In the afternoon of Friday, February 19, about 50 people protested in front of the Ministry of Agriculture and then the Ministry of Commerce in support of cattle farmers from the town of Ouled Jaballah in the Mahdia governorate. Protesters spray-painted the walls of the Agriculture ministry with slogans, including “Ministry of Poulina,” referring to one of Tunisia’s largest food industry conglomerates. Within hours, the Ministry of Commerce announced a decision it had taken to fix the price of soy meal, a key ingredient in animal feed.
Since early February, cattle farmers in Ouled Jaballah have been holding protests denouncing the government’s policies of importing red meat and not adequately enforcing price controls for cattle feed to keep them affordable, especially for smaller farmers. Additional protests have also denounced the police response to these protests—which has included the use of tear gas. Protesters present on Friday told Meshkal that they have witnessed injuries among Ouled Jaballah protesters resulting from police using rubber bullets and that locals from Ouled Jaballah recounted police torture among those arrested. The Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH by its French acronym) has documented the use of torture by police against detainees in other recent protests in the capital.
“People in that village were really shocked how the police brutality was. They’re not used to that, to how—like us in the urban areas—we’re used to police brutality every day,” said Emna Mornagui, an activist for food sovereignty who participated in Friday’s protest and had visited Ouled Jaballah two days earlier.
Cattle Farmers Protest Lack of Price Controls for Animal Feed
At around ten in the morning on Friday, hours before protesters convened in front of the Ministry of Commerce later that afternoon, a fax came into the offices of Carthage Grains—which claims to be Tunisia’s only soy meal processing company and was set up in 2009. The fax was from the Ministry of Commerce announcing a decision—effective immediately—that set the price of soy meal at 1624 Tunisian dinars (TND) per ton, all taxes included, according to Walid Hachicha the Risk Manager at Carthage Grains.
Soy meal makes up just under 20 percent of the animal feed market in Tunisia according to Hachicha, with the rest of livestock or poultry feed made up of a mixture of maize, some wheat variants, and various other products.
“Friday starting from ten in the morning, we stopped all sales,” and readjusted sales to the new price of 1624 TND, Hachicha told Meshkal.
Later that afternoon, the Ministry of Commerce published an announcement on its Facebook page confirming the decision to intervene in the price of soy meal and mentioning Carthage Grains specifically.
Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a coordinator with the National Campaign to Support the Social Struggles who participated in Friday’s protest, claimed that the state’s distribution of cattle feed had been effectively outsourced to Carthage Grains—which appears to be part of a conglomerate called Groupe Mokhtar that also owns construction material businesses. Ben Khelifa claimed that the company had been selling to small cattle farmers at marked up prices.
“The people of Ouled Jaballah went out to protest for their basic rights as farmers and cattle breeders, but this government has not only given up on them but also targeted them through its alienation of cattle feed distribution,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal.
Ben Khelifa claimed that Carthage Grains established a partnership with three other big agri-food companies: Alfa; Poulina, and Alco—and this partnership allowed them to monopolize the distribution of cattle feed in Tunisia.
But Hachicha of Carthage Grains denied this characterization while conceding they had—until Friday—marked up the price for small purchasers, but only on account of quantity he said.
“I can’t sell at the same price to someone who buys 20 thousand tons to someone who buys 100 tons…It’s like that everywhere, it’s a function of the economy,” Hachicha said.
According to Hachicha, prior to Friday’s directive from the Ministry of Commerce fixing the sale price of soy meal, Carthage Grains had sold about 95 percent of their soy meal to the three big animal feed producers Poulina, Alfa and a group he identified as associated with the Belkhiria family, a conglomerate called La Rose Blanche Group (Meshkal was unable to verify whether Alco is currently linked to the La Rose Blanche Group conglomerate).
“We’re always the target of attacks because no one understands what happens in the sector…while Carthage Grains has no role to play in what’s happening,” Hachicha said.
Any additional markups that the big three used to pass onto their final consumers was out of the control of Carthage Grains, Hachicha said.
Following Friday’s directive by the Ministry of Commerce fixing a selling price for soy meal, Hachicha believes that smaller clients will begin to make up a larger portion of Carthage Grains’ sales.
“I think that if the cattle farmers are aware of this measure, they will no longer have a reason to protest, at least for soy meal,” Hachicha told Meshkal.
Meshkal asked Hachicha if the state’s new directive on soy meal prices would affect Carthage Grains’ business performance.
“It didn’t have an impact on the [results] of our company in the sense where the price that was authorized is equal to the international price, so it’s the price that we sold to big clients. Now we are going with this price for everyone,” Hachicha said.
State Begins to Intervene?
The state’s intervention to control the price of soy meal is not the first recent intervention to control the price of soy meal for animal feed. On August 31, 2020, the Ministry of Commerce published a decision on its Facebook page indicating that the margin of profit that companies could make on resale of soy meal products would be limited to 20 percent.
Hachicha of Carthage Grains told Meshkal that the August intervention didn’t affect Carthage Grains, and it only applied to resale of their soy meal via the big three agri-food companies to whom they usually sell.
The Ministry of Agriculture does not appear to have released any statements on its website addressing the protests in Ouled Jaballah or the Friday protest in front of the Ministry. Meshkal reached the Ministry of Agriculture by phone seeking comment, but an official who answered the Ministry’s phone number who declined to identify themselves said that a recent ministerial reshuffle will produce a new communications team and that a response was not immediately available. The official also asked why Meshkal was interested in reporting on the topic.
Activists From Capital Visit Ouled Jaballah
Friday’s protest in Tunis was organized by activists living in the capital who had visited Ouled Jaballah to participate in a protest there two days earlier, on Wednesday, February 17, according to activist Mornagui.
Mornagui told Meshkal that she and other individuals who went to Ouled Jaballah asked locals there how they could support them. In response, locals from Ouled Jaballah asked activists based in the capital to “raise the issue in the media because we don’t talk about small farmers who are struggling with market-oriented policies, so let’s talk about it in Tunis too,” Mornagui said.
When Mornagui and other activists returned to Tunis, they reached out to groups and individuals who had been involved in protesting other issues such as the police immunity bill. Friday’s protest brought together groups that had been present at recent protests in Tunis including the National Campaign to Support Social Struggles, the “Wrong Generation”, and “Antifascist Youth.” Apart from protesting in support of Ouled Jaballah, protesters also called for food sovereignty with slogans that included: “Food sovereignty, national sovereignty;” “Barons, barons, the revolution of agriculture has started,” and “Agriculture is the solution.”
Ben Khelifa from the National Campaign to Support Social Struggles believes that there is a targeted policy by the government to squeeze small farmers as negotiations continue for a new Tunisia-European Union Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA or ALECA by its French acronym) which food sovereignty activists worry may dismantle existing regulations relating to foreign investment in the Tunisian agricultural sector.
“This government, in its process to capitalize the lands, make preparations for ALECA as well as abandoning land ownership for foreign capital to get back to Tunisia…are trying to starve small farmers and eradicate them for them…to sell the lands,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal.
After staging a demonstration in front of the Ministry of Agriculture, the protest turned into a march towards the Ministry of Commerce on Mohamed V Avenue, denouncing the policies of both ministries and accusing them of corruption.
Since the protests have started in the town of Ouled Jaballah, more farmers and agricultural workers from surrounding areas in the southern part of the Mahdia governorate and the northern part of the neighboring Sfax governorate have voiced support for the protests on social media. One Facebook page claiming to represent the town of Ouled Bousmir shared several posts announcing “the revolution of farmers” and a protest on Monday, February 22, according to this post on Facebook.