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close this folder 9. Tunisia: The state, the peasantry and food dependence
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9. Tunisia: The state, the peasantry and food dependence

Mahmoud ben Romdhane

The purpose of this chapter is to analyse state policy towards agriculture over the last two decades and its impact on the peasantry and agricultural production. The essential conclusions that emerge and will be developed, are that, with the exception of the market gardening and fruit sub-sector, in which the state made major investments and where the beneficiaries of investment in irrigation gained substantial advantages. Tunisian agriculture has been used as a reservoir from which to extract an increasingly large surplus to the benefit of extra-agricultural capital. As a result of the continuous depreciation of the main agricultural products' prices the peasantry has been unable to save enough to finance productive investment, and capital. 'the bearer of capitalist rationality' has simply fled agriculture whose share of investment has diminished drastically period by period. Consequently, agricultural production has improved only extremely slowly and, from being an agricultural surplus country. Tunisia has gradually become a deficit country, particularly in strategic food products (cereals, milk, sugar for example).

This was the situation up to 1979. Since then, the food deficit has continued to worsen, but it seems that since 1980 there has been a turn-about in agricultural policy which is reflected both in a new emphasis on agricultural products and in the financial and institutional resources made available (or in the process of being made available) to farmers.

But this turn-around has not yet been taken up with the required determination. It remains in fact dependent. 1) on a domestic social situation in which urban actors' threat to reduce the margin of manoeuvre necessary for the implementation of a new agricultural policy is all the greater because the confrontation with them is occurring against a tense economic background; and. 2) on an international situation in which the downward fluctuations of international prices threaten to reduce the urgency of a policy of encouraging agriculture simply because the turn-around itself was dictated essentially by the sudden rise of the international prices of the leading agricultural products between 1979 and 1981.

But if this turn around were to succeed in establishing itself and giving way to a policy that did not exclude agriculture, is there not the risk of a deployment of capital in agriculture with all its attendant consequences - or alleged consequences: further concentration of landownership, development of the wage nexus and rejection of the peasantry? For if the policy, that for two or three decades has consisted in reducing the prices of the main agricultural products, has helped remove agriculture from the field of capitalist investment and keep it basically a world of peasants, a policy of encouraging agriculture may indeed lead to an improvement in the standard of living of the peasant masses and keeping them on their holdings, but it may also lead to an extension of the spatial and social area of capital within agriculture and the eviction of at least part of the peasantry.

That is the real issue in coming years: everything will depend on the concrete implementation of the new policy - if the turnaround does indeed prove to be permanent. In order to put an end to food dependence, two paths are practicable: one based on capital, out-and-out resort to mechanization and rejection of the peasantry, the other, on the promotion of the peasantry and the rural areas.