Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.
Max: Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?
Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.
If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies. These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.
It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.
Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.
In Egypt, I participated in many discussions on issues of food security and sovereignty. We were, with some other friends and colleagues, including the anthropologist Reem Saad, responsible for helping to initiate the first discussions around the specific theme of food sovereignty. We organized workshops, research seminars, and other activities, too, more oriented towards civil society and the media. We also organized two seminars in Damascus, in Syria, in 2008 and some others in Tunisia between 2007 and 2011. Concerning Syria, it should be noted that it is one of the very few countries in the South that did not suffer from the food crisis of 2007 and 2008, because the Syrian state has always thought, amidst a particularly hostile and explosive geopolitical context, that the food issue was part of its national defense strategy. Thus, agricultural policies before 2011 (and even after, with the difficulties that we can imagine) always aimed at a level of cereal production sufficient to cover basic needs. The lesson of the embargo imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after the war of Kuwait was well-learned by Damascus.
From 2011 on, spaces and opportunities for debate would greatly expand, touching upon a multitude of topics and diverse themes – even if the rural world, and more specifically, agricultural and food topics, remain relatively marginalized, or often forgotten. Nevertheless, the issue of food sovereignty has seen some fairly significant actions and initiatives. In Egypt, the principle of food sovereignty was enshrined in the first post-Mubarak constitution (2012). In Beirut, there was an attempt to form an Arab Network for Food Sovereignty. In Gaza, food sovereignty is a strong demand to which the Israeli embargo gives shape and consistency. And then in North Africa, public discussions and various activities around food sovereignty began in 2012-2013. It must be noted that throughout the region, there is still a kind of confusion around concepts, slogans, and even demands and claims. If the notion of food sovereignty begins to spread there is then a risk of trivialization and misuse of the expression, which may occur – it has happened with other concepts, including that of sustainable development which has been totally emptied of any real meaning.
Max: One puzzle I have come across while doing my research on food sovereignty – and I mean the narrow meaning, or the specific use of the term, as it has become linked to Via Campesina – is that there are very few regional social movements that are tied to Via Campesina. There is one in Morocco, there is one in Tunisia. And there is the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, which is the regional coordinator, and has been a part of Via Campesina, I think since 2003, since the second Intifada. This is the part of the world where Via Campesina has entered least – or has the fewest links. Why do you think this might be the case?
Habib: It is difficult to explain. Without being categorical, it seems to me that this is largely due to the paradoxical absence of direct relations between the city and the countryside which go beyond the marketing of agricultural products, an exchange which does not necessarily bring the two areas into continuous contact. Between the countryside, especially the peasants and agricultural workers who live and/or work there, and the city, including the ordinary inhabitants, the intellectuals, the activists and the trade unionists’ communication and exchanges are relatively limited. The former does not necessarily have access to the city, whose codes they do not know, and the latter do not understand the countryside, and stigmatize its inhabitants. In the city, the word fellah (peasant) has become an insult.
When the Egyptian government carried out its agrarian counter-reform in 1992 by adopting the so-called 96/92 law which completely liberalized the land market, and which resulted in a massive rise in the price of agricultural land, overnight about a million peasant families, former tenants, found themselves without land to work and therefore without income. In response to an attempt at resistance, the government reacted with great brutality from its police, leaving about 150 dead, not counting the dozens of wounded and imprisoned. Astonishingly, these events in the Egyptian campaign did not provoke any rush of solidarity from urban political and intellectual elites, with the exception of a few activists and NGOs, already more or less engaged in the peasant milieu, who tried to organize some demonstrations and support activities. Today, I tend to think that these isolated and repressed peasant movements of the mid-1990s were the first fruits of the revolutionary processes that ended the Mubarak regime in early 2011.
Few people in the area know about Via Campesina. Even amongst those people who, by a kind of mimicry, use the expression food sovereignty, know nothing about Via Campesina and the history of this concept. In itself, this is a real political problem that further aggravates the invisibility of rural and peasant populations and widens the rift between the city and the countryside, thereby limiting relations to exchanges of products and services through closed circuits.
