Field Notes on Tunisia’s Green Revolution

Pho­to Cred­it: Amine Slim

Tunisia just recent­ly became a coun­try of malls, fac­to­ries, high­ways, and call cen­ters – the tox­i­cal­ly monot­o­nous forms of life that are mis­tak­en­ly tak­en for moder­ni­ty. A shift West­ern coun­tries under­went a cen­tu­ry ago, with an indus­tri­al work­ing class trac­ing its ori­gins to the coun­try­side, is hap­pen­ing still in Tunisia. And only in fits and starts.

The coun­try­side is still present in all man­ner of divi­sions of labor and of liv­ing. Men work in the urban ser­vice sec­tor while their wives remain in the fields. Stu­dents in the cap­i­tal are often from small­er towns or the rur­al inte­ri­or, and if not them, their par­ents or grand­par­ents migrat­ed to the cap­i­tal or oth­er major and minor cities. The rur­al world is not far from Tunis, nei­ther in dis­tance nor in time. Gar­den farms fill the neigh­bor­ing Cap Bon penin­su­la. Wild, bit­ing­ly bit­ter orange trees and date palms bloom in the capital’s streets and parks. The Zaghouan and Biz­erte bread­bas­kets are an hour’s dri­ve. Two hours and you are at a coastal green­belt, where the hori­zon is made of olive trees brush­ing the sky. Even amidst a glob­al agri­cul­tur­al com­mod­i­ty price defla­tion, tum­bling almost con­tin­u­ous­ly since the 1970s despite a few upticks, agri­cul­ture makes up a large por­tion of Tunisia’s gross domes­tic prod­uct and its exports – espe­cial­ly olive oil. As a con­se­quence, much of the pop­u­la­tion still lives in the coun­try­side.

Habib Ayeb’s Cous­cous: Seeds of Dig­ni­ty is the Tunisian filmmaker’s fourth film on the country’s agri­cul­ture and its prob­lems. The film opens to an image of clouds flick­er­ing by fast, cast­ing a play of the day’s shad­ows over Djebel Zaghouan, an area 30 miles to Tunis’s south­east. That prox­im­i­ty to the cap­i­tal is not decep­tive. It is tes­ta­ment to the light­ness of the indus­tri­al-met­ro­pol­i­tan foot­print on a coun­try that still seems very rur­al.

Ayeb builds the bulk of the film’s nar­ra­tive through inter­views with around a dozen farm­ers, cut in with shots of labor, land, and dai­ly life. He con­cen­trates on cere­al cul­ti­va­tion, which brings his lens to the country’s Cen­tral-East, North­east, and North­west regions, the lat­ter two in par­tic­u­lar com­pos­ing Tunisia’s gra­nary since time immemo­r­i­al. His focus is the strug­gles of direct pro­duc­ers – the envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the poor – who work in agri­cul­ture in a nat­ur­al world beset by the dis­lo­ca­tions and mount­ing dis­or­ders of agro-indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ist farm­ing.1

Through these inter­views, Ayeb assem­bles an anec­do­tal yet accu­rate account of Tunisia’s rur­al pro­duc­tive sys­tem, the role and dam­ag­ing absence of the state, and the his­to­ry of the devel­op­men­tal pat­terns the state imposed and the pro­duc­ers some­times resist­ed and some­times accept­ed. Food imports, genet­ic con­trol, the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and input depen­den­cy all find their place.

In fact, the film is in many ways the sto­ry of Tunisia’s Green Rev­o­lu­tion and its after­lives. That program’s court his­to­ry describes it as a plant breed­ing ini­tia­tive to increase Glob­al South wheat yields. But in the words of his­to­ri­an John Perkins, it was in its orig­i­nal incar­na­tion in Mex­i­co, “an alliance between a U.S. foun­da­tion [the Rock­e­feller Foun­da­tion] that pro­mot­ed lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic cap­i­tal­ism and a Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment that was strug­gling to estab­lish a lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal econ­o­my.”2 Both sides under­stood lib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism as bound to a devel­op­men­tal tra­jec­to­ry made up of cap­i­tal-inten­sive agri­cul­tur­al mod­ern­iza­tion and absorp­tion of the dis­placed work­force through urban indus­tri­al­iza­tion.

