Jemna: The challenge of local empowerment in the Tunisian hinterland

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        While the new Tunisian constitution emphasises the role of local authorities in boosting regional development, translating constitutional provisions into concrete laws has proven to be challenging. The process is being delayed within the Assembly of the Representatives of the People - Tunisia's legislative branch of government- either for genuine and persistent differences on specific articles of the elections law, or for deeper political reasons. The most controversial discussion points within the Assembly are articles on the right to vote for members of the army and security forces, the electoral threshold, and the dissolution of special municipal delegations eight months before the elections. As a result, the date for the local elections has been repeatedly postponed. Shafik Sarsar, head of the Independent High Authority for Elections, explained that this delay is desired by some political parties which are still unready for the electoral challenge.

      The latest developments in Tunisia are calling for expediting the process

      Over the past few weeks, Tunisians have been captured by the story of Henchir Jemna, an oasis in the southern governorate of Kebili, that has become a symbol of resistance to state policies. Before the revolution, the oasis, known also as the Farm of STIL (Henchir STIL, which stands for Société Tunisienne de l’Industrie Laitière), was a state-owned public property leased to private investors. The residents argue that under this formula only private operators benefited from the revenues of the land, which was rented for low prices that did not match the value of the oasis. Besides, the citizens claim that this process lacked transparency and the businessmen who benefited from the land had close ties with the former regime. With the Tunisian revolution, the residents decided to reclaim ‘the land of the ancestors’ and to reject the tutelage of the state. To manage the land collectively, the residents formed the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis, tasked with surveying on growing the crops and ensuring that the revenues be spent in a convenient way. Since the revolution, the yearly revenues were used to enhance development in the region. Several projects were conducted such as improving educational facilities, construction of a recreational field, and an ongoing construction of a municipal market. Tunisian commentators on social media described this case as a successful experiment of cooperative economy. This year, however, and before selling the yield, the government intervened. On 1 September, the State Secretary for State Properties and Land Affairs issued a statement warning against buying or selling the yield and emphasising that the association has no legal right to manage a public property. A court decision was also prompted to prevent the association from selling the yield. Still, the residents adamantly refused to surrender to state pressure. There was no stepping back: the yield was to be sold in a public auction. On the very day of the auction, the villagers gathered in the open air, with supporters from other regions, civil society, and some members of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Yet, in the eyes of the government, this adds no legitimacy to the auction and the court decision remains valid. The harvest was sold for 1.7m Tunisian dinars (around 690, 000 EUR) while the government used to rent this land for 30,000 Tunisian dinars (around 12,000 EUR). The difference is striking.

      Concrete initiatives meet legal challenges

      The experiment of Jemna seems to put into effect one of the key slogans of the revolution, “Employment, Freedom, National Dignity”. Collectively exploiting the land allowed to employ over 133 permanent employees, compared to only seven before the revolution. The residents are now free to use the revenues of the land to develop their region. Even under pressure from the state, activists and lawyers are stepping up to defend local residents. The locals also regained their dignity and power: their resistance has proven that the rich resources of their land enable them to enhance development in their area without relying on limited resources from the central government. Yet, the inhabitants of Jemna recognise the legal challenges. They are not oblivious to the fact that they are not legally entitled to exploit the land. Negotiations between the association and the government have been constant, but to no avail. Under the previous governments, the ministers of agriculture showed understanding of the citizens’ concerns but explained that their provisional governments could not decide on such critical issues. The new government, on the other hand, was able to decide on the issue, but the decision was not what the residents had hoped for. The association is willing to rent the land from the government; yet the law prevents associations from launching investment projects. The government, however, proposed to the residents to form an investment company which could legally rent the land. This solution did not appeal to the residents: an investment company can benefit a maximum of seven people, while an association would benefit the whole region. People in the village not only perceive the oasis as heritage from their ancestors but, over the past few years, they have heavily invested in the land, improving its productivity, and believe that the whole area must be entitled to its benefits. In addition, a legacy of corruption and exploitation of their land prevents the citizens from trusting the government with managing it.

      Need for dialogue and action

      This experiment was hailed by Tunisians and heavily supported online. Jemna is now a hashtag on social media, charged with divergent emotions: pride in this local achievement, anger towards the government, and yearning for concrete change. Several lawyers volunteered to defend the members of the association who are being accused by the government for illegally exploiting the land. Indeed, the enactment of the public auction generated further insistence from the state on retrieving the oasis. In retaliation, the government froze the bank accounts of both the association and the merchant who bought the yield. The residents of Jemna and supporters of the village went on a demonstration to protest the government’s decision, threatening to escalate the protests should the government insist on its stand. At the same time, the government was criticised for mishandling the Jemna issue. Particularly, Tunisians criticise the discourse of the government, arguing that it contradicts the principles of the revolution. Discussions of this experiment also hinge on broader debates of Tunisia’ agricultural policy and food security. The current approach is being seen as leaving little leeway for local actors in designing and implementing development policies. As a result, the road to harnessing local potential as an enabler of local development is still long and full of difficulties. Delays in reaching a decision on two key legislations have further compounded the problem. This equally poses a challenge for international actors such as the European Union as to how they can support local development. Particularly, it leads to asking how their current support truly backs efforts to introduce structural solutions to issues of local development. The Tunisian revolution succeeded in bringing to the front critical questions such as the need for democracy and local empowerment. Now, consultations on necessary reforms were started, but adequate policy reforms and concrete measures are still missing. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
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