Max: I wonder if some of the separation you talk about between the city and the countryside is also because, speaking generally here, with exceptions such as Yemen, it’s been a very modernizing left. Whereas in Asia you had Maoism, and in Latin America you had liberation theology, Christian-based communities, and you had all these ideologies and forms of organizing that were much more centered on the world and the culture of the countryside. Whereas in North Africa it’s generally been, or rather there has been an embrace of a modern/traditional dichotomy.
Habib: Yes, sure. Compared to North Africa specifically, I think not only does the city not know the countryside, but additionally, the urban lefts subjugated by modernity have developed a sort of disregard for the peasantry, which they consider as a brake and an obstacle to development. We know that this is not new. Already Marx, in his day, had little regard for the peasant world which, surprisingly, he had never tried to understand.
Generally, the Maghreb left, excepting a few generally unorganized intellectuals, reject the idea of rural social classes. I have the impression that this rejection is more a reflection of the contempt towards the peasantry than the output of a serious work of reflection and conceptualization. But this is an issue that deserves a real dispassionate debate.
Let’s take the example of the considerable difference between the history as it has been constructed and told – storytelling – of Mohamed Bouazizi and the real story, which is much more interesting, because it is linked to the stories of many peasants in Sidi Bouzid, and their sense of being robbed, dispossessed, marginalized and impoverished [Mohammed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor whose immolation in Sidi Bouzid, a city in Tunisia’s Center-West, has often been heralded as the spark that lit the Arab Spring].We know today that Mohamed Bouazizi, whom almost nobody knew outside his immediate circles, was not an unemployed graduate as had been claimed, and that he had not been slapped by the policewoman. Yet this false story had been disseminated and used to mobilize as much as possible against the Ben Ali regime. We understand the reasons and the political objectives of this invented history and we can even accede to such a use. For in any case, no one can deny its formidable effectiveness since it allowed Tunisians to bring down a true dictatorship, while the real story probably could not have done so.
However, I continue to think that despite its undeniable effectiveness and its historical importance, Bouazizi’s constructed history has dispossessed the peasants of Sidi Bouzid and the rest of the country of their stories of struggles and resistance, stories with which the real history of Bouazizi fits perfectly. The popular understanding of the Tunisian revolution stems from a false history, and constitutes in fact a denial of truth, and a marked contempt, albeit unconscious, for peasants, their functions, their roles and finally their resistance. It is in fact a blatant expression of the opposition of the urban middle class and in particular the Tunisian left to any idea of rural social classes. The debate on rural social classes, opened a good thirty years ago, deserves to be revived and enriched. I have already published on the relationship between the peasants of Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi and the revolution.
Max: I also wonder if somehow there is a link between the fact that in Tunisia you have actually an incredibly rich tradition of Marxist intellectuals in the academy that wrote about the countryside. So, like Hafedh Sethom, Slaheddine el-Amami, to some extent Azzam Mahjoub, Habib Attia, who all, of course, wrote under the dictatorships. Some of them helped with the planning process in the 1970s, but they could not possibly be linked to any form of left that was actually organizing otherwise they would lose their job and livelihood. So, this made it harder to have a convergence between an activist left and the academic left especially on this question of the countryside.
Habib: Yeah definitely, at least in Tunisia. I don’t know about Morocco or Algeria. Have you encountered attempts to converge between the Marxist researchers of the time, such as the ones you just mentioned, and the left-wing activists of the time? I do not know any. I must admit that it would have been extremely dangerous for anyone at the time of Bourguiba or Ben Ali, which must be a part of the explanation for the absence of convergences. One could imagine a birth of peasant or pro-peasant unions. But knowing a little about the political context of postcolonial Tunisia, characterized by a dictatorship that has closed all political spaces and the suffocating hegemony of organizations, such as UTAP (Tunisian Union of Agriculture and Fishery) and the UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union), related through a system of alliances to the existing political power structure and its single party, it is very difficult to imagine political initiatives to create independent organizations.
In fact, it would be unfair to reproach Marxist scholars under dictatorship for not engaging politically. They did a great deal of observation, documentation and analysis in an extremely difficult context. They have left us with materials that have proven to be rich and indispensable for understanding current agricultural and food policies and the evolution of these policies during the last decades. Anyone who does not know the work of Amami, Sethom, or others cannot understand current agricultural issues and their ecological, economic, social and political dimensions. Those who ignore these valuable materials produced and accumulated during this relatively long period cannot understand what happened between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011. It is extremely important to recall these facts especially since very few contemporary academics could present a record as rich and politically useful as their predecessors.