The inten­si­fi­ca­tion of agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion rest­ed on pro­duc­ing wheat cul­ti­vars which required a tech­no­log­i­cal pack­age of mech­a­niza­tion and chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers, and an agro-cli­mat­ic pack­age of prime soil and plen­ty of rain. It was basi­cal­ly ori­ent­ed towards large farms – in the Tunisian case, those above 40 hectares.

Those wheats were bred for max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­i­ty under ide­al con­di­tions, includ­ing ide­al amounts of water. In the case of Mex­i­co, they were designed to sub­tend Mex­i­can indus­tri­al­ists’ need for labor, and the Unit­ed States’ need for glob­al social con­tain­ment through the devel­op­ment project. They were also meant to sup­ply “devel­op­ing” coun­tries with calo­ries for their work­force with­out bog­ging down that work­force in agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion on cap­i­tal­ist farms – free­ing them for urban labor and free­ing large farm­ers from reliance on fick­le labor­ers. As Perkins con­tin­ues, “In the long run, prob­a­bly both the foun­da­tion and the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment had no par­tic­u­lar wish to improve the lives of peas­ant farm­ers in their capac­i­ties as peas­ant farm­ers.3 In Tunisia, gov­ern­ment plan­ners cer­tain­ly did not wish for small farms to be the foun­da­tion of the country’s devel­op­ment.

It is not clear if the intro­duced wheats were more effec­tive in improv­ing yields, in Tunisia or else­where, than a breed­ing pro­gram using local lan­draces would have been. What is clear, in pre­cise com­mu­niqués and sum­ma­tions from USAID engi­neers and econ­o­mists almost from the program’s incep­tion, is that a fore­see­able and accept­ed effect of the Wheat Project in Tunisia, imple­ment­ed in 1966 to boost cere­al pro­duc­tion, was land con­cen­tra­tion, rur­al dis­place­ment, and input depen­dence. And that is exact­ly what hap­pened.

It is easy to say that such vari­etals were inap­pro­pri­ate both for Tunisia’s ecol­o­gy and for its indus­tri­al mod­el, which from the onset of import-sub­sti­tu­tion indus­tri­al­iza­tion could not absorb all the work­ers for whom a cap­i­tal-inten­sive agri­cul­ture no longer had a place. Per­haps it is more accu­rate to state that the intro­duced vari­etals were per­fect­ly appro­pri­ate for accel­er­at­ing land con­cen­tra­tion to the ben­e­fit of the largest land­hold­ers. They were like­wise appro­pri­ate in pro­duc­ing a work­force not tied to the land, pre­pared to con­sti­tute a reserve army of labor in the country’s swift­ly over­crowd­ing cities.

Still, nowa­days many farm­ers are uneasy with the choic­es, or lack of choic­es, US devel­op­ment prac­ti­tion­ers impose upon them. One farmer describes his heir­loom vari­eties, a bequest from his grand­par­ents along with the land he farms. They grow fan­tas­ti­cal­ly well dur­ing the rainy sea­son, but also tol­er­ate longer inter­vals where there is lit­tle rain­fall. The local lan­draces emerged through selec­tion for drought resis­tance. The new vari­eties are Green Rev­o­lu­tion semi-dwarf wheats. Local farm­ers per­ceive them as a Greek gift, and they don’t resist the dry­ness well at all.

The ques­tion of genet­ic vari­ety, selec­tion, own­er­ship and pow­er is inescapable. One farmer speaks of plant­i­ng a vari­ety of wheat sub­species – not mere­ly the import­ed Karim but local vari­eties which ensure a more sta­ble if slight­ly low­er yield. They still pro­duce enough, and in a good year, they pro­duce a lot of straw, good for feed­ing ani­mals. They also need few­er pro­phy­lac­tic treat­ments.

Anoth­er farmer speaks of what envi­ron­men­tal activists call ter­mi­na­tor seeds: seeds which do not yield seed stock. His grandfather’s vari­eties made a good hard wheat semoli­na. But after the Unit­ed States sent in engi­neers trained in the Mid­west­ern states, for­eign plants replaced local ones, and the seeds could not be sown the next year.


