The right to land resides at the core of the agrarian question, as well as within the transformations that the rural field is being subjected to. Addressing this issue is a crucial step for Tunisia to achieve sovereign agricultural and food policy. Thus, it is important to trace the processes of land dispossession and recognize its repercussions on the rural field, food dependency and the country’s political plans to be able to put together a sustainable alternative.
This Policy Brief attempts to follow this approach and offer recommendations to the various state institutions and policy makers.
Since the outbreak of the revolution against the “old dictatorship”, many have called for social justice, dignity and employment. Undoubtedly, socio- economic demands and those relating to freedom of expression were the most present, but others – no less important – rose against other forms of injustice and inequality.
Starting from December 2010 until the end of 2013, residents in rural areas reclaimed about 100,000 hectares of land, stating that these lands are their legitimate right.
Along the Tunisian soil, masses of peasants, agricultural workers and non-land owners flocked towards what were considered “ancestral lands” (such as in Jemna, Dahmani, etc.).
After ten years, the state regained more than 80% of these lands, which represents an extension of the policy of land expropriation and a continuation of the decades-long confrontation with the state.
The process of land expropriation is, in fact, a continuation of a historical process, in which the ruling minority grants itself the right to deepen its control over the means of production that strengthens its monopoly on the rent generated from the land.
Land Administration in Independent Tunisia and its Consequences
Since the French colonial era till today, the disposition of land in Tunisia has mainly depended on land dispossession . The process of appropriation is another form of wealth accumulation through land expropriation. This process severely affects the farmers’ classes and the rural society in general by depriving these classes of the right to access to the resources that are the main means of production.
In addition , regional and social disparities are created, which in turn exacerbate the country’s food dependency. Indeed, depriving these producers of their lands is directly reflected in the production that feeds the local market.
Land dispossession as a Historical Process: From Colonization Until Today
With the establishment of the French colonial rule, an important shift in the monopoly of real estate ownership took place. Since 1881, and through the establishment of the Land Registry, Colonial France has imposed private ownership of land to remove the existing social structures “Arch” and others from their hold on tribal lands .
Simultaneously, settlers began to buy lands from the Tunisian oligarchy, which owned the most extensive lands, at low prices, as the landowners were absent from directly supervising their lands and a number of supervisors deputized them.
In 1898, and through a decree forcing the handing of over 2000 hectares annually to the lands of the “Baylik”, the colonial authority was extended to include the lands of the “Habous ” . This monopolization was particularly strengthened at the beginning of the 1880s through the mechanization of agriculture. The traditional mode of production, or “Dry Farming”, was changed to an intensive and exhaustive mode of production that required more land use. Thus, the process of expropriation continued through the leasing of land and sharing of the crop and other forms, which were explained by “J. Bonsi” who noted that “leasing is nothing more than a waiting room leading towards the final sale”.
In 1956, Tunisia declared its independence following a national liberation movement led by both its armed and political/diplomatic fronts.
At that time, French settlers owned an area of 850,000 hectares, exploited by 3750 of them. One year after independence, settlers remained in possession of 785,000 hectares. Then, in May 1957, Tunisia was able to recover 127,000 hectares on the Algerian border after granting compensation to the settlers who “owned” it, following negotiations with the French authorities. From that date until 1964, France suspended negotiations with the Tunisian side to continue exercising its imperial power to impose dependency by preventing the financial aid intended for the Tunisian government. In 1964, Tunisia was able, through the law of May 12, 1964, to nationalize 300,000 hectares, and the rest was bought by the Tunisian private sector and wealthy Tunisians, who paid the settlers who immigrated from the country after independence. Thus, the ownership was transferred to the state, making it the largest holder of the land.
Hence, the state continued to deprive peasants of their pre-colonial property rights and seized their lands, which they had struggled to liberate.
The policy of dispossession carried out by the state of independence did not stop there, as the state called for the modernization and intensification of agriculture, claiming that small farmers would not be able to implement it on their own.
