Jemna’s Collective Land Association Looks to New President with Hope

Dates hang from palm trees in Jemna oasis, covered in muslin bags to protect from birds and insects, on October 3, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

In the oasis of Jemna, Tahar Etahri relaxes in an outdoor café in the centre of the town. Groups of older men drinking tea and coffee, smoking cigarettes, occupy the surrounding tables. It is early October and almost time for the date harvest, which takes place between October and November each year. A short walk down the main road into town are the palm trees bulging with “the best dates,” as Etahri calls them, for which this southern region of Kebili is well known.

Etahri, a retired secondary school teacher and the former secretary general of the union of secondary school teachers in Kebili, is president of the Association for the Safeguarding of the Oasis of Jemna. The association has, since 2012, been managing the date palm plantation which locals reclaimed after the 2011 uprising, using the profits to hire more locals and reinvesting into public infrastructure and services. While the legal saga over ownership of the plantation continues to this day, Etahri is hopeful that Tunisia’s new president, Kais Saied, has the will to resolve the situation in the favor of locals.

Saied “is one of the ardent supporters of the experience of Jemna,” Etahri told Meshkal. Etahri, who said he met Saied in February 2019 in Tunis and has spoken to him by phone on other occasions, hopes that President Saied will help “to find a fair solution to the problem.”

The February 2019 meeting between Etahri and Saied in Tunis was on the occasion of the dissertation defense of Ali Kniss, at the Law Faculty where Saied had taught before retirement, according to Kniss. Kniss, whose dissertation was on the case of Jemna, told Meshkal that Saied, whom he calls a friend, suggested as a solution “for the oasis to be owned by the municipality. He said this two years ago, because Kais Saied believes in local powers in his projects.”

Kniss told Meshkal he knows Saied from the “League of Free Tunisia Forces,” a group founded by Ridha Mekki, a political activist who has associated himself politically with Kais Saied. The League’s Facebook website “about” page notes that the League does not have a formal “pre-established structure which imprisons us,” suggesting that the group does not have formal membership.

During his election campaign, Saied advocated for a form of decentralization that would see local councils be the basis of a restructured national legislative body. The idea may hold appeal for the association of Jemna, long frustrated by a top-down approach by the state to assert authority over a local issue. In the autumn of 2016, for example, just after the dates had been sold to market for the season, the Finance Ministry’s State Secretary for State Property and Land Affairs, Mabrouk Korchid froze the Jemna Association’s bank accounts. This resulted in Jemna’s case receiving wider publicity. For example, Ali Kniss said he played a role in the National Organization for the Support of Jemna, a group which organized a protest in front of the ministry of state property on October 20, 2016.  Following the public outcry, the Jemna Association were granted meetings “with the prime minister, the minister for agriculture and Mabrouk Korchid, deciding that the problem of Jemna would be the role of the minister for agriculture”, according to Etahri. Etahri claims that Korchid had a family connection that was party to the dispute over the land, which was behind Korchid’s decision to freeze the Association’s accounts.

While the Association has since been able to farm the land and sell the dates without similar obstacles, “without the rights to manage the oasis, we continue to risk what happened in 2016,” when one official perceived as biased by the their work, Etahri explains.

The Revolution in Jemna

On January 12, 2011, two days before president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country amidst a nationwide uprising, locals in Jemna, a town of 7,500, began a protest and seized about 185 hectares of the local date plantation.

The protests continued after Ben Ali’s downfall, and on February 27, 2011 locals began what would be a 96-day sit in to prevent the previous claimants from “putting their feet back” on the land, according to Etahri. The land, nominally owned by the state dairy company STIL, had been rented out in 2002 to two businessmen, Adel Ben Amor and Hedi Charfeddine.

According to reporting by Nawaat, Ben Amor and Charfeddine rented the land for a “paltry” amount.

“It was an affair of dispossession, embezzlement and corruption,” Etahri told Meshkal. More than that, Etahri said the few locals the businessmen employed at the time were “exploited.” Since then, the association has increased pay for locals working the land, increased production, and increased its profitability. In the first year that the Association took over, the harvest earned them 969,500 dinars; by 2014 this had increased to 1.8 million dinars according to Etahri, in a public speech he delivered on December 6, 2016 in Paris.

Charfeddine is reportedly the brother of Zitouni Charfeddine, the former Inspector General of the National Guard under Ben Ali who faced allegations of responsibility for the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising. Locals accuse both land renters of benefitting from corruption and their links to the Ben Ali regime, while Ben Amor’s son, Ridha Ben Amor, has in turn called the Jemna association “criminals” led by Etahri.

The army was called in to disperse the sit-in in January 2011—at the request of the businessmen, according to Etahri—but soldiers left after four days without confrontation. Nevertheless, Etahri said it was that escalation—the army and the police coming to Jemna to suppress the protest—that prompted him to take an active role in the struggle to reclaim the land. He became one of the spokesmen for the movement when a protestor thrust a phone into his hand and on the other end of the line was an official from the Ministry of Defense.

