Tunisia’s Agriculture Continues to Struggle

Although globalization is generally considered a good thing, it has proven to be a difficult challenge for Tunisia. The impact of globalization has seen Tunisia ‘suffer’ from a process of structural economic reforms and liberalization after decades of a more state-heavy socialist economic model. One of the most affected industries is agriculture which accounts for 16% of the country’s workforce.

Prior to the revolution in 2011, Tunisia had seen an economic growth close to a yearly average of 5%. Since then, Tunisia has seen a collapse in production and productivity, leading to the economy shrinking across nearly all sectors.

Life in the cradle of the revolution, Sidi Bouzid, has borne much of the brunt of the economic downturn. Here, slogans such as “jobs and dignity” spread across the predominantly agrarian areas before moving to the coastal and urban regions. Resentment at the impoverished state of the rural population over the state’s inability to provide the most basic of needs formed much of the impetus behind the irresistible wave that became the Arab Spring.

Sidi Bouzid is, in many ways, a microcosm of the difficulties in rural Tunisia. The small city lacks basic urban infrastructure. The limited transport network provides sluggish access to the capital instead of supporting regional connections and access to local markets. 40 percent of the region’s inhabitants work in the agriculture sector, but the wages are highly unstable and barely enough to secure a basic livelihood. The deterioration of water and land resources and the lack of rainfall further marginalize small-scale farmers who also bear the rising costs under the agricultural policies under the Ben Ali regime. These policies were focused on meeting the needs of consumers instead of supporting the capacities of the producers who became simply unable to cope with economic liberalization of the sector.

Annual agricultural production can vary significantly from year to year due to Tunisia’s unpredictable and largely irregular rainfall patterns. Almost all of Tunisia’s water is used in irrigation, and the government is seeking more efficient methods that will conserve water.

Moreover, the fishing industry employs 25,000 people and secures an average of 93,000 tons of fish a year. However, coastal fishing has declined dramatically due to pollution and the depletion of fish stocks. Fish is Tunisia’s second most important food export after olive oil.

In Tunisia, 75% of agriculture farms are split over very small lands and a lot of farmers are, on average, more than 60 years old. These farmers suffer from the lack of infrastructure, very low instruction level, difficult and often restricted access to markets and financial subsidies. Combined with irregular rainfall and lack of access to equipment, seeds and fertilizers, productivity has been continuously very low.

Given the current situation of Tunisia, the chances of resolving the rampant issues of corruption, political turf wars and increased financial and political transaction costs of policy measures remain unlikely. The implementing of radical reforms are therefore crucial to ensure that the new Tunisian government is able to deliver social equality and create the basis for a new social contract. Otherwise, bad harvests, high prices and structural adjustment programmes threaten to spark renewed protests in Sidi Bouzid and in the rest of Tunisia once again.