The policy of “Ahmed Ben Salah” obliged them to engage in Agricultural Production Cooperatives under the law of May 8, 1963, which stipulates that all landowners must join Cooperative units for agricultural production or sell/rent their lands to these same units. The policy adopted by the central authority began to impose its vision on the rural area, so that in 1969 the state had 700 Agricultural Cooperatives covering 600,000 hectares, including 330,000 hectares as a contribution from peasants who had a land ownership of less than 6 hectares per family, and the rest was a contribution from State property. With this experience, peasants found themselves merely proletariat who were paid a daily wage for the exploitation of their own lands.
On the other hand, the contribution of the large landowners was almost non-existent. This dominant class survived the experiment and continued to carry out its agricultural activity in its own way, and even participated in the exploitation of the peasantry class in the same way as the state.
Abolition of Cooperative and the Path Towards the Liberalization of the Economy
In the early 1970s, Tunisia adopted a new economic orientation, which moved it from state capitalism to the liberalization of the economy.
The first step in this direction was to mainly abandon the experience of cooperatives and return to individual ownership. The Tunisian state, imbued with this neoliberal ideology, decided to restructure the land market by defining its scope to 330,000 hectares and selling the rest to the private sector.
These reforms leaned towards more “liberalization” with the structural reform program signed in 1986 with the International Monetary Fund. The Agricultural sector was also subjected to the PASA program (Structural Agricultural Adjustment Programs). This approach was more oriented towards the extractive intensive mode of production, whose goal was no longer to provide sufficiency but rather to achieve food security and ensure export-driven production. This policy, which aims to encourage agricultural investment, urged the state to mobilize other real estate resources necessary for this type of production.
Within this framework comes the 1988 law, which aimed to liquidate the tribal and socialist lands by removing the legal barriers that protected them and opening the door for capital to seize them.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the liquidation of state property in favor of the private sector has continued. Thus, at the end of 2001, Tunisia had 145,000 hectares of land belonging to the SMVDA (Companies of Agricultural Development) (226 companies, an average of 642 hectares for each company), and 50,000 hectares of land for technicians (600 sections of 83 hectares on average) and only 15,000 hectares of land allocated to young peasants (1850 sections at an average of 8 hectares per piece). As for the remaining 210,000 hectares, it was taken into charge for restructuring operations or for potential leasing to private capital owners”.
As the revolution prevailed, a large wave of land recovery movements emerged in rural areas, and the revolutionary context prompted a large number of individuals and groups to return to their lands, in Jemna, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and everywhere on Tunisian soil.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Tunisian authorities began the process of reclaiming the disputed lands, the pace of which increased over the years, confirming that the policy of expropriation remained unchanged. At the beginning of this phase , the state was unable to resort to general force in the face of this revolutionary trend, so it got involved in the negotiating process. However, following the 2014 elections, the approach changed with the arrival of the “Nidaa Tounes” party to power, whose program focused on restoring the “prestige” of the state, and thus preferred to resolve this conflict by force. This return to rigidity directly coincided with the return to the policy of liberal clientelism, which put the reins of control of land in the hands of the investors revolving in the sphere of power, as it was before the revolution.
Today, a small percentage of agricultural investments are still managed by groups and individuals who historically derive the legitimacy of their ownership of the land. The state has re-imposed its authority over this rent by resorting to the same seizing practices .
Consequences of Land dispossession in Tunisia
The social inequality that appears through the division of society between the poor and the rich is not a natural condition. This phenomenon is the result of a long process of peoples’ expropriation of their means of production in favor of a small minority.
The rural population was dispossessed of the land in favor of the investors and the oligarchy using this resource in order to accumulate profits.
Meanwhile, marginalized citizens were forced to emigrate to major cities where they could find basic daily work. These waves of emigration led to the creation of slums and belts around the cities composed mainly of former farmers, which did not benefit from urban development.
The situation was not better for those who chose to stay to take advantage of the small plots of land that they managed to keep. Those peasants who took advantage of plots not exceeding 10 hectares found themselves in competition with the large peasants who accumulated the land and the capital, in addition to their ability to invest and develop their cultivation and thus their ability to produce more.
This unequal competition does not stop there, because the agricultural policies in Tunisia support large producers (through laws that encourage agricultural investment), as well as through the banks that give them loans that they do not provide to small farmers who are considered among the vulnerable groups at risk.
