Our research has been looking at the needs and priorities of small farmers in Cap Bon, Tunisia, as part of the Centre’s Transformative Justice in Egypt and Tunisia research project. One interesting set of findings from the research speaks to the way emerging democracies are experienced and evaluated through the lens of the rural economy. For our research participants, the rural economy is an accumulation of present and longstanding issues and grievances that have to do with their enduring poverty, inequality and insecurity.
Rural economic issues were an important source of grievances leading to the uprising of 2010/11. These included rising tensions over agricultural resources, food prices, discontent around increasing production costs, farmer indebtedness, and a lack of employment opportunities (Gana, 2011; 2012; 2013; 2016; Ayeb, 2012; Ayeb and Bush, 2016; Bush and Martiniello, 2016). The subsequent economic fallout which has accompanied the country’s democratic transition has made farming in the region much more difficult, and occurs against the backdrop of a decades-long of process of state withdrawal from the agriculture sector which has seen the decline of direct support for small producers and the emergence of a more business-friendly environment in line with a process of neoliberal restructuring. What do the small farmers we interviewed think about post-Revolution Tunisia?
Struggling to make ends meet, small farmers have come to view the Revolution in overwhelmingly negative terms. They express frustration with the new Tunisian state and a nostalgia for the old order. Despite the restoration of civil and political freedoms, the transition period has not ushered in a period of positive social change. In fact, participants fault it for having left them worse. They have found themselves in the same structural positions they were in during days of Ben Ali, but now with worsened conditions for their farming livelihoods, mounting debts and diminished household incomes. According to one tenant we interviewed, Khalil,
From this revolution we didn’t get anything - the only thing we got is high costs. We wish we had stayed like we were before… we were in a good condition, we were in such a good situation that we did not thank God for it. […] for us, the minority and the poor people, we didn’t get any benefits [from the Revolution]. The only other outcome is [our] being punished. We didn’t benefit from this Revolution. We are being suffocated even more. To speak about freedom and the freedom of citizens… there is no freedom!
Small farmers in the region remain dependent on people in higher class and status positions, such as landlords, money lenders and agri-industrial actors, and sense themselves increasingly exploited and subjugated over the course of recent years. The initial optimism in 2011 about the prospects for change has given way to frustration as new opportunities have failed to materialise. The continuing lack of alternative livelihood options and possibilities to diversify feed into feelings of insecurity and hopelessness. Like many of our research participants, Ghassen was gloomy about the future: “ten years from now and farming [here] won’t be the same. The Revolution was an attack [on us] and it’s completely destroying farming.”
As for the new state, it shares with the old a perception that it is distant, neglectful and unresponsive to the needs and priorities of small farmers. Participants told us that the state doesn’t listen to them, and they lament the lack of direct support for small farmers, such as through the provision of agricultural inputs, formal loans and crop insurance. Adel, a sharecropper who was particularly struggling, suggested that
The state doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t come and ask you what the matter is. Nor help the farmer, and agree that he requires this and that. But it doesn’t care about you. No one cares about you.
The government is also rapped for failing to properly regulate relations between small farmers and more powerful actors in the region, which leave stronger parties in a position to routinely take advantage of weaker ones. The rise in livestock thefts since 2011 has cast further doubt on the capacity of the state to uphold law and order in the region. Several head of livestock are usually maintained by small farmers to cope with livelihood stresses and shocks, but the rise in thefts has left them feeling their personal and livelihood security under threat. A small number have responded by abandoning livestock altogether while others have opted for keeping the animals in their homes overnight.
While the emerging democracy takes much of the blame, issues and grievances are longstanding and deeply rooted. When we asked what changes participants wanted to see, their suggestions pointed towards undoing some of the damage wrought by 20 years’ worth of agrarian restructuring. Participants envisage the state being brought back into agricultural development, where it provides incentives and support to poor farmers such as seasonal loans and rolling back the private sector. Participants also emphasised the need for new forms of independent representation or channels for communication through which they can speak and be listened to.
With agricultural policy in Tunisia set to continue much the same as before and with efforts to liberalise and open up the economy even further, it remains to be seen whether and how the widened political space can be exploited by small farmers to defend their interests and advocate for their rights. Experiences from elsewhere, such as in the emerging democracies of Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, suggest possibilities in the form of new, independent and sustainable forms of rural representation, visions of food sovereignty (Ayeb, 2017), and mobilisation around the rights of people who live and work in rural areas (La Via Campesina, 2008).
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Gana, A. (2016). Rural and farmers’ protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt in the era of Arab revolts. In A. Corrado, C. de Castro and D. Perrotta, (Eds), Migration and Agriculture: Mobility and change in the Mediterranean area. London: Routledge, p.261-276.
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Gana, A. (2011). Agriculteurs et paysans, nouveaux acteurs de la société civile et de la transition démocratique en Tunisie. Observatoire Tunisien de la Transition Démocratique. Diwan: Tunis.
La Via Campesina (2008). Declaration of Rights of Peasants – Women and Men. Available at:
http://viacampesina.net/downloads/PDF/EN-3.pdf (Accessed 7 September 2017).
 Fieldwork was conducted with Sawsen ben Moussa and with logistical support from the Tunisian Womens’ Association for Research in Development (AFTURD), Tunis.