Max: Even when they proposed it, it was often just a proposal – they might write in their work that a specific programme ‘rests on the activity of the peasants’ but this was a dead letter. Imagine someone going to the countryside and trying to organize the peasants! For all we know there were such attempts, but we don’t know what happened to the people who tried to do these things. Even to take Brazil which is supposedly a democracy it’s known that the MST (Brazilian Landless Workers’ Movement) militants are assassinated all the time by the landowners.
Habib: And it’s still the case in many other countries.
Max: And this has been in the post-democratic period in Brazil. So, imagine in Tunisia …
Habib: Something like this also happened in Egypt, where the pro-peasant activist Salah Hussein – who was the husband of Shahenda Maklad, also a great pro-peasant activist who died in June 2016 -was murdered in 1966 in Kamshish, his village, which was located in the Nile Delta. He was killed because with Shahenda and the small peasants he had won a political battle against the big landowners of the Delta who were trying to avoid the agrarian reform initiated in the early 1950s by Nasser.
In Tunisia Ahmed Ben Salah would never have allowed anyone to resist his policies. He would have used every means to prevent any resistance. This is the main explanation for the absence of trade unions and farmers’ organizations before 2011 and even since the end of the dictatorship. This also explains why ‘committed’ researchers did not get involved directly on the ground with the farmers.
Max: If we can shift gears a little bit. How do you see your cultural work, your films contributing to the Tunisian debate or collective discourse around food sovereignty? How do you see the contributions of all the films? Because you make a lot of films Green Mirage, Fellahin, Gabes Labes, and most recently Couscous which was shown at the ROAPE workshop in Accra in 2017.
Habib: When I first began making films, I did not plan to work on food sovereignty, it came much later. I had in mind work on questions of access to resources – land rights, water rights, environmental rights.
The first film, On the Banks of the Nile: Sharing Water was made in 2003, at a time when, after 15 or 20 years of work on water, I realized that the real problem was not water but farmers and other water-users access to water resources. It was conditions of access that could, at least partially, explain complex social and political situations. Access to water is a precondition for biological life. But it is also social and therefore political.
So, as I often say, ‘ came out of the water to see the peasants, to understand the different mechanisms and questions they face, including those related to water access. The main objective was to contribute to the ongoing discussion, and to bear witness to the peasants’ difficulties, as well as their social conditions.
Of course, all this was not by chance. I did not find myself accidentally lost along Egypt’s Nile Valley. I have done nothing, so to speak, by chance, during my career. My research activities have always focused on subjects which I considered, at the moment of my engagement, as causes to be defended. It’s my way of engaging. I am not in any political party or movement. I am somewhere in the radical left and that suffices for me as an affiliation.
As far as film-making was concerned, I had felt the need to get out of my role as a researcher publishing for a relatively limited number of more or less specialized publications and readers, and to address those and those who are not necessarily in academia or the university environment. Documentary films seemed to me an excellent tool of communication and interchange with a public which was very broad compared to academia. Watching a documentary takes an incomparably shorter time than reading a book, or even a scholarly article.
I take advantage of what I believe I know to provoke debate. Water was my specialty. Rural issues too. This knowledge and experience allowed me to have special and close relations with the agricultural world, including peasants and all manner of farmers, and therefore with their living spaces and/or work. These relationships have allowed me to observe the rural space, the activities which go on there, their living and working conditions, the changes underway, as well as ways of organizing rural and agricultural populations. It is, moreover, the privilege of social scientists who choose to be physically and intellectually close to their objects of research and their interlocutors in the field. That’s what has always interested me. In any case that’s what inspired me in my film Green Mirages (Mirages Verts) that I made in 2012 with my friend, the Egyptian director Nadia Kamel. Basically, I try to do what I can do, using available and accessible means and by mobilizing the 3 or 4 things that I think I know and understand.
