried to impose agricultural reform based on establishing owners’ cooperatives in private agricultural properties, and production cooperatives with regard to the public farms.[16] At the beginning of 1969, the experiment ended in failure after the farmers of Tunisia’s coastal villages rebelled against it.[17] Popular memory has retained anecdotes about collective farm administrators pretending to dig wells and plant fields in front of the media and central government officials, when in reality they misbehaved and became rich to the detriment of the era’s mottos and the national community’s money.

Juxtaposing the first cooperative experiment with the conception of cooperation produced by the Jemna experiment reveals that the difference between the two relate to practice, not conceptions. Primarily, the differences are as follows.

  1. The cooperation in the 1960s was adopted within a government policy that “the center” –i.e., the government in the capital– dictated to the regions and the farmers. By contrast, the new cooperation is a choice that the regions imposed on the central authority;

  2. The central government’s cooperative project was implemented by party and administrative officials adhering to state plans, whereas the new cooperation is the product of public will that opposed the state’s policy and was based on the community members’ desire and capacity to alter their situation. The president of the Protection of Jemna Oases Association confirmed this to The Legal Agenda when he stated that “our experiment was launched with TND120,000 [USD$51,340] of loans that volunteers borrowed, to which they added TND34,000 [USD$14,680] of their own money”; and

  3. The people that were encompassed by cooperation in the form of a public policy saw it as a restriction on their right to own their properties, whereas the cooperation in the Jemna experiment was an opportunity for those who had been denied this right by geography and the law to practice one aspect of it. Hence, cooperation as a government policy failed. The number of cooperative farms declined. They ultimately became failed institutions or companies directed by people who do not believe in the cooperative idea even though they benefited from the corresponding legislation.[18]

Because of the differences between the two experiments, the first form of cooperation declined and failed, while the second form expanded and became a symbol of successful development. Hopefully, the Jemna experiment (of which we have presented only a small part) will become one of the building blocks of an economy wherein people are the target and basis of every development. The experiment will hopefully also help inspire practical conceptions addressing the problems of other sectors suffering structural difficulties caused by the inability of the for–profit mode of production to sustain them. Print media establishments, most of which are now at risk of bankruptcy, could be the first to benefit from an experiment that succeeded, thanks to the enthusiasm of certain media outlets towards its accomplishments.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

[1] Law of May 12, 1964, which nationalized the agricultural properties that had been owned by French settlers.
[2] STIL, a public-sector company, administered the al-Mu’mar farm from 1972 until its dissolution in 2002.
[3] The Protection of Jemna Oases Association’s board of directors consists of: 1) Tahir al-Tahiri, president; 2) Ali Hamza, secretary of finance; 3) Salah Abd al-Jawad, general secretary; 4) Ulayya Abd al-Salam, member; 5) Ibrahim al-Khalil, member; 6) Ahmad Kushkar, member; 7) Umar al-Rahmuni; member; 8) al-Husayn Abd al-Qadir, member; 9) Mansur Khalifa, member; and, 10) Abd al-Majid al-Hajj Muhammad, member.
[4] The complete interview with Tahir al-Tahiri can be found in The Legal Agenda – Tunisia, Issue No. 7, December 2016.
[5] I.e., a small palm intended for planting.
[6] A Legal Agenda statement prepared by journalist Fatin Hamdi.
[7] The Jemna farm spans 400 hectares, but only 200 hectares are treed with palms and are therefore productive agricultural land.
[8] Terres domaniales: Une équation à plusieurs inconnues, April 18, 2015  – «Réalités”
[9] A process known among Tunisian farmers as “greening”.
[10] The summary ruling was issued by the First Instance Court in Kebili on September 15, 2016.
[11] Samir Taïeb’s statement to Shems FM Radio on October 27, 2016.
[12] “Al-Yawm fi Majlis Wizariyy: Nahw Tawzi’ 20 Day’ah Dawliyyah ‘ala Wahdat Intaj Ta’adud Fallahiyy min Bayniha Jamnah”, Assabah al-Usbu’iyy, November 21, 2016.
[13] The National Consultation for Improving the Performance of State Agricultural Lands began on June 16, 2015. Its results were presented in a Cabinet session held on January 5, 2016.
[14] The cooperation experiment lasted from 1962 to 1969 and was based on the idea of the cooperative economy, i.e., of the production process being managed by groups of cooperators sharing the burdens and the revenues.
[15] State Secretary for Planning and Finance Ahmed Ben Salah derived his experiment from the Swedish experiment, as shown by research on the period.
[16] In accordance with the ten-year development plan of 1961-1972.
[17] See: Saida Bu Hilal’s, “Hasan Babbuw Yatahaddath ‘an Ouerdanin (Janfiy 1969) wa Athariha ‘ala Harakat al-Ta’adud”, Assabah, August 24, 2008.
[18] In his statement to The Legal Agenda, Ali al-Nuri al-‘Adwani, director general of the State Agricultural Lands Restructuring Bureau, confirmed that the total area of the cooperatives declined from 250,000 hectares distributed across 213 cooperatives according to their 1981 census to only 16,000 hectares distributed across 18 cooperatives at present.

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