Jemna’s Colonial Legacy

But the 2011 events were just the latest in a much longer struggle over the land. Many locals believe they have an ancestral right to work the land and reap its riches, according to Etahri.

“We didn’t start asking for our land back in the revolution,” Etahri explained. For him, the struggle goes back to 1912, when the French colonial regime put the land under the control of two French settlers.

“They took the land of our ancestors and planted 2600 date palms,” Etahri told Meshkal.

The 2011 events aimed to “take back what [the people in Jemna] have always considered as their property,” Etahri explained. In 1964, the same year the Tunisian state nationalized land previously owned by French settlers, people in Jemna collectively paid 80,000 dinars for the land—half of what was then demanded by the local governor, according to reporting by Nawaat. Instead, the local administration used the money to fund other local projects rather than allowing locals to directly own and manage the land, according to Etahri.

“We were ridiculed by the administration,” Etahri told Meshkal.

The current foot-dragging and even hostility of some officials in the state to recognize local claims over the land have, for Etahri, represented a lack of political will, one that he explains as expressing a continuing colonial attitude towards the oasis.

“We don’t enjoy our own sovereignty. Imperialism continues…and because capitalism still rules in Tunisia. If the politicians try and find fair solutions for Jemna, that will be against the will of these colonizers, and of capitalism,” Etahri told Meshkal.

Legal Limbo

In the almost nine years since the 2011 uprising, the Jemna Association has not yet secured legal recognition of their claim to the land. Multiple solutions have been proposed to transform the association into a legal structure that might have better standing to claim the land.

One solution proposed by the Ministry of Agriculture was a “Cooperative Unit of Agricultural Production” (UCPA by its French acronym). Under this model, the farmland would be a state-owned farm but managed by a cooperative led by the workers.

However, Etahri told Meshkal they rejected this because they believe the association is for the benefit of all people in Jemna, not only those who work the land. Currently the profits of the harvest are not just reinvested towards workers, but to the families of workers and the community as a whole, with reinvestment into public infrastructure and services.

“If we create a cooperative, it’s the members of the cooperative, 150 workers who would have all of the land and the gains for them. We want the palm plantation to be owned collectively by all of the inhabitants of Jemna. That’s why the problem hasn’t been resolved in the end. We want it to be for everyone, and not just the workers,” Etahri explained.

Etahri pointed to a so-called “Social and Solidarity Economy” or SSE as a potential framework that might suit Jemna’s situation. A bill setting up an SSE legal  framework has been circulated and a special ministerial level team was set up to look at it, but a law has not yet passed. The International Labor Organization defines SSE broadly as “enterprises and organizations…which produce goods, services and knowledge that meet the needs of the community they serve, through the pursuit of specific social and environmental objectives and the fostering of solidarity.” A World Bank blogpost from May 2019 argued that an SSE framework in Tunisia “has the potential to promote social inclusion, especially for the most vulnerable, by providing sustainable access to the labor market.”

Building Public Baths

For now, at the association, Tahar works alongside two trade unionists, an ex-teacher, a member of Ennahda, and others without any political or trade union experience. In total, there are 10 voluntary directors of the association, and for Etahri, “it’s the revolution that unified us. We have worked together for eight years. We will continue to do it until there is a sustainable solution.”

In the meantime, the land is profitable. The association now employs 150 workers.  “In 2011, no more than 20 worked on this land,” Etahri explained.  Similarly, Etahri is confident in this year’s harvest, anticipating a profit of 2m dinars, exceeding last years’ 1.7m. The dates are sold to wholesalers, and then on to the international markets in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, Etahri said.

Tahar Etahri, president of the Association for the Safeguarding of the Oasis of Jemna, sit at a cafe in Jemna on October 3, 2019. Photo by George Gale.

Using profits from the palm plantation, the association has made provisions for all of Jemna. The association has also used the profits from date sales to construct classrooms, a new sports hall, a covered market and buy a new ambulance for the town.

These public projects are important because “in marginalized regions like ours, the government doesn’t bother with infrastructure,” Etahri said.

“I ask people to compare the classrooms made by the association and those built by the state. The difference is stark… even the aesthetics, we look at the aesthetics,” Etahri said, touting the quality of the investments they have made.

Currently, Etahri is busy planning their next project: a hammam, or public bathhouse, for the townspeople to use. It will take seven months to construct. These projects, Etahri said, have attracted people to the area to work in construction.

“We will make it and then after we will give it to the municipality, as usual,” Etahri said.

Etahri hopes that the new president of Tunisia, Kais Saied, will solve Jemna’s legal limbo so he will be able to retire from his associative duties.

“We hope [Saied] will manage this affair when he becomes president… once he’s resolved the problem I will retire.”

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.