Habib Ayeb speaks to roape.net at the ROAPE/TWN workshop on structural transformation in Africa (Accra, 13-14 November 2017)
I tried to film in Tunisia in 2007 but I quickly realized that the camera represented for the Ben Ali regime a weapon of mass destruction and, in a sense, I agree with this idea. It’s terrible what you can do with a camera. In any case, I quickly gave up the idea and I did not take out my camera again until much later for Green Mirages which I shot almost entirely in my village, Demmer, in the country’s southeast, where there is no visible police presence.
Max: You were a little protected.
Habib: I have a kind of protection that comes from my family’s history, and a bit from my current status as an academic. People have their own perceptions. They do not necessarily see you as you are in reality, but as they want to see you.
In any case, we were able to make the film without too much difficulty. The film criticizes dominant development models, by showing how they are complicit in the destruction and disappearance of an extremely rich local ensemble of know-how, of techniques and technologies, developed over time, through generation after generation, by local populations to adapt to local conditions and/or protect themselves against the various hazards of natural or non-natural origins, had a success beyond what we could imagine. Demmer is a rocky village perched above the arid mountains of the southeast of the country. It is an open-air museum exhibiting hydraulic skills composed of both physical management of the water through hydraulic engineering (harvest, storage, dikes, earthworks …) and social water management, composed of an extremely rich and complex ensemble of mechanisms for conflict resolution between resource users. Thanks to these riches, Demmer has been able to withstand for centuries the worst conditions, whether permanent or contingent, but could not resist the modern models of development that dispossess people of their last tools of defense and survival.
Max: Okay so you were able to show it in Tunis, as well.
Habib: Yes, especially in protected areas like universities. I remember a screening at the University in Tunis in front of dozens of viewers, both teachers and students. The ensuing discussion was one of the richest and most rewarding that I have had since I started making documentaries. The film only lasts 45 minutes, but the whole session lasted more than 4 hours. It is there that I understood that engaged films always find their publics, and systematically incite debate. That’s exactly what I’m looking for.
Max: Before we talk a little bit about Gabès Labess, can you give a little more sense of what the reaction Green Mirages was like from the students?
Habib: The questions and comments of the students who were present at the screening that I was just talking about went beyond the bounds of a strictly academic context. They intervened as citizens who ask questions of substance concerning the choice of agricultural policies, the location of hydraulics, and the immediate or long-term consequences of these policies on the environment. Some commented on the film in technical and artistic terms. Some questions related to my career, my choices and my commitments. An academic who makes movies was something relatively unusual for them and intrigued them. But the most important questions and comments were about development models and their actual or potential consequences. Some questioned me on the substance of my speech and asked me the question that I often heard then and I still hear today, ‘… But sir, you want us to live like our grandparents?’ In fact, I really like this question because it opposes, or juxtaposes, a certain representation of what is modern and what is old or traditional and forces us to re-pose the recurring question: What is modernity?
During the same discussion, there was another recurring question: ‘How to develop the country so as to resist global competition, without technological modernization?’ I answered with a series of questions, as I often do: ‘Why this race? Running forever behind development? Why don’t we think more about the very notion of developing? For whom, for what? For growth rates? What is development? What does it mean to develop a country by increasing the number of poor people?’ It is interesting to ask these questions, because people had not considered them.
I told them that Sidi Bouzid was the region that received the most investment between 1990 and 2011. The leading region. It is a region that had an extensive semi-pastoral farming system, and it became in less than 30 years the premier agricultural region of the country. At the same time Sidi Bouzid had been a ’moderately poor’ region, in a sense, and I put that in quotation marks, and it is now the fourth poorest region in the country. This is the development which people desire. Regueb, which is part of Sidi Bouzid, looks like California. Regueb is a perfect technical success, an exemplar of the Californian model. The problem is that the local population does not benefit. These are people from Sfax and the Sahel who get rich in Sidi Bouzid, not the people of Sidi Bouzid. Hence the link with the story of Mohamed Bouazizi.
Max: Moving onto Egypt there was a larger opening for freedom of expression in Egypt, relative to Tunisia. For example, I was shocked when I heard in Egypt there was a Center for Socialist Studies.
Habib: I worked there for a few years. I did interviews in the Egyptian media, including on TV, where I spoke exactly as I speak to you now and in Egyptian, and on national channels. I did an interview about an hour long, about my book Water in the Middle East (published in Arabic in Egypt). In Tunisia it would have been just impossible!
