Home World News In Tunisia, the flourishing self-managed oasis of Jemna

In Tunisia, the flourishing self-managed oasis of Jemna

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“The revolution started in Sidi Bouzid to succeed in Jemna”, proudly launches Tahar Etahri. This retired French teacher scans with a satisfied gaze the horizon of date palms, caressed by the fine sand from the neighboring Sahara. For more than ten years, the 60-year-old volunteer chaired the Association for the protection of the oasis of Jemna, a small town in southern Tunisia.

At his side, the new president, Abdelmajid Belhaj, lovingly inspects the 2,500 date palms planted in recent years in this oasis. It’s pollination season, and Abdelmajid greets the farmers perched in the trees. Jamel is one of the 150 agricultural workers hired by the association. “I have worked here for four years, he rejoices, before, I was unemployed. »

“Here we have replaced the state! »

If Abdelmajid Belhaj takes his role as president very seriously, it is because the association has transformed the face of his commune. From the first year, with the help of private donations, the inhabitants made more than 900,000 dinars in profits (270,000 €) thanks to the self-management of these state lands. In ten years, a hundred agricultural workers have been hired.

“Here we have replaced the state! », he exclaims, proud to show all the achievements carried out in the city and in the oasis, thanks to the profits fully reinvested: a date market covered and equipped with toilets, work in the schools, a gymnasium for the high school students…

Tahar Etahri and Abdelmajid Belhaj remember the start of this unprecedented adventure in Tunisia. In the midst of the upheavals of the revolution, in January 2011, a dozen inhabitants occupied the palm grove, scaring away the two private investors who were mismanaging it.

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“This oasis embodied injustice and spoliation by the state. So the first thing the young people here did was occupy the palm grove and burn down the police station,” recalls the new president, a 50-year-old with a face marked by the sun. Moved, his companion evokes the apprenticeship of democracy: “It was the agora, we all debated together and we continued to make decisions collectively. »

These lands belonged to their ancestors

First united in a League for the Protection of the Revolution, the inhabitants then created the Association for the Protection of the Oasis. Anyone who wanted to could become a member by paying 30 dinars (10 €). “But we consider every inhabitant a member now,” says the former president.

The Jemniens believe that these lands belonged to their ancestors before being confiscated by French settlers and then by the State in 1964. The latter had rented them to businessmen when the national company operating the estate went bankrupt. But, between independence and nationalization, the inhabitants had paid a sum to the governor of the region for these lands, explains Tahar Etahri, supporting documents. “Some of our ancestors had sold all their jewelry,” he recalls.

Jemna embodies a ray of hope

In a bloodless Tunisia ten years after the revolution, Jemna embodies a glimmer of hope. However, in 2016, the association was threatened by the government. But it held firm thanks to the mobilization of civil society. Six years later, President Kaïs Saïed cites them as an example, addressing the most disadvantaged regions. For Abdelmajid Belhaj, if the association was able to revitalize Jemna, others can. “There are over 500,000 hectares of state land. It is enough to rent them to communities in self-management”, he believes.

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However, the soul of Jemna’s experience is not present, according to him, either in the bill on the social and solidarity economy, “torpedoed by Parliament” in 2020, nor, finally, in the presidential decree promulgated at the end of March on “corporate citizens”. “We expected the president to invite the association and listen to us, but no one came,” he laments without giving up. He is campaigning for the application of a 1995 law which, in theory, makes it possible to rent state agricultural estates to cooperatives.

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A severe economic crisis

“Nothing seems to stop the country’s descent into hell on the economic and social level”, estimates the International Crisis Group in its report on Tunisia published on 6 April.

The poverty rate rose from 14 to 21% in one year.

The unemployment rate reached 18.4% of the active population, and more than 42% of young people.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates, in its March 30 statement, that “Tunisia is facing major structural challenges that manifest themselves through deep macroeconomic imbalances, very weak growth despite its strong potential, too high an unemployment rate, too little investment, and social inequalities”.

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