Olive agriculture in Tunisia: the continuation of colonial policies under the flagship of exports

This article is the English version from the Réseau ritimo special dossier on Food Sovereignty in North Africa. You can read the full dossier (in French) here:

Photo: a farmer cultivating traditional olive varieties in the south of Tunisia.

Olive cultivation, which constitutes the backbone of Tunisian agriculture, is growing at an exponential rate. In the early 19th Century, the number of olive trees was estimated at about 11 million trees. Between 1956 and 2016, the number of trees has more than doubled, reaching 65 million. Today, the olive agriculture in Tunisia is a source of employment for roughly 60% of the country’s farmers and accounts for a third (1.7 million ha) of Tunisia’s total agriculturel lands.

Tunisia is considered to be one of the most important olive growing countries in the Mediterranean and its olive production capacities have been globally recognised. Ranked as the third global source of olive oil in volume, Tunisia’s olive sector has been hailed as an ‘agricultural success’. This reputation, combined with a favourable climate, has incentivised Tunisia to continue strengthening its olive production in light of increasing global demand. As a major and reliable export, olive growing and production is a source of hard currency and as a result it is politically supported and encouraged domestically. The Tunisian state authorities’ continued encouragement of olive production, however, reveals a deeper history rooted in the country’s colonial legacy that has contributed to social, cultural and, more importantly, economic dependence.

Cash-crop colonialism continued post-independence

The pattern of export-oriented monoculture production which was imposed by the colonial system – in the past as well as in the present – has been at the expense of the Tunisian people and the environment. Under the colonial administration, Paul Board, colonial director of the Department of Agriculture, helped solidify the practice of mono-cropping. Board’s extensive reports on the lucrative possibilities of olive production were legally and politically backed by the administration which hailed monoculture as a triumph of French science and technology over putatively wild landscapes and people. In this respect, the olive was effectively to become the mono-crop prototype in Tunisia.

Following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, colonial agricultural policies were not significantly altered. Post-independence authorities counted on export-oriented olive production to improve the balance of trade and prop-up state finances. The state granted concessions and encouraged small and medium sized farmers to continue with the olive growing. To further boost olive production, the state played a pivotal role in intensifying olive production by re-cultivating lands retrieved from the settlers without significant efforts to diversify.

At present, olive growing and cultivation remains under the flagship of ‘Specialised Agricultural’ policy, which has effectively turned olive growing into the country’s primary, if not exclusive, agricultural crop, mainly in the central and southern regions. This has led the olive sector to further refine and develop its productive capabilities, as well as the pace of exports, which in turn has contributed to the state’s financial resources. Figures show that the export sector accounts for the largest share of olive production. During the season of 2017–2018, olive exports accounted for over 60% of total exports. As for the 2019–2018 season, the volume of exports exceeded the total production of olives (30,000 tons – part of the stored quantities from the last season – were additionally used to stimulate export figures).

Despite its success in boosting bilateral exports and increasing financial returns, this agricultural strategy raises several concerns. These range from its impact on the environment, to its effect on the country’s food security system, in addition to questions of Tunisian agricultural sovereignty. Because of the high export potential of olive growing, other forms of crops such as wheat and barley have been abandoned (while olive planting covers an estimated area of 1.7 million ha, wheat and barley cover an estimated 1,127 million ha). The common justification for abandoning other forms of agriculture is that the state lacks efficient production capacities and means of supply.

The effects of monocropping: “of Tunisian origin, but not for Tunisians”

Implicit in the strategy of the Tunisian olive sector is the central importance attached to export, which far exceeds domestic consumption figures. Despite being ranked among the top three olive oil sources in the world, Tunisians’ levels of olive oil consumption has declined because of its high costs. The low rates of consumption of olive oil by Tunisians have led to the emergence of other types of imported vegetable oils such as palm oil and soybean oil as a substitute. The difference between olive oil and vegetable oil consumption in Tunisia illustrates the effects of this kind of strategic direction in areas of food production. The state’s efforts at raising the production level of olive oil for export and the systematic reduction of domestic consumption by replacing it with less nutritional supplements deprives the population of its natural right to consuming its own produce.

The discourse of hailing the Tunisian olive sector as key to the Tunisian economy obscures how this form of monoculture has effectively eliminated agricultural diversity. Despite Tunisia’s key role in the production of olive oil, it has no control over its product. This confirms the importance of working towards realising the right to food sovereignty that aims to always prioritise the domestic needs of a country’s people. Today, olive oil is far from the people’s. Rather it is a product intended for external consumption in exchange for financial revenue, much along the lines of the ambitions of the colonial authorities.

Editor: Sara Razai

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