But I think that if I did something in all my militant and professional life, which had a totally unexpected effect, it was my documentary Gabes Labess, made in 2014. It’s a bit crazy. Something has happened, which is largely related more to the new political context than to the film itself. I really like this movie. For once, for the first time, there was a film addressing the issue of the environment by placing that issue alongside the dominant development models. I think that Gabes Labess favoured forms of mobilization that did not exist before.
Max: And you showed Gabès Labess in Gabès many times?
Habib: Yes, the first screening was in Gabès. In the Cultural Center of Chenini. The Oasis of Chenini, which is a part of Gabes. The first screening was just incredible. I was really very surprised. Over 200 people came. That means there were people waiting, not for my film itself, exactly, because nobody knew me, but they wanted something about the environment. There was demand on the environment, on the environmental issue.
The screening took place as part of a small festival, ‘Lights and Color of the Oasis’ which is still held in February. It is useful for people to know that I received death threats just before this first screening. I imagine it came from people in the factories – bosses or perhaps people who were naturally afraid for their livelihoods. However, I think that it must have been bosses and businessmen; that seems to me more likely.
Max: It seems that since 2014 people are really beginning to reject the type of environmentally damaging development model, even though there isn’t yet an articulated alternative.
Habib: Now people are really debating the question of development models. Sometimes the debate is very rich, and sometimes it’s more of a provocation or challenge. Today, the debate is unquestionably touching on fundamental questions: ’What do we do with water?’, ‘What do we do with the earth?’, ‘What do we do with our natural resources?’, ‘What do we do with oil?’, ‘What do we do with phosphate?’…The demonstrations in El Kamour, the strikes around the phosphate in Kasserine, Redeyef and so forth. The movements around the environment in Gabès, Sfax and Kerkennah. Closing chemical plants, shutting down the road, stopping the oil pipeline – these are actions. But what is behind them? I think there we find the debate on the development model. When the people of El Kamour say ‘We want our share of oil revenues’, they are speaking of development models.
Max: I’ve been in Tunis while you have been distributing and showing Couscous, which touches on food sovereignty. Even if it does not explicitly put forth a different development model, it nevertheless centers a different form of development as something people need to look at. Do you think this is part of why people are so receptive?
Habib: Yes, that explains at least part of the good reception of Couscous. The film does not directly address the issue of development models, but it says that there is something that does not work in the current system. The peasants who appear in the film say so clearly, and they go further by explaining the causes of the various difficulties they encounter. By giving the floor to female and male peasants who express themselves with great clarity and precision and exhibit a real political awareness of the complex mechanisms which explain their difficulties, the film speaks directly to people, beyond their educations, opinions, social backgrounds and trades. This is why they are very receptive both to the film and to the central idea it conveys, the idea of food sovereignty as a political alternative and as a fundamental requirement.
The advantage for the movie Couscous has been that the debate had already been opened. The movie came as an additional document to enrich the debate and cast upon it a specific kind of light. There were already people sitting around the table, discussing, and I brought them something new. What surprised me most has been the overall positive reaction to the film. The debate is constantly revived, as it expands, as new people of diverse social origins engage for the first time. Recently, a journalist I interviewed said, ‘What, for you, is a fellah? How is it useful to society?’ These two questions can be considered extremely simple, or even simplistic. Their significance stems from the fact that many people thought they had already been bypassed, considering farmers part of the past, and that their contemporary usefulness is almost nil. The film says the opposite and it’s always productive to shake up frozen ideas.
Politically, people have started to know me since 2014. They know that I make movies. Some subscribe to my blog, which has about four thousand subscribers, of whom more than 90 percent are probably Tunisian. So, when I announce a new movie, it’s known pretty quickly. Of course, my name attracts people, and I am very happy. But I also think that those who already knew my other films came to see Couscous with a fairly positive preconception. That, in part, explains why the movie Couscous received a much wider reception than the other films.
The film is not yet available online. People have seen it in theaters during the Carthage Film Days: three screenings, three different rooms, three full rooms. One must note that Tunis’s theaters average around 400 seats. During that event there was also radio, TV, the press, and of course social networks and electronic newspapers which, in fact, offered coverage to Couscous, whereas the other films had not benefited from such visibility. It makes a fundamental difference.