Pho­to Cred­it: Amine Slim

A recur­ring motif is how Ayeb presents the farm­ers as skilled labor­ers or crafts­men, adept not just at pro­duc­ing crops, but also at pro­duc­ing and artic­u­lat­ing knowl­edge about what they do. Las­sad, a farmer in Manou­ba, out beyond the West­ern sub­urbs of Tunis, points out that the “fel­lah is the engi­neer of his parcels of land. It’s sort of like micro­cli­mates. The tem­per­a­ture of the land there is not the same as here.” He speaks a truth known to farm­ers: farm­ing is not like indus­try and can­not be made like indus­try. Even indus­try, one might say, is not quite like indus­try, requir­ing skilled work­ers to deal with the defects and imper­fec­tions of oth­er humans, which are sub­se­quent­ly trans­ferred to machines. Farm­ing is entire­ly an inter­ven­tion in liv­ing process­es, a way of remold­ing the earth to build a big­ger place for humans in it. No two farms are alike, because no plot of land is the same as anoth­er. They have dif­fer­ent water­ing needs at dif­fer­ent times, dif­fer­ent soil com­po­si­tions, and are suit­able for dif­fer­ent crops. One must unsus­tain­ably burn a great deal of hydro­car­bons to sus­tain the pre­tense that one plot of land is iden­ti­cal to anoth­er and that a farm is iden­ti­cal to a fac­to­ry in func­tion and form.

So if farm­ers are engi­neers, they are also crafts­men (and how unfor­tu­nate that the farm­ers feel the need to com­pare them­selves to engi­neers in order to make their skills leg­i­ble to Ayeb and Ayeb’s view­ers, when farm­ing was a tech­nol­o­gy long before engi­neer­ing was!). As anoth­er farmer, Fathi, in Mseken, near Sousse, low­er along Tunisia’s east­ern coast, points out: “The word fel­lah has become a sort of insult.” For that rea­son the film is an effort at restor­ing pride to farm­ers and the rur­al life. Hence the film’s sub­ti­tle: Seeds of Dig­ni­ty.

But this is nei­ther a bane­ful Roman­ti­cism nor gra­tu­itous. It is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of the filmmaker’s project. It is a push­back to the vision of the founders of the mod­ern Tunisian state, who in the words of the Tunisian pop­u­lar agron­o­mist Sla­hed­dine el-Ama­mi, used school­ing to “dan­gle the mirage of an urban life” in front of coun­try peo­ple, and poured floods of scorn on their world. To counter such an ide­o­log­i­cal fusil­lade requires strong counter-mea­sures. They may jar sen­si­tiv­i­ties which have been the vic­tim, if not the cre­ation, of decades of ide­o­log­i­cal con­tempt for the coun­try­side.

For that rea­son the film will per­haps pro­voke the usu­al sneers from many in the metrop­o­lis, as rep­re­sent­ing an anti­quar­i­an or nos­tal­gic besot­ted­ness with the coun­try­side and the rur­al. But it is one root­ed in mate­r­i­al real­i­ties, includ­ing those which struc­tures of glob­al and local trade allow city-dwellers, espe­cial­ly Glob­al North city-dwellers, to for­get: the cen­tral­i­ty of farm­ing to human health, wealth, and well-being.

Indeed, the ques­tion of food depen­dence is a con­stant in this project. One farmer in Manou­ba notes that each year he pro­duces 100 tons of wheat. One ton feeds two fam­i­lies for a year, and one hun­dred tons feeds two hun­dreds fam­i­lies for a year, from just one farm. For these farm­ers, the ques­tion is not whether agri­cul­ture is valu­able. For them, agri­cul­ture is the most valu­able thing about Tunisia. The prob­lem is that the state does not see it that way, neglect­ing or sim­ply pre­tend­ing not to see, the bet­ter to not sup­port, the farm­ers. Thus they put pol­i­tics into play. Fail­ures of farm­ing and the way­ward paths tak­en by the over­all pro­duc­tion sys­tem were a choice — one politi­cians have made and forced on the coun­try.

Anoth­er relat­ed con­cern is the bal­ance of food imports and exports. This arith­meti­cