The Cost of Intensive Spanish Olive Farming in Tunisia

Photo of an olive tree by Volkan Dalyan, via

Every year, Tunisia is one of the top five biggest olive oil producers in the world—second overall in 2015 and 2020 when there were particularly big harvests. Up to 10 percent of the population depends on the olive oil sector for their livelihood, according to officials. Much of that oil is organic, using local varieties grown traditionally. But production levels have increased in recent years due to an increasing trend towards super intensive farming using Spanish olive varieties and methods—profitable for big investors who can import machines and export the oil in bulk, but disastrous for olive pickers out of jobs and small farmers who see prices going down with the oversupply in production and additional input costs for pesticides. The foreign varieties also require more water, putting additional strain on already overexploited water resources.

One family that’s benefitting from the Spanish olive trees is the Jerbi family. Initially in the industrial sector for decades, the Jerbi family moved into the agriculture sector, launching Domaine Aghir in the 2000s, according to Skander Jerbi, an investor and representative of Domaine Aghir. They planted Spanish, Greek and Italian varieties in their massive 400,000 tree plantation in Kairouan. Jerbi told Meshkal that they also adopted the Spanish system of super intensive oil production that is harvested entirely by machines instead of workers, contributing to greater profits.

“It is better to use machines, as we figured that it is the best way for us to optimize time and to avoid a shortage of workers. In the harvest season, everyone would want the same [labor] resources at the same time, which sometimes delays harvest for some farms due to the lack of workers,” said Jerbi.

For Jerbi, the mechanization allows him to process the olives from their trees into olive oil at the on-site olive press within two hours of harvest. He sees seasonal olive pickers as an obstacle to running the business efficiently: “Farmers and investors in Tunisia are still dependent on harvest workers that are getting harder to find year after year because this job is only accepted to be done by older generations and not the younger ones, which causes the [labor] shortage. If we keep relying on workers, we won’t find anyone to harvest in the coming years.”

Younger generations might be staying away from olive picking due to the poor working conditions—almost every year female farm workers are killed on the roads as they are transported to work in overly crowded and dangerous pick-up trucks. It may also be the low pay, as many seasonal workers are often paid less than 20 dinars a day—with women paid less than men—below the minimum wage amidst soaring inflation. Still other olive pickers resent investors preventing them from working the land that they claim as having a traditional right to, as seen in the recent sit-in by farm workers in Lagsab.

The scarcity of jobs and low pay seem likely to increase as the Spanish machine model becomes more common. But more than the model, it’s the variety of Spanish olives themselves like Arbequina and Abrosana that, unlike Tunisian varieties like Chemlali and Chetoui, aren’t suited to the Tunisian climate and ecology.

“It is true that these [Spanish] varieties have abundant production and high profit, and this is the ultimate goal for any farmer or investor. Yet it does not guarantee permanence, continuity and stability because these varieties are difficult to adapt to the Tunisian climate and can’t endure heat, drought, and salinity. They are also not immune against viruses and hence require intensive care, a lot of pesticides, and a huge water wealth,” Mbarek Ben Naceur, General Director of the State’s Gene Bank (which works with farmers to preserve local seed varieties), was quoted as saying in an interview with journalist Ahmed Zouabi.

While Spanish olive varieties start producing olives very quickly—only a few years after they are planted—Tunisian farmers said the trees’ fruit production only lasts for 10 to 20 years. That’s in contrast to the slower-growing Tunisian varieties that produce for generations. One of the oldest olive trees in Tunisia, a Chemlali variety tree in Tataouine that is over 900 years old, is still reportedly producing olives for olive oil.

In contrast to the massive plantation system, small and medium-sized farmers say they have actually lost money planting Spanish olives. Jamel, for example, planted 2000 Spanish olive trees about a decade ago on his 23-hectare farm in Siliana. It was relatively cheap at two dinars a sapling, and he said they were promised good profits by officials promoting them.

“Just like any other farmer, I wanted to maximize profit. Yet, I lost money instead. It turned out that what we heard was a lie. We were told that the new [Spanish] saplings guarantee a high profitability and olive quality. We were not told the negative sides. For 10 years, my trees got all kinds of diseases. I thought I’d gain by planting these varieties, but I found myself spending more than gaining,” he said.

Water Crisis

The intensive Spanish model and Spanish olive varieties are water-thirsty. Jerbi says that Domaine Aghir uses drip-irrigation instead of sprinklers to reduce water usage and that Kairouan “is actually rich in water.”

“In the north, there is rain but it is very difficult to find groundwater. That’s why a lot of investors are going very far south, which is creating new projects close to the desert because it is in these regions where you find [ground] water,” said Jerbi.

However, in the Ministry of Agriculture’s 2019 annual National Water Report, a whole section is dedicated to the problem of water in Kairouan alone, noting that its groundwater is overexploited by 153 percent (page 172). 

“We recorded a rate of exploitation of underground resources surpassing the national average [in Kairouan], thus signaling a situation of alarming overexploitation, particularly at the level of groundwater,” the report notes.

According to the 2020 official National Water Report, Kairouan’s rural population has the least access to drinking water in the country, with more than 15 percent of the rural population not served (page 115). The same report notes that nearly a third of Tunisia’s groundwater supplies are suffering from overexploitation above 110 percent of their capacity, raising the concern that “vast agricultural regions are now subject to high threats of water scarcity as well as risks of brackish water intrusion” (pages 79-80).

