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CHALLENGING AGRIBUSINESS AND BUILDING ALTERNATIVES IN TUNISIA AND MOROCCO


The world food crisis of 2007-2008 has urgently put a spotlight on the issue of “food sovereignty” and family/smallholder farming. The famine and the “bread riots” that swept several countries in the global South like in Egypt and Morocco showed how dysfunctional the global food system is: monopolised by corporations that maximise their profits through export-led mono-crop agriculture, land grabbing, agro-fuel production and speculation on basic staple foods. This food system is part of an extractivist mode of accumulation and appropriation that was structured in the Maghreb/North Africa through colonialism in the 19th century to respond to the demands of the metropolitan centres in the global North. This pattern of accumulation and appropriation is in its turn based on the commodification of nature and the privatisation of natural resources, which is resulting in serious environmental depredation.

Agricultural extractivism in North Africa is particularly damaging to water resources. Export-led water-intensive mono-crop agribusiness in arid regions like the Sahara depletes precious, non-renewable groundwater. Moreover, the conversion of arable land from food production to the production of energy (biofuels or agro-fuels), flowers and produce destined for cosmetic use in Europe (eg. Jojoba in Tunisia) also constitutes virtual water exports[1]. As documented in this enlightening study, Morocco’s 2008 Plan “Maroc Vert” (Green Morocco Plan, PMV), supported by the World Bank and setting out the country’s agricultural plan for the period between 2008–2020, aims to quintuple the value of export-oriented crops by shifting land-use away from staple cereal crops, promoting private investment in agriculture, and removing restrictions that stand in the way of private property rights[2]. Similarly, but not covered in this book, the traditional and small-scale fishing sector has been facing an offensive by industrial fishing that threatens biodiversity and fish stocks. This is facilitated by neoliberal plans such as Halieutis and fishing agreements with the EU allowing European big boats to over-fish in Moroccan waters at the expense of small fishermen[3]. The same trend is being witnessed in Algeria where an extractivist Saharan agriculture is being promoted through the intensive use of land and water resources in order to export a few crops such as tomatoes, watermelons and even pineapples. Such an absurd choice of an intensive capitalist agriculture in very extreme climatic conditions, in order to make profits at the expense of durability/sustainability, has already shown its dismal results. The failure of such projects has been demonstrated in other countries such as Libya and Saudi Arabia, where they have simply been abandoned.

Extractivism, agricultural or otherwise, has reaffirmed the role of Northern African countries as exporters of nature and suppliers of natural resources (such as oil and gas) and primary commodities heavily dependent on water and land (such as agricultural commodities). This role entrenches Northern Africa’s subordinate insertion into the global capitalist economy, maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neo-colonial hierarchies[4].  This extractive model sees large scale oil and gas extraction in Algeria and Tunisia; phosphate mining in Tunisia and Morocco; precious ore mining – silver, gold, and manganese – in Morocco; and water-intensive agribusiness farming paired with tourism in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. This plays an important role in the ecological crisis in North Africa and finds its clear expression in acute environmental degradation, land exhaustion and water poverty. The crisis is exacerbated by the over-exploitation of natural resources and the resulting effects of global warming such as desertification, recurrent heat waves, droughts and sea level rises[5].

Simultaneous to this dynamic of dispossession of land and resources, new forms of dependency and domination are created. The focus on the export of primary commodities (re-primarisation) is often accompanied by a loss of food sovereignty, either through rentier systems that reinforce food dependency by relying on food import; such is the case in Algeria; or through the mobilisation of land, water and other resources mainly in the service of an export-led cash crop agribusiness, like in Tunisia and Morocco. This model of development finds itself mired in serious tensions, which generate protests and resistance. The rural working poor and the unemployed in North Africa’s peripheries are the most impacted by this extractivist model of development and they are resisting the looting of their subsoil resources, the despoliation of their lands and the cruel exploitation of their labour power if not the loss of their livelihoods.

It becomes very clear that this “development” is largely incompatible with social justice due to its disastrous social and environmental consequences[6]. It creates what Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, areas disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing, inhabited by people whose bodies, health, land and water are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital[7]. The various cases and powerful testimonies presented in this book exemplify broader patterns of primitive accumulation in the global South, where accumulation by dispossession takes the brutal form of the extraction and pillage of natural resources, the degradation of environments and ecosystems through the privatisation and commodification of land and water[8]. This has intensified in the last few decades, following the neoliberal restructuring of the economy in our region and the infiltration of transnational capital, including the extractive type[9].

