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September 16, 2021

A missed opportunity to preserve oasis agriculture in Gabès, Tunisia?

Tunisia’s southern city of Gabès is widely known for its rare ecosystem, called the oasis, in which a microclimate allows for an impressive diversity of plants. However, a combination of socio-economic and climate transformations in the region is threatening the oasis and its agriculture traditions which have, for centuries, provided the bulk of fruits and vegetables consumed in Gabès.

In Gabès and its surrounding region, monoculture systems, particularly large-scale date and olive productions, are expanding as the lucrative export-oriented business in the region, pushing local farmers out of their traditional agriculture. 

Droughts, floods and changing rainfall patterns are degrading the oasis’ ecosystems and the soil becomes infertile. On top of that, small-scale farmers are competing over water access with nearby industry, particularly a chemical, phosphate factory and a cement plant. Increasing urban expansion also leads to the loss of precious cropland in the oasis. 

These extreme challenges are leaving farmers almost no choice. Many abandon their plots in the Gabès oasis, leading to the build-up of salt on uncultivated land that seeps into nearby plots. In fact, 18 percent of vegetation has been lost in the last three decades due to groundwater salinisation in Tunisia. 

Socio-economic and governance barriers to a sustainable food system 

Without urgent action and specific measures to make it more resilient and water efficient, the oasis is destined to further degrade, much to the detriment of livelihoods, ecosystems and biodiversity.

But the move towards a climate-resilient agri-food system in Gabès is rocky. A number of factors limit the progress towards adaptation and resilience, particularly Tunisia’s socio-economic and governance system.

Tunisia’s new constitution from 2014 incorporates climate action as a permanent feature. However, climate action is not yet mainstreamed and a robust agricultural development vision for Tunisia’s agri-food system is still missing. Simply speaking, ‘support for adaptation’ is not high on the political agenda with the government saying that adaptation funding should come entirely from the international community, without requiring the input of domestic resources. 

Despite political promises of more transparent and efficient local governance, little has happened in Tunisia. Social disparity, especially between the interior, rural regions and the affluent coastal areas, is prevailing.  One of the reasons is the low investment bandwidth and poor technical, institutional and organisational capacities of local authorities. 

Although the 2014 constitution dedicated an entire chapter to a new system of administrative, political and fiscal decentralisation, the process in Tunisia continues to face implementation challenges. This makes progress towards a much-needed community-led, bottom-up approach to adaptation in the agri-food system in Gabès, located in a remote and poor region of the country, extremely slow. 

To this day, for instance, decisions related to water management are taken top-down by the Ministry of Agriculture.

An inclusive approach for a more sustainable food system 

Improving soil fertility through better irrigation systems and sustainable farming practices that reduce pressure on groundwater resources require technical solutions. This will reduce the vulnerability of the oasis, secure water and land resources. Local authorities, farmers, civil society, and women need to be able to decide jointly on water and land management if we want to see a shift towards more sustainability in the Gabès’ oasis. 

Effective decentralisation with shared decision-making powers on the local level is also key to achieve this. Crucially, this must go hand in hand with better local access to (climate) finance, capacity building, and mechanisms for strengthening local democracy and citizen participation.

At the local level in Gabès, a stronger institutional set-up for adaptation action and natural resources management should ensure that the scarce water available does not only go to the most powerful, based on unfair competition. 

Lessons from Gabès for global UN deliberations 

Parallelly, no time can be wasted to achieve a shift in global mindsets regarding food systems. 

The three-day United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit that took place in July this year in Rome was supposed to set the stage for the global gathering in New York later this month, which organisers have promised “will produce concrete action and financing aimed at building a more functional food system.” However, participants, particularly from peasant and indigenous movements, caused commotion during the Pre-Summit, stating that the entire Summit process is subdued to corporate influence.

They claimed that only the interests of big agribusiness are being heard, instead of the voices of the most vulnerable and historically oppressed. A Global People’s Summit is now organised simultaneously to counteract the non-inclusive governance system of the UN Food Systems Summit. 

Already more than two decades ago, at the 1996 World Food Summit, social movements insisted that food systems should be built around the idea of food sovereignty for a healthier future. Food sovereignty is the right of people to determine their agri-food systems that allow for healthy, nutritious and climatically appropriate food grown in their locality. 

The oasis in Gabès has been an example of food sovereignty for centuries. Its degradation showcases not only Tunisia’s failing agri-food system but also the many missed opportunities at the global level. 

The UN Food Systems Summit, with its current set-up, could end up being another of these missed opportunities. Many voices at the pre-summit have made this loud and clear, but time is running out. It’s likely that we will see a high-level version of the unfair governance structures in which smallholders and local authorities have no say, that is a reality for so many at the local level, Gabes a case in point. 

This commentary is based on work for a forthcoming CASCADES publication (2021) on “Climate Resilience in Southern Neighbourhood Cities: Opportunities for the EU Green Deal” (Elgendy K, Abdullah, H. & H. Knaepen), funded through the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

ECDPM is a leading independent think tank that wants to make policies in Europe and Africa work for inclusive and sustainable development. Its focus is on EU foreign policy and European and African policies related to conflict, migration, governance, sustainable food systems, regional integration, business, finance and trade.

Hanne Knaepen specialises in climate change adaptation within the context of Europe-Africa relations, with a strong focus on agri-food systems and climate finance. She joined ECDPM in 2013, where she is a policy officer in the Sustainable Food Systems programme. 

Image by Attila Janosi