The Corona pandemic and the need to fight for resources and food sovereignty
This is a transcript of the presentation by Layla Riahi, of the Working Group for Food Sovereignty - Tunisia, which was part of our first webinar in Arabic.
The Major manifestations of Tunisia’s food crisis (consumers)
The shortage of essential commodities such as milk, sugar and cereals marked the beginning of the food crisis, which is now reflected in the shortage in subsidized commodities such as semolina, flour and animal feed. The state has a monopoly over the purchase, conversion and distribution of cereal grains, through the Tunisian Cereals Office. This system, inherited from the 60s, was meant to regulate the prices, but soon turned into a windfall profit-generating machine for a limited number of companies, in the form of a state protected cartel, monopolizing and speculating in the market.
Watch the full webinar(In Arabic)
The second aspect of the crisis is price hikes and volatility, especially for meat, grain and vegetables. This is due to distribution related causes that I will talk about later.
The last, and most dangerous, aspect I want to point out concerns the interruption of most economic activities and almost all precarious and informal activities, leaving a large segment of Tunisians without an income, and in desperate need of charity and aid.
The situation of farmers in rural areas during the current pandemic (producers)
The health crisis hit us at the onset of spring: a period known for its unique dynamism in rural areas, as early produce – which is usually destined for export – gets introduced to the market, preparations for cereal season begin, palm pollen is transported between Nefzawa and Djerid and cattle breeders start herding their livestock. By the month of Ramadan (from the end of April), other sectors such as poultry farming thrive.
Confinement and curfew measures restricted the mobility of food producers like farmers, fishers and cattle breeders; paralyzing rural dynamics and having a negative impact on production and commercialization. The government then enacted permits for movement that led to bribery and corruption.
The decision to close down wholesale markets for four days a week undermined the distribution of commodities to markets and favoured speculators over farmers, giving them control over markets and distribution networks as well as a price control advantage. Given that the wholesale markets have been closed and given the fact that farmers transport their products to these themselves, it becomes clear that they are vulnerable to the desires of speculators and intermediaries that may not accept their products. The farmers often have to choose between destroying their products or taking them back. As a result farmers were obliged to sell at a very low price and consumers to buy at a high price. Even after the annulment of the decision and the reopening of the markets, the prices kept fluctuating.
The closing down of livestock markets had severe consequences on small and medium-scale farmers, who usually turn to selling one or two sheep to fund their activities or survive a crisis. Farmers are now facing dire circumstances because of the curfew, the monopoly over feed, the increase of its prices and the closing down of markets. They’re no longer able to feed, herd or sell their livestock.
The last implication of this crisis is the closing down of agricultural supply and inputs stores (selling hybrid seeds, chemical inputs). These shops are an important link in the production chain because the dominant production models are in constant need of different kinds of inputs that are mainly imported. It also should be noted that agricultural inputs suppliers are today the biggest creditors to farmers, due to the lack of state and bank funding.
The problems rural Tunisia is facing today because of the state’s precautionary measures to face the outbreak of Covid-19 have caused the disruption of production and distribution to markets. We note the absence of any kind of policies that are oriented to farmers who are the main food producers, as well as a total indifference to the current food crisis, which will definitely get worse. As if supplying food is not the government’s job, while we find civil society at the forefront of solidarity and aid efforts.
Government policies (The state)
The government is clearly counting on exporting sectors (services, tourism, extractivism) that received reassurances that huge funding will be allocated to “support the affected sectors”. They also enjoy double support from International Financial Institutions, in particular the IMF and a local rent-seeking minority. Both are encouraging the sacrifice of public services, wage employees, workers and farmers and of course all the informal sector, in order to save the Tunisian economy from bankruptcy.
This kind of choice in today’s Tunisia, only shows the widening divide between, on the one hand, the ruling elite and its entourage and, on the other hand, the rest of the country, its reality, values and aspirations.