The Maghreb region plays a geostrategic role when it comes to the extractive sector for its proximity to Europe and the richness of its soil. Algeria is the third largest provider of gas to Europe, while Morocco and Tunisia are very important players in the production of phosphates, which are utilised as agricultural fertilisers, feeding global agrarian capitalism. Moreover, Tunisia and Morocco export considerable amounts of agricultural produce to Europe. This strategic importance is reflected in the North’s attempts to control these resources through free trade deals for example, such as the ongoing negotiations around the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Tunisia and Morocco[10]. The (re)-primarisation of the economies of the Maghreb countries and the reinforcement of extractivism are hallmarks of the political economy of development in the region and the peripheries in general[11].

The present study into the state of the agricultural sector in Morocco and Tunisia, adopts a methodology centred on the small producers of our food (small peasants and agricultural workers). It demonstrates quite clearly that access to and production of food is a political issue par excellence. Through a distributive justice lens, it aims to answer questions such as who owns what? Who does what?  Who gets what? Who wins and who loses? and whose collective, public good is being served? While also taking account of the colonial and neo-colonial legacies, issues of class and gender, it reveals that “food sovereignty” is not only a subversive concept but it is also a radical project of profound social and economic transformation towards popular sovereignty of the real producers of food in particular, and the downtrodden in general. “Food sovereignty” is generally tied to the right of people to self-determination at the political, economic, social, cultural and environmental levels. Based on this logic, any discussion of food sovereignty in the Maghreb/North Africa must grapple with questions of unjust global structures of power, the sustainability of resources and the historical dispossession and destabilisation of the peasantry in the colonial period and in the post-colonial era through the imposition of neo-colonial-neoliberal reforms and structural adjustment programmes.

Equally important, food sovereignty cannot be reduced to a simple discussion around agriculture. It is rather about the nature and performance of the whole economy. Similarly, it can’t be wed to the short-termism and the intensification of an export-led agriculture championed by agribusiness. In fact, it is closely linked to popular sovereignty, radical democracy, redistributive justice and sustainability initiatives led by the peasantry and small-scale/family farmers and other producers.

Issues of the right to food and a just access to land in North Africa are still at the heart of people’s socio-economic demands. They have been expressed once again in the popular demands of the Arab uprisings: “Bread, freedom and social justice” (Aish/khobz, Horreya, adala ijtema’yya). While most of the attention was focused on urban rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and other countries, rural dissent and protest were also present (and continue to be) across the region. 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.

This enriching publication is an attempt to highlight the struggles and preoccupations of smallholder farmers and agricultural workers in Tunisia and Morocco. It constitutes a part of a larger project in North Africa that tries to go beyond abstract academic studies that tend to be trapped in their “intellectual” ivory tower and therefore are disconnected from the realities of the “wretched of the earth”. Combining intellectual production with grassroots work, the project strives to depart from this sterile tradition by inserting itself in concrete experiences of small-holder farmers, fisher-folks and agricultural workers through reinforcing action-orientated endeavours for progressive social change such as through the newly established North African Network for Food Sovereignty.

The aim of this regional project is to construct discourses and enshrine practices that are anti-colonial and anti-capitalist. This will allow us to start asking the right questions and linking up the different struggles (environmental and climate justice, food sovereignty, trade justice, anti-racism, women’s liberation, anti-war and militarism, anti-austerity…) because all of them are intersectional and interconnected. Fundamentally, all these issues are only expressions of the same logic of accumulating wealth in the hands of the few while dispossessing the majority from what is theirs. These struggles, which represent various aspects of resistance to a system that has no respect for humans and nature, need to converge to create a space and a horizon for a liberating alternative. In a nutshell the problem is systemic and the response to it needs to be systemic. The resistance cannot be just in one country, hence the efforts to build and consolidate regional projects, initiatives and spaces for debate, exchange and activism.