Obviously, the movie Couscous did not initiate the debates on food sovereignty. There have already been many other events and actions around this broad issue whether they have occurred under the concept of food sovereignty or not. But it seems to me that the film has given some visibility and some new impetus to these discussions. It’s the magic of cinema that escapes the director completely.
Max: I know you’ve shown the film to not just general audience but also agricultural schools in certain places. Can you talk a little bit about the Q&A sessions, the reception to the film both in general but also especially how the agricultural and agronomy students have reacted to it?
Habib: It is exciting to discuss food sovereignty and agricultural policies with agronomy students. Some students say to me, ‘But, sir, how would we be useful, with the training we have, if the current model is not good?’ These are young people who are in the process of obtaining their engineering degrees and who have a fairly solid technical background. They are generally even more challenged when I provoke them deliberately by suggesting that a large portion of the problems we are debating is due to the work of the experts who design the policies which are adopted, and who know nothing outside their specialties.
If you ask experts what to do to solve the problem of lack of water somewhere, they are likely to answer that it is necessary to build a dam or dig a borehole. A technical answer to a political problem. This is what students learn in Tunisian agricultural schools. Therefore, their reactions to my provocation are related to their current and future social status and their schooling. But as I went through these schools, too, from high school to engineering school, I could talk to agronomy students, using their languages and their tools.
So, to answer their questions about their future and their roles after school, when they have the engineering degree in their pocket, I tell them a bit about my state of mind at the end of my studies, where they are today. I tell them that if, when I left engineering school, I was given the keys to the Ministry of Agriculture, I would have erased everything old to create something beautiful, modern, impressive with big modern machinery, chemical fertilizers, pesticides. I would have installed a new California on Tunisian soil. It is this dream of technical modernity that I learned at school without any perspective and without any analytical ability to think otherwise. In these schools, the social sciences were totally absent, and this is obviously not a coincidence. The function of these schools in Tunisia is to train technicians, not citizens. Unfortunately, this model is becoming widespread and affecting the entire education system, including in many countries of the North with specializations increasingly narrow and closed to any other knowledge. So, I say to these future technicians that the problem comes from our training and that we must question not only our individual training, but the whole system that trains future decision-makers. I tell them that I had to re-educate myself to free myself from the training that the engineering school had imposed on me.
Max: Do you discuss agro-ecology with them?
Habib: Yes of course. When I went to these schools – and I have done three so far – I initially went with the idea of not addressing technical issues because they know more than me and that would prevent productive discussion. I just wanted to tell them this: ‘Listen! You have been deprived of tools for reflection, you have been deprived of social sciences, political science, history, debates on the model of development, debates on liberalism, and basic knowledge about the major currents of thoughts: What is capitalism? What is Marxism? What is right? …’ This is knowledge that is needed in order to have the foundation to better analyze and appreciate the situations that they will inevitably encounter in their professional life and, if necessary, bring the right answers. My challenge was to tell them that we cannot answer the big questions and the big current challenges concerning development and ecological problems by having a strictly technical approach and without calling on other knowledges and especially the social sciences.
Max: Have any of these students, that you know of, returned to the debates from the 1980s? I know the Arab world in general and Tunisia especially had an exceptionally rich debate about alternative technologies, particularly in the agricultural sector, which were less energy intense and less polluting – has this happened, or perhaps it is something that will develop in the future?
Habib: These debates, which you mention, date from the 1970s and 1980s at a time when rural studies were still relatively important and where the discussion focused on the choices between the development of agriculture or the orientation towards what was called industrializing industry, the economic liberalization which occurred from the mid-1980s contributed to the extinction of these debates. As a result, rural research gradually gave way to urban research. The debate simply changed. But I have seen the return of these debates since the food crisis of 2007-2008.
I recently received a letter from a young student who is about to finish her studies as an agricultural engineer at a Tunisian school. She wants to undertake a doctoral thesis on ‘the evolution of agricultural technologies and their perceptions by small Tunisian farmers.’ Roughly, she is posing the question of whether and how small Tunisian farmers adapt to new agricultural technologies and to what extent they adopt them. This specific question was asked by another student during the debate we had in their school. I remember answering that a small farmer can die if – to replace a plow he has just broken – he does not find the right plow suited to his terrain and his own material and social conditions. He can disappear simply because without the good plow, he cannot work his land. I added that the issue of adaptability and adaptation is a complex issue that does not just answer financial or technical criteria.
