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A trip to southern Tunisia: The struggle for social justice in North Africa continues

This spring, we travelled with a group of activists, all working on issues of extractivism, natural resource sovereignty and workers rights, to meet Tunisians pushing for the same. Here's what we learned on our journey

Six years after the start of the revolutionary process in Tunisia, there is a sense of unrest, disenchantment and disillusion in the country. Social mobilisations, protests and occupations are multiplying, reflecting the ongoing resistance of the Tunisian people to the oppressive economic and political structures that led them to revolt in the first place.

People are asking what happened to the promises of the 2011 revolution and the demands of social justice and national dignity. How is it possible to be unemployed when wealth is being created in mines and quarries and gas fields just around the corner?

How is it possible to be unemployed when wealth is being created in mines and quarries and gas fields just around the corner?

This is especially true away from the country’s bustling tourist spots, in Tunisia’s underdeveloped interior where people are still fighting pauperisation, corruption and everyday injustices.

The state’s failure and incapacity to solve the issues is the result of a reckless insistence to apply the neo-liberal recipe for disaster, and is one aspect of the neoliberal violence being relentlessly visited on Tunisians.

The development model imposed on Tunisians – as well as on others in the region – is an extractivist model, one which seeks to plunder as much natural resources as quickly as possible with little regard for the sustainability of these efforts.

In a neocolonial fashion, these resources, from oil to minerals to fish and trees, are then exported to world markets, enriching companies and stockholders while local communities see neither profit, nor positive change.

One of many protests launched against shale gas in the southern Algerian desert town of Ain Salah (Twitter/@tokyowiyya)
Alongside pollution, environmental destruction, and the rising prevalence of some diseases like cancer, extraction sites of fossil-fuel and mining industries in North Africa are areas of dispossession, exclusion and underdevelopment, where resource abundance contrasts sharply with the lives of citizens. Prime examples are the gas and oil towns of Ain Salah and Hassi Messaoud in Algeria, the industrial town of Safi and the silver mining town of Imider in Morocco, and the Gafsa phosphate mining basin and Gabes in Tunisia.

This spring, along with 25 other activists and community representatives from North Africa and Latin America, working on issues around extractivism, sovereignty of natural resources, food and land and workers rights, we travelled to visit some of these communities in southern Tunisia to show our solidarity with those fighting injustices associated with mining, resource plunder and land confiscation.

Gabes: 'Paradise on earth' to ecocide

As we set out from Tunis, there were representatives from a huge range of organisations from those fighting fracking in Algeria and exploitative silver mining in Morocco to those supporting social movements in Tunisia and cooperative farming in Egypt and beyond.

But we were all travelling together in this solidarity caravan to link up with different organisations and social movements, learn from each other’s experiences and advance a radical critique of extractivism in the region.

The factories have inflicted a toxic reality of pollution, decimated flora and fauna and plundered water affecting every layer of the community’s social fabric

The caravan was a follow up after the success of another solidarity trip that was organised last November to the ocean town of Safi in Morocco, an area that has been sacrificed to implement an extractivist model of economic development: a phosphate factory, a cement factory and a coal-fired power station being built on its shores, as well as a visit to the peasant villages of Imider who erected a six-year protest camp against the royal holding silver mine that is grabbing their water, polluting their environment and destroying their livelihood.

Our first destination was Gabès, the only coastal oasis in the Mediterranean. It used to be called "paradise on earth" before a chemical industrial complex was constructed on its shores to process the phosphate from the mining basin of Gafsa in the 1970s.

The factories have inflicted a toxic reality of pollution, decimated flora and fauna and plundered water affecting every layer of the community’s social fabric, especially those who are on the front line of poverty.

A small protest on the day the caravan visited Gabès. Representatives from organisations and social movements speak about their struggles and the need for regional and internaitonal solidarity MEE/Hamza Hamouchene)
Fishermen told us how their catch had decreased significantly in the past few years and how biodiversity has been severely affected by the amount of waste the factory is pumping directly in the sea.

Mohamed, one of the activists we met in Gabès, said that his family had lost their land when the factory was set up. The state, he said, had promised to compensate his family and others for their losses, but didn’t keep their promise.