In this spirit, this publication not only criticises and resists the predatory offensive of today’s capitalism under its neoliberal form on Moroccan and Tunisian agriculture but it takes as one of its tasks to co-develop, with the concerned, new proposals and visions, in order to challenge the dominant thinking around issues that pertain to the right to food. What shines through this study is the paramount importance and necessity of initiating new debates around the concepts we use in order to break the hegemony of disempowering discourses such as “food security” in our region, while striving to be involved in local, continental and international mobilisation.

Needless to say that this publication – amongst hopefully many others – is merely one contribution to the ongoing debates around food sovereignty in North Africa. It is hoped that it will enlighten the path to build sustainable and just alternatives to extractivist capitalist agriculture in the region. In this regard, it is definitely a very welcome and long-awaited intervention on the subject.

Dr Hamza Hamouchene

Algerian Scholar-Activist.


[1] Allan, J.A 2003. “Virtual water – the water, food and trade nexus: useful concept or misleading metaphor?” Water International 28: 4-11.

[2] Akesbi, N. 2011. “Le Plan Maroc Vert : une analyse critique”. Questions d’economie marocaine. Rabat : Presse universitaires du Maroc : 9-46. Also see Aziki, O. 2014. “Le dilemme du modèle agro-exportateur marocain.” May 24. http://www.cadtm.org/Le-dilemme-du-modele-agro. Also: Hanieh, A. 2014. “Shifting Priorities or Business as Usual? Continuity and Change in the post-2011: IMF and World Bank Engagement with Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.” Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 42 (1): 119-134.

[3] ATTAC Morocco. 2016a. “Etat de la justice climatique au Maroc.” August 28. https://bit.ly/2F4gYeo

[4] Amin, S. 1970. The Maghreb in the modern world. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

[5] El-Zein, A et al. 2014. “Health and ecological sustainability in the Arab world: a matter of survival.” The Lancet 383 (9915): 458–476. See also: Hamouchene, H. and Minio-Paluello, M. 2015. The Coming Revolution in North Africa: The Struggle for Climate Justice. London-Tunis-Paris: Ed. Platform, Environmental Justice North Africa, Rosa Luxemburg and Ritimo. Also: Lelieveld, J et al. 2016. “Strongly increasing heat extremes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the 21st century”. Climatic Change 137 (1-2): 245-260.

[6] Gudynas, E. 2013. “Transitions to post-extractivism: directions, options, areas of action.” In Beyond Development: Alternative Visions from Latin America, edited by M. Lang & D. Mokrani,165-188. Quito & Amsterdam: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation & Transnational Institute.

[7] Klein, N. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster. And also:

Klein, N. 2016. “Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World.”  London Review of Books 38 (11): 11-14.

[8] Marx, K. 1976. Capital, vol. 1. London: Penguin. And: Harvey, D. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[9] Aziki, O. 2017. “Maroc : tremplin pour les conquêtes néocoloniales de l’Afrique.” November 19. http://www.cadtm.org/Maroc-tremplin-pour-les-conquetes.  And: Moustakbal, J. 2017. “Despotism, neoliberalism and climate change: Morocco’s catastrophic convergence”. July 21. http://www.middleeasteye.net/essays/catastrophic-convergence-1321268571. And: Belalloufi, H. 2012. La Démocratie en Algérie: reforme ou révolution? Algiers: Lazhari Labter Editions-Les Editions Apic. And : Hamouchene, H. and Rouabah, B. 2016. “The political economy of regime survival: Algeria in the context of the African and Arab uprisings.” Review of African Political Economy. Volume 43 – Issue 150, 668-680. And: Khiari, S. 2003. Tunisie : Le Délitement de la Cité. Paris : Karthala. And : The Guardian 2018. “The IMF has choked Tunisia. No wonder the people are protesting.” January 17, 2018. By Chandoul, J.

[10] Mediapart 2018. En Tunisie, ‘L’ALECA c’est la reproduction du pacte colonial de 1881’». Jouili, M interviewed by Marco Jonville. October 1st. And: Daumas, L and Aziki, O. 2018. “Relations euroméditerranéennes et accords de libre échange euro-marocains : des politiques d’inspiration coloniale.” April 10. http://www.cadtm.org/Relations-euromediterraneennes-et

[11] Veltmeyer, H and Petras, J. 2014. The New Extractivism: A Post-Neoliberal Development Model or Imperialism of the Twenty-First Century? London- New York: Zed Books.

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