Since the early 1980s, with the shift in agricultural policies, Tunisia’s food dependency on the West has deepened . The land grabbing was an essential component in the development of these policies, which focused before the “(Structural Agricultural Adjustment Programs)” (PASA) on a policy of food self-sufficiency that depended on local production and thus the support of all local producers (small, medium and large producers).
After the restructuring program, these policies were based on the concept of “food security”, which encourages the export of products on the basis of their competitive advantages.
Since 1986, with the signing of the restructuring program, the major investors and agricultural producers found themselves in an ideal situation through the encouragement of the state, the support of banks, and the policy of expropriation that provided them with more lands. In parallel, small and medium farmers who direct their production to the local market found themselves marginalized by this unequal competition, in addition to the policy of land expropriation.
Thereby, Tunisia found itself having few basic means of local production and began to import more, which gradually exacerbated its food dependency. It is also important to stress that this openness to the global market subjects Tunisia to the risk of fluctuating demand and prices in the market, thus making it unable to make a sovereign decision on the prices of products being exported or imported.
Exhaustive Farming and Climate Change
Through export-driven agricultural policies, investors and large producers, who have accumulated land and capital, exploit the lands in a draining capacity to ensure a higher capacity for profitability, considering that the natural resources are “infinite”. This mainly concerns agricultural products that require large amounts of water and crops that are produced outside their traditional seasonal cycle. The state has enabled the investors to make excessive use of the water table for the success of their cultivation. At the same time, these productions use excessively thousands of tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in order to intensify production by nourishing the soil and agriculture, and such techniques are known to negatively affect natural resources. This intensive production model also depends on the attrition side, as it is also considered one of the main factors causing climate change. Many experts and researchers pointed to the repercussions of this production model as a disaster on the environment, as stated in the report of the international group of experts on climate transitions for the year 2014, and confirmed by a press conference of the same group on their new 2021 report. This new report suggests that agricultural activities make up a 24% contribution of the total greenhouse gas emissions.
Within the principle of food sovereignty, real estate reform must guarantee the right of access to land and its exploitation for all components of the rural area and its management by real exploiters, bearing in mind the principle of providing food to the population in the first place and not accumulating profits. In the same context, the real estate reform process must take into account local and social specificities and be part of a broader agricultural reform to ensure greater success for the process and grant the greatest amount of rights to the most marginalized groups.
This reform must also be based on a perspective that breaks with the old methods of depleting production and turns more towards local and sustainable agriculture that respects the rights of future generations.
More Equitable Access to Land Resources
In order to abandon the traditional pattern of permanent subsidies for marginalized groups, reform must address the source of inequality, which is the inability of real producers to access land.
The reform should follow a political approach in favor of the most disadvantaged and marginalized groups, so that they can recover the means of production and live in dignity.
As a first step, a policy could be adopted to redistribute agricultural land within the State-owned lands . Beneficiaries are selected according to social and economic criteria and also considering the property rights of their ancestors.
Thereby, the support policies are reviewed according to these same criteria.
It is also necessary to raise the issue of gender equality during redistribution by discussing necessary reforms to inheritance and property laws for more equitable and inclusive access for women. These reforms should not be limited to the legislative aspect only, but the necessary policies should be put in place to counter this cultural discrimination (in spite of the existing legislation, women only own 4% of the total area of agricultural land).
A Step Towards Changing Production Methods
The shift towards sustainable agriculture that respects the environment cannot take place without keeping up with the pace of global changes. In Tunisia, as in other countries, calls for this change are not absent. Land restoration is a necessary step for an agrarian reform that embraces this new production system but it is also a main pillar against climate change, conserving resources and respecting the rights of future generations.
Peasants are the main driver of this change, because their production pattern is compatible with the local and comprehensive model, and they are the most capable of adapting to climatic challenges because this social group has always been known to adapt to production in harmony with nature and its available resources. Before the introduction of intensive agriculture, peasants used local seeds without chemical inputs, with strict care not to deplete the available resources. Unlike investors, who produce in order to accumulate profits, farmers produce in order to provide food.
