Using Land for Food: In Conversation with Habib Ayeb

A photo of Habib Ayeb wearing a shirt of the Landless People’s Movement of South Africa, taken July 6, 2019 near Lac Ichkeul, by Fadil Aliriza.

Habib Ayeb is a geographer, researcher, documentary filmmaker, and president of the Tunis-based Observatory of Food and Environmental Sovereignty [OSAE by its French acronym]. OSAE has been working to foster social science research around agrarian questions, particularly in Tunisia, that have traditionally been studied by engineers and technical experts. OSAE also works to connect small farmers and rural populations with urban populations through workshops, conferences, field trips and study sessions. Ayeb’s most recent book, coauthored with Ray Bush, is entitled Food Insecurity and Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa: Agrarian Questions in Egypt and Tunisia (Anthem Press, 2019).

Ayeb sat down for an interview at the OSAE office in Tunis on February 20, 2020 with Matt Gordner. Gordner is a Tunis-based PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto and a private consultant for international and Tunisian NGOs and think tanks on issues including youth politics, social movements, democratization and (de-)radicalization. His research is supported by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholarship, an American Political Science Association (APSA) Middle East and North Africa Civil Society Fellowship, and a series of Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) grants and awards, among others.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Matt Gordner: You coined the term ‘Alfa Grass Revolution’ in an article you wrote in 2011*, just after the Tunisian uprising. What does this term mean, and why is it important?

Habib Ayeb: It is very important for many reasons. Ben Ali left on the 14th of January, and the next day, the newspapers came out with the term ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ But look at the map where jasmine grows: in Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa, Sousse—the urban, rich, and coastal areas. This is an issue of ecology. In the south, there is no jasmine. Even in private gardens, it doesn’t work. You have small plants, but not jasmine. So why were the newspapers immediately talking about jasmine? It is to say that the revolution is not a social revolution; that it is not a social process. It is to say that something happened thanks to the [university] graduate, young, rich, and pro-democracy parts of the population. This is the picture they tried to paint. That the revolution is only for a lack of democracy and everything else is ok. That the only problem with Ben Ali was lack of democracy.

This implies that the revolution took one day or two days, and that it had nothing to do with [Mohamed] Bouazizi [the vegetable seller in Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire in protest after authorities confiscated his goods in December 2010 and sparked uprisings] or the period before December 2010 and 2011. This was a big lie. It is as if to exclude people—the poor people. It is to say that the only ones who count are chic people, the democrats. For me, I wrote this as a response to what others tried to impose as an analysis, as an explanation: why the revolution, and why now? And I did it both as a scholar but also as someone who is part of this country. I don’t want the mainstream reading of the revolution to become the only explanation.

I went into the south two, three, and four years before 2010, and in my article, I wanted to explore whether there is any connection between what happened in 2008 [when there were mass protests] in the mining area in Gafsa [with the subsequent uprising in 2010/2011]. You know, months after the mining protests in Gafsa, small farmers refused to pay their bills to STEG [the Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas], and thousands of small farmers and peasants refused to repay their loans to [banks]. [There was a] sit-in in Sidi Bouzid in July 2010—Mohamed Bouazizi was there. Farmers went in front of the majles al-wilaya [governorate office] and organized a sit-in for almost one month and were attacked by the police. They demanded the cancellation of their credits and their debt to STEG. They were suppressed by the police.

In my paper, I asked: who was Mohamed Bouazizi? He was introduced as young, a university graduate, urban, and unemployed. But we know that he wasn’t an unemployed graduate. His family are farmers—or used to be farmers. And they lost their land. His father, his uncle, his whole family.

This is the way that investors used to work, with the complicity of banks like BNA [National Agricultural Bank, a public bank], to grab land. Most investors are from Sfax and Tunis. Some people, especially small farmers, refused to sell their land. You have three or four ways to dispossess people: One you can kill the owners; two you buy the land, or three if you can’t do both, you push the owner into a very difficult situation. Give him money knowing that he will not be able to reimburse you.

MG: Can you explain that process in more detail?

HA: Sure. I’m an investor, and you’re a farmer. I want to buy your piece of land. So, I ask: What’s your price? But you’re not selling it. I can offer much more than the local rates. For example, if the rate is 1000 dinars per hectare, I can give you 10,000. But you don’t need money, so of course you will not sell. The investors are linked to the bank of course. And they are linked mainly to BNA. So, they push the bank to offer a credit to the farmer, knowing that they will never be able to pay back the loans.