He also talked about the losses which subsistence farmers endure every day, when their agriculture fails to survive water shortages and the gas emissions of the industrial complex that kill some of the plants before they yield ripe fruits.

Since the colonial era, the Sfax-Gafsa was the main axis of phosphates exploitation in the country, Gafsa being the production zone, and Sfax the shipping port to Europe. The few years prior to independence witnessed the birth of the phosphates-chemical industry with the creation of the first plant of the Chemical Group in Sfax.

The post-colonial state only reinforced this choice by establishing the chemical complex of Gabes in 1972, and ever since, the development of the whole triangle of Gabes-Gafsa-Sfax came to rely on the export and transformation of phosphates-derived products, even though little was reinvested in these productive regions.

A beach in Gabes where locals fish. The nearby factory, however, has had a negative impact on fishing yield and biodiversity (MEE/Nada Trigui)
In the name of that model, the authorities are, in fact, committing a deliberate ecocide. This is the paradox of extractivism under capitalism in which some zones – and the people living within them – are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital.

Gafsa: Cursed be the phosphate

Next, the caravan headed to where the cause of pollution in Gabes lies: the phosphate mining basin in Gafsa.

Here in 2008, local residents protested over corrupt hiring practices at the mines. Police blockaded the protesting communities in a sort of siege for six months. With violent repression used by Ben Ali’s regime, the events were considered to be first spark that ignited the 2011 revolution.

The communities in this region still suffer from the extractivist model of development that only regenerates itself through resource pillaging, marginalisation and further environmental degradation. 

In the past few years, several factories in the area have been occupied by unemployed youth, halting production, and several protests took place to denounce water shortages caused by the phosphate company's excessive use.

This is the paradox of extractivism under capitalism: some zones – and the people living within them – are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital

In fact, water is frequently cut from this area, sometimes for more than two weeks at a time and particularly in the summer, forcing inhabitants to buy cisterns to collect rainwater. The company drains more than three quarters of the exploited capacity (565 litres per second) of the Oum Laarayes-Redeyef groundwater table to proceed with the grinding, washing and processing of the raw resource with chemical components to enhance its quality and upgrade its competitiveness when sold on the international markets.

Later, the used - yet untreated - water is directly discharged on the agricultural land, causing pollution, contamination of water reservoirs and damage to the soil’s fertility.

Wassim, a local researcher and activist from Redeyef, a town in the basin area, told our group how the area is known for its high production of specific varieties of fruits - peaches, dates, apricot and others – which could be an alternative to the destructive phosphate-based model, but is under threat from the industry’s activities.

Redeyef town centre where people live and mining operations continue to be carried out in close proximity as they have been since colonial times (MEE/Nada Trigui)
During our visit to Redeyef and another nearby town, Oum Laarayes, we had an opportunity to talk with local community representatives, activists and organisations, including activists for the unemployed movement in the region.

It might sound odd that there are unemployed people in these resource-rich regions, but the truth is that the export-oriented extractive sector does not create wealth for local markets and, contrary to popular belief, does not create enough jobs to employ people.


Instead of reinvesting in productive projects and diversifying income-generating activities, successive governments have only sought to “buy” social peace by creating private service companies which promised to protect the environment, but have really been used to whitewash environmental degradation and contain popular anger. 

This false solution does not respond to the aspirations of the people, nor does it absorb the new active population, nor produce the wealth and enhance the living standards of citizens.

We discussed many issues – from the neocolonial nature of the mining to the urgency of the requests sought by social movements including jobs, better infrastructure and access to water among others. But employment, which came up repeatedly in almost every discussion, was a challenging topic. Many wondered whether it should be prioritised over other demands in the struggle for social justice.

How likely, some wondered, would demanding more jobs in the same plants that are causing such devastation, bring sustainable long-term solutions to the communities in the region? Wouldn’t working for these industries simply reinforce the dependence of the communities on a highly polluting model that costs them their health, sacrifices their environment and robs their resources?

Graffiti of the unemployed movement's slogans of the unemployed movement : 'No phosphates without employment'; 'Give me my right'; 'We will resist' (MEE/Nada Trigui)
Discussions also addressed the similarities of the struggles in the different countries. Gafsa’s experience is comparable to the struggle of Imider, the rural Moroccan village where water levels in reservoirs, destined for agriculture and farming, drastically decreased because of the extensive water extraction of nearby silver mines, robbing the entire community of their rights for decent livelihoods.