Agrarian Reform as a First Pillar of Food Sovereignty
By engaging in the new system of production, the ownership mode reform allows the concentration of national sovereignty in the area of consumption and enables the country to gradually emerge from its food dependency.
The focus on internal production in accordance with national needs becomes a commitment that can only be done by encouraging small and medium producers. It was these same producers who always supplied their products to the domestic market (up to 80%) in all circumstances and, unlike investors, ensured the food supply to consumers with basic materials.
In order to ensure the success of the land reform process, it must be part of a broad, radical agrarian reform that guarantees not only access to land but also access to all means of production for the peasantry through a sovereign vision aimed at feeding the population, and not the accumulation and concentration of profit.
The main steps and recommendations are as follows:
Ministry of State Property and Real Estate Affairs
- Developing a strategy for the redistribution of land in a way that ensures equitable access to this resource by giving priority to the real exploiters of the land, i.e. peasants and small farmers. Redistribution should also take into account the gender aspect and target the most marginalized groups.
- Determining the size of land plots individually owned to ensure a more equitable distribution.
- Tribal lands shall be subject to the system of joint ownership, with the prevention of their incorporation into the real estate market in order to guarantee the right of joint use and disposal.
General Administration of Forests
Protecting the ownership of the forest and preventing its liquidation and dismantling, while ensuring the usufruct rights of the residents of the area.
Ministry of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries
In addition to the redistribution of land, liberating other means of production such as water and seeds should be prevented and returned to small and medium farmers in order to provide them with greater autonomy.
Agricultural Investment Promotion Agency, in coordination with the General Administration of Tax Studies and Legislation
Withdrawing the subsidies allocated to large landowners and imposing a number of taxes on them and re-pumping this funding to support the beneficiaries of the redistribution process.
 ‘We had to get our land back’: Tunisian date farm proves revolutionary bright spot’, layli Foroudi Thomson Reuters Foundation, Thursday, 17 December 2020 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tunisia-uprising-land-idUSKBN28R0GH idem  S. Hafedh, Urban Power and Peasantry in Tunisia, Cérès Productions 1992, p18 A term that designates the lands owned by the Bey an institution of Muslim law according to which the owner of the property makes it inalienable for the benefit of a pious work or of general utilityA method of agricultural production in arid areas, which depends on storing water in the soil for two consecutive years to obtain a good crop, as water precipitation for one year may not be able to provide the necessary quantity. STRUCTURAL ADJUSTMENT, GLOBALIZATION AND FAMILY FARMING IN TUNISIA, Mustapha Jouili p118.S. Hafedh, Urban Power and Peasantry in Tunisia, Cérès Productions 1992, p20 S. Hafedh, Urban Power and Peasantry in Tunisia, Cérès Productions 1992, p23Ahmed Ben Salah was Minister of Economy and Education and Secretary of State for Planning and Finance at that time. He was the one who announced the cooperative experience in Tunisia.Ayeb, H. and R. Bush. Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia (London: Anthem Press, 2019) p106Ayeb, H. and R. Bush. Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia (London: Anthem Press, 2019) p111 Law n°88-5 of 8/2/1988 modifying and completing the law n°64-28 of 4/6/1964 fixing the regime of collective lands M.ELLOUMI, State lands in Tunisia History of an appropriation by the public authorities, p14 Alia Gana, Maouen Taleb. Land mobilizations in Tunisia: revealing the paradoxes of the post “revolution”. Confluences Méditerranée, Harmattan, 2019, Agriculture and politics: fields of insecurity, pp. 31-46  Mourad S, State Recovers 10 and 16 hectares of land respectively in the delegations of Boussalem and Dahmani, Tunisie Numérique, 04/07/2017 https://www.tunisienumerique.com/tunisie-recuperation-letat-de-10-16-hectares-de-terres-respectivement-delegations-de-boussalem-dahmani/ AITEC, Policies and practices of trade and investment liberalization in Tunisia, 2016, p2: http://aitec.reseau-ipam.org/IMG/pdf/article_tunisie_libre_echange-2.pdf IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.Field study on the structures of agricultural exploitation, 2004-2005-January 2006, Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, General Administration of Agricultural Research and Development.