This is what happened with Bouazizi’s uncle. They went to see him and gave him an offer. They said: “You are too small. The farmers around you are much bigger than you. You are practicing traditional agriculture, and the others are practicing mechanized agriculture. So, we will give you the money you need to change your system, to move from rain-fed irrigation to intensified agriculture. And don’t use local seeds. We’ll give you enough money to buy new and better seeds. And everywhere around you farmers are using pesticides, so you should use pesticides.”

The bank offers a sum that is too good to be rejected. It is very classic. Actually, this is the same system that was used in the 18th century. But if you take credit, there are conditions. One of the conditions is that if you are not able to pay back the loans, the land becomes property of the bank. And they know that the farmers will not be able to pay back the bank. And this is exactly what happened to small farmers in Sidi Bouzid.

MG: What is the relationship between investors and the bank?

HA: Corruption, of course. Corruption used to go through the BNA.

MG: You said, “used to.” Is this still the case?  

HA: Yes, it continues. Maybe not so brutally, but it still works, of course. And this is everywhere, not only in Tunisia. In Egypt and India and South America it’s exactly the same. In Northern countries it’s a different process, but there is also this kind of banking mechanism: artificially creating the worst conditions for small farmers. They make it impossible to survive with the old system of traditional, rain-fed agriculture.  So, the Bouazizi family were in this sit-in in June and July. It was five months before his suicide. This explains why and when Bouazizi killed himself. Local families went into the street because of the dispossession of the population from their land, and it took these people to a kind of social class solidarity.

In Tunis, there has been on average 250 suicides per year for the last decades, and none of them ended in revolution. No one knew Bouazizi. He came from nowhere. He is not known. He is a normal person. But he did this because he was in the street with his family and many other small farmers just six months before. And then we know what happened. So, when you consider the four years between 2008 and 2010, you see in fact a very important thing. When you look back and see what happened, you see huge revolutionary processes and socially-based contestation. A huge process where from the south-west to north-west to south-east, people were involved in huge strikes that are all part of this chain. At some point in the process it had to come out, and it came out through Bouazizi.

When the protests reached Tunis, they started in [the neighborhoods of] Kram, Hey-Ettadhamen, Sidi Hassine; not in Sidi Bou Said or even on Bourguiba Avenue.

MG: Can you talk about the bifurcation of agriculture, as you do in your book, and its importance historically?

HA: I talked about this in my latest publication, too, in Arabic and French: De La Construction De La Dépendence Alimentaire en Tunisie [published December 2019 by Thimar and OSAE]. What happened exactly? Over the last 100 years, there has been an issue of modernization. Through this issue, we moved in steps. The first one is colonization: the land taken by the French. The second, we started moving from small scale farming to “expert” and large-scale farming [what was then] cooperative agriculture. The issue for the decision-makers during the last period of colonialism and at independence was how to modernize agriculture. And the discussion started from one very “terrific” conclusion: the small farmers are too many, too small, too poor, and too ignorant. So, the modernization of the agriculture sector should be realized by experts along with state and private capital.  This is why we have so many agricultural schools in Tunisia.

MG: If there are so many schools, why did the cooperative land movement, [associated with the leadership of minister Ahmed Ben Salah from 1962-1969] fail?

HA: The cooperative was not a cooperative of farmers. It was a cooperative of land that disconnected the farmers [from their land]. The state took the land and gave it to the “experts” to run it as directors of cooperatives, managers, and technicians, and the farmers lost their land when they entered into cooperatives as workers, not as co-owners. The link between land and farmers was cut. In order to enter into the cooperative, you had to give over your land first and sign that it’s not your land anymore. You give me your land, and I will give you a job. If tomorrow you are sick and you can’t work, you will have no money. So, thousands of small farmers were dispossessed like that.

The technicians and experts weren’t able to operate the land because farming isn’t all a technical thing. While small farmers worked to eat, the technicians farmed to get money. And I think that this was the first crack in the whole sector. The idea of cooperatives is very interesting, but when it goes with dispossession it becomes catastrophic. In the Egyptian case [of agrarian reform], farmers joined the cooperatives as owners. And the Egyptian cooperatives worked for three decades from the mid-1950s to the early 80s.

And the third [step in modernization of agriculture] is privatization of land and neo-liberalization of the sector. The idea was to give the money and land to investors. Why? Because one, small farmers are ‘too small and too stupid and too poor,’ and two, the cooperatives failed and now there is no way to go back to this experience. Who is able to produce now? Investors.