Jerbi told Meshkal that Domaine Aghir has gotten authorization from authorities for the water they pump and use, and that if anyone is to blame for depleting water resources it is those without authorization.

“It is extremely complicated and not easy to get authorization to pump water in Tunisia. If the authorities saw that we would cause any threat, we wouldn’t have been given the permission… Authorization is only granted after a long, exhaustive study done by the General Directorate of Water Resources [DGRE]. And after they confirm the existence of water, they limit how much water can be pumped,” Jerbi explained.

But for Ala Marzougi, the general coordinator for the Tunisian Water Observatory, small farmers who pump without authorization aren’t the ones to blame for overexploiting natural water resources.

“The majority of random, unauthorized wells do not exceed tens of meters, according to our field inspection, and they cannot be a cause of depletion. Only investors own… large pumping machines that can dig that deep,” Marzougi said. “Well authorizations are not being given to small farmers, while they are being generously given to investors whose wells are causing depletion of water resources, thirst, and drought in many regions.”

Marzougi explained that overexploitation means that each year the water table goes down and big plantation farmers need to dig deeper. 

“This year, water can be found only at a 50 meter depth due to overexploitation. Next year, it will be found at a 60 or a 100 meter depth. But since big investors have big capabilities and can afford to get big machines to dig deep wells, they won’t find any problems digging deeper wells the next year,” he said.

It’s just one element of increasing inequality when it comes to access to water following privatization in recent decades, as documented in a recent documentary by scholar Habib Ayeb.

Marzougi believes that the intensive farming of irrigated crops that deplete water resources—like Spanish olive-farming using the Spanish mechanized model—is more than just a problem of inequality. For him, it “poses a threat to the sustainability of our resources and to the future of Tunisia.”

“It is irresponsible to cultivate intensive olives that drain water resources in a drought stricken area…We must stop them and conserve what’s left of our resources before it is too late,” he said.

If the trend continues, Marzougi fears Tunisia will see the same water crisis that Spain is currently experiencing.

“Because of the super intensive system, Spain depleted its water resources and is now experiencing a wave of thirst and drought,” said Marzougi. 

Government Strategy

But Marzougi doesn’t put the blame just on big investors. He sees a problem with the government’s agricultural strategy.

“The investors will defend themselves by saying that the government is encouraging them to aim for such cultivation. And this is the root of the problem,” Marzougi said.

Tunisia has supported big investors in agriculture rather than smaller farmers in an effort to produce more olive oil to export in bulk to Spain and Italy. That oil is then bottled and marketed under Italian and Spanish brands—meaning that Italian producers can charge a premium to consumers on the Tunisian olive oil they buy on the cheap. The increased production is creating an oversupply and further driving down prices—which is disproportionately hurting smaller farmers.

“We have a surplus in production and a problem of packaging and marketing,” said Marzougi.

But for Jerbi of Domaine Aghir, as an investor, he doesn’t mind Tunisia exporting in bulk rather than trying to get international consumers to appreciate and value Tunisian-branded oil.

“For me this is not necessarily a problem. Everyone understands what their role is to play in the international market…this state of affairs exists” Jerbi said.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s Director of Agricultural Production Azzadine Chalghaf told journalist Imen el Hamdi in 2019 that the government—responding to concerns from investors that Tunisia wasn’t producing enough olive oil for export—launched a program to bring in more Spanish and Greek varieties.

“The Agricultural Investment Promotion Agency [APIA] adopted a whole support system for farmers and investors. There are tax incentives. They encourage the purchase of agricultural machines. The process is extremely structured, and they answer quickly to the investment demands,” Jerbi explained.

Small Farmers Left Out

But smaller farmers say they don’t get the same support.

“There is no support at all,” said Hamed Gharbi, a 37-year-old farmer who manages 10 acres in Sidi Thabet.

Gharbi planted Spanish olives, which he sees as potentially more profitable, but the additional costs that come with the varieties have hurt him.

“The cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and fuel is very high. If the government offered support, the farmer would not have lost much and headed to other crops,” Gharbi told Meshkal.

“Agriculture is a forgotten sector especially in Siliana. Farmers are dying here. Personally, if I didn’t have another profession, my family and I would have starved. The investors are the only ones benefiting from the APIA investment program,” said Jamel, the farmer in Siliana.

Jamel said he applied and got a grant from APIA two years ago but that he never received the support.

“Whenever I ask for it, they claim that they are short of money. The APIA never answers fast. I applied for a reaper machine and got no response at all. The government only helps those with money,” Jamel said.

The government’s half-hearted support to smaller farmers has created a backlash against the Spanish varieties, especially among small and medium-sized farmers.

“People are conspiring against our local olive oil,” said Noureddine Bellassoued, 57, a farmer who has 1500 olive trees on 25 acres in Kesra. “I am against taking Spanish olive trees as a solution, no matter how abundant their production is! That makes us a spare wheel for Spain. When they don’t produce enough or at all, they buy from us their olive oil that was cultivated in our lands and watered from our resources and gets sold in international markets with their names on it. By losing our olive trees, we lose our identity.”

Fadil Aliriza contributed to this report.

This article was produced as part of a reporting partnership between Meshkal and Broudou.

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