Another question that often comes up, and not only in agronomy schools, is ’Can small farmers feed humanity?’ This is a very serious question that cannot be answered with a simple ‘Yes.’ The world’s population has reached seven to eight billion people. Can small farmers feed them?
Obviously my answer is yes. But for that the peasants must be able to control the market and production. In other words, it will be necessary to leave the current dominant model. It will be necessary to change everything that now exists and move to a peasant agricultural model whose objective is to feed humanity instead of the enrichment of some. In short, we must take our leave from this liberal and capitalist agriculture to return to peasant agriculture. Today the peasantry no longer live exclusively from the land, their work and their functions are devalued, and they are increasingly marginalized and progressively excluded from the agricultural sector. In these circumstances, no one can say that the peasants alone can ensure the sufficient food for all humanity. It’s just not possible.
Max: And it is almost impossible to imagine a neoliberal or even state-capitalist regime to be interested in devolving power to the poorest people in society.
Habib: Or even feeding people. They don’t care.
Max: They care about neither. Technically it is possible to shift the existing system, but we can’t see it. So maybe this leads to the last question. Habib, now you have an organization, the Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE), what kind of work is it doing, how do you see it contributing to the debate around food sovereignty, and how do you see it moving forward?
Habib: I was at the founding of the Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment OSAE, but I am not alone since we are four founding members (Nada Trigui, Amine Slem, Adnen Ben Haj and myself) and therefore accountable for the association. I think that the debates since 2011 have been too political, and do not usually rely on accurate and verifiable knowledge and data.
In addition, social science research on issues such as food sovereignty, peasant issues and the environment is very limited and poor. The few researchers working on these subjects publish in foreign languages and rarely in Arabic and even less in local dialects. As a result, they are seldom read and discussed since people do not know them, and they do not know their work, which is almost never discussed publicly outside research environments and associated spaces. But important debates need a certain amount of knowledge and analysis based on research. Otherwise, we are no longer in a real debate, but immersed in sterile and unproductive chatter. If you do not do research, people cannot know things. And if they cannot know, they cannot debate from a solid foundation.
Our idea, and it is, perhaps, the novelty of OSAE, is to be a structure that aims at debate and proposals based on research, and verifiable and verified information. Secondly, perhaps advocacy activities and support for peasants and those engaged in the struggle against the destruction of the environment, nature and natural resources. But that will be a second stage.
We want to start by forming a solid research nucleus, which examines these current issues of food sovereignty in relation to law, justice, the environment, and social conditions. So OSAE is primarily a committed civic research organization. Therein lies its contribution. As far as I know, it is alone in working on the rural world and which aims to put forth a new reading of its situation and its problems, and to advocate new discourses based on the research and analysis produced by members of OSAE or by others who wish to collaborate with us. Research at first, training of researchers, information, and invitations to debate are our agenda for the current and future moments. In a second step, once we are more settled, we will intervene on the ground with actions more directly engaged with farmers, consumers, young people and, of course, civil society.
There is also a question of sovereignty here. There is a real problem which we have not as yet discussed. The majority of those who contribute to and set the boundaries of political debates around food sovereignty, including in the social sciences, are composed of foreign or foreignized actors. People who are from here, but totally disconnected from realities and local communities. They live elsewhere. They work elsewhere. They think elsewhere. Some do excellent work but from the North, and with questions, problems, analytical tools and readings from the North. My dream for OSAE is to initiate a research programme which thinks fromhere, without, of course, cutting itself off from those who think from their own fields, specialties, and problematics.
Habib Ayeb is a professor of geography at Université Paris 8 and film-maker. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE). He tweet at @Habib_Ayeb.
Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of a People’s Green New Deal. He tweets at @maxajl.
Nada Trigui transcribed the interview. She tweets at @TrNada.
The interview was conducted on March 4, 2018, in Tunis, Tunisia.
This article was first published on the Review of African Political Economy’s website.