Why? Because modernizing agriculture for the decision-makers means increasing exports. This is the only way they see the agricultural sector and the modernization of the national economy working. According to the concept of ‘comparative advantage,’ the agriculture sector is supposed to export the maximum to get money. Export to feed people instead of growing food to feed people: export, get money, and buy food to import. This is the case for the whole agricultural sector in Sidi Bouzid. It was an arid steppe until the 1980s, but now Sidi Bouzid is the first region of the country in this sector, and accounts for between 15% and 20% of agricultural production in Tunisia. But Sidi Bouzid remains the poorest region in Tunisia. Agricultural development didn’t produce social development. It produced more exclusion, more marginalization, more excluded people. Mohamed Bouazizi was one of them.

MG: Can you talk to me about another facet of this dynamic of traditional-to-modernized land: collective, tribal land?

HA: It’s the same process. The French colonial government created the institution of the cadastre [land registry] in 1886. This was the starting point.  They forced the owners by law to register the land in the cadastre, and once that was done, the settlers gained access to the land. When a French settler wanted to take over land in Beja, for example, they only had to go to the office and say: “I wand that piece of land.”

Tribal lands are supposed to be indivisible. Tribal lands couldn’t be taken as one piece. And it is very difficult because if you cannot have a formal ownership document, you are not an owner. I cannot say that I’m an owner of this office here if I don’t have papers. I need an official paper. And tribal lands of course were not in the cadastre. What had been done in the last period from the early colonial times to now is a process of individualization of the land: taking the land from the tribes and moving it to individual people.

It is a kind of privatization. Imposing the cadastre facilitates access to land for investors. I can go to any owner and discuss with him the process of buying land. Sidi Bouzid was the same. Most of the land in Sidi Bouzid was not divisible before the 1980s. When the government decided to reorganize the land as an area for development, the first step was imposing a cadastre. They said: “If you don’t register it, the state will do it, and after you will have to pay for it.”

I am from Medenine, and one day me and my bothers got a letter in the mail that said if you don’t register the land, the state will do it for you. So, when the administration decided to “free” the land for investors or for the state itself they just started by registering it in the cadastre. Land grabbing starts from there.

MG: How did the uprising in 2010-2011 change this dynamic?

HA: It has accelerated it. There are two processes. One, I think—I’m not sure about it—is migration within Tunisia and abroad. It has increased, I mean. Migration now is higher than in 2011. This has to be documented, but it hasn’t been done. I’m just seeing this through my field visits. And the second movement on the other side: after the revolution, the tourism industry and the third sector [i.e. the service sector] in general suffered from a certain instability when foreign investors went out—especially those who were investing in tourism and industry.

Many Tunisian and foreign investors left the country with their money. So, the only secure sector to invest in is agriculture. Social movements are not as concentrated in the countryside as they are in the cities. When there is a strike in the cities, everyone sees it—the media of course, and the banks, and the state. When there is any movement in the countryside, it is less visible.

MG: So, what is the solution? 

HA: There is no one solution. The revolution starts with changing agricultural policy. The land should be used to feed people. Nothing else.

And land should be secured from any kind of private investment. This is not a place to do business. If you want to do business, go somewhere else. Land is too important to give it to the “experts” and the investors. If we start from there, from that philosophy—“land should be used to feed people”—then we can go into technical details.

Because we are in a liberal market, the state should impose certain conditions to the import/export market. One example is to prevent the export of products coming from irrigated lands. For this, you don’t need a Marxist revolution. It’s a technical thing. If you want to export and you have irrigation, I can’t say no. But you apply a 50 percent tax. And everything you import also has to be submitted to certain taxes to make the accumulation of capital completely difficult or non-feasible.

Instead of limiting export-oriented agriculture and investment in the agriculture sector, the government has encouraged capitalistic agriculture: very intensive and extractive projects. Now you can have a big agricultural project in Tunis without investing almost anything: 30 percent of your investment comes from the state as state support. The other 30 percent is a backed loan from the bank. And the rest? You don’t need to pay it, you just put it in the bank. You can pay on credit. It’s not your money. You can move it from one place to another. You have a gift—the state guarantee—and your money to guarantee the investment. You don’t pay the last part. It’s just money in the bank to ensure the investment. This is called a “Zero Investment Project.”

This should not be allowed because small farmers, they don’t have any state support. And one of the conditions to get the support from the state and the bank is to produce for export—either partially or totally. And this goes against the idea of feeding people. If we stop this kind of capitalistic investment and radically change our agricultural policies, we will then move from 50 percent food importation to 0 percent,** protect natural resources and biodiversity, and reduce our carbon production. I’m sure about it.

Editor’s notes:

*Alfa grass, or esparto grass, is a perennial grass grown throughout North Africa that is particularly common in steppe land.

**A 2017 study by the state think tank, the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies [ITES by its French acronym], found that 60 percent cereals are imported.