The situation in Gafsa is similar to the struggle of the unemployed movement in the oil and gas-rich Sahara in southern Algeria, a struggle against fossil capitalism, its logic of developing underdevelopment and accumulating capital by dispossessing communities.

A representative of the unemployed and anti-fracking movements in Algeria shares his experience in Oum Laarayes (MEE/Hamza Hamouchene)
The people of the Sahara suffered from decades of under-development more than any region in Algeria. Simple observations and comparisons between cities in the north and the south reveal the extent of economic disparity between the two regions, which is very ironic given the fact that Algeria's wealth stems mainly from the Sahara and its oil and gas.

Jemna: An inspiring struggle

The pattern of extractivism is not limited to the fossil and energy resources, nor are the legacies of the colonial era.

Beyond the phosphates industry in Tunisia, land ownership is among the most contentious issues inherited from the French colonial era. However, some of the injustices were perpetrated by the post-colonial state choosing not to give land back to the real owners that had been forcibly seized from them under French colonial rule.

Jemna represents an alternative form of economic governance, and breaks with the myth that only big business or state-run projects are successful, offering a new form of collective resource management that better respond to the needs of communities

We ended our five-day journey with a visit to the Oasis of Jemna where an inspiring struggle over land is taking place. In 1912, French colonists seized the land from peasants in Jemna, exploiting it to export dates back to France. Even after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the land was still not given back to them.

It took the 2011 revolution for this oasis community to score a victory, taking back control of their livelihoods and collectively self-managing their lands and resources for the benefit of the community – and it remains a precarious achievement for now.

Activists from Algeria and Morocco talk with one of the agricultural workers in the oasis of Jemna about their experiences since 2011 and the challenges they still face (MEE/Hamza Hamouchene)
This is a living example that has reignited the belief in the power of communities to organise and achieve together. It challenges the centralised system that failed them and gives freedom back to communities to decide which projects fit their region and suit their needs.

Jemna is a challenge and a threat to the power of the neoliberal and counter-revolutionary elite. It represents an alternative form of economic governance, and breaks with the myth that only big business or state-run projects are successful, and offers a new form of collective resource management that better respond to the needs of communities.

Extractivism, 'free trade' and colonialism

Across the world, as in North Africa, extractivism is largely incompatible with social justice as a result of its disastrous social and environmental consequences. It has deepened inequalities and poverty and has become a major factor of social unrest.

Fighting it, however, cannot be dissociated from questioning the free trade religion that maintains a profoundly unjust framework of international division of labour – a system that relies on an endless reservoir of cheap labour and natural resources for the dominant Western economies.

Activists talk about the similarities of their struggles after a visit to sites of pollution and environmental destruction in Gabes (MEE/Hamza Hamouchene)
The neoliberal doctrine of "free trade" - which is not free at all - combined with a blind belief in perpetual growth, paves the way for corporations to act as they please and only legitimises the ongoing plunder of our resources and our countries. It’s colonialism once again, posturing as "market democracy".

People in extractive regions have longstanding grievances and sometimes these burst into uprisings. An explosion of socio-environmental conflicts, linked to access, conservation and control over natural resources, paired with the appearance of new forms of mobilisation is one of the consequences of extractivism.

The similarities of the struggles across the region and the realisation that the causes are shared made the caravan a unique opportunity for learning, exchange and active solidarity and paves the way for further transnational coordination of struggles and action. 

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian writer, activist, co-founder of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) and Senior Programme Officer- North Africa and West Asia at War on Want. His writings appeared in the Guardian, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, Jadaliyya, New Internationalist and openDemocracy.

- Nada Trigui is a political economy graduate, and a civil society activist based in Tunis. She is currently working as freelance journalist and reasearcher with a particular interest in issues of justice, trade, the environment and food sovereignty.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Unemployed men, from the central Tunisian mining region of Gafsa, protest in front of Tunisian soldiers who stand guard outside of the headquarters of the Tunisian Chemical Group in Tunis on November 30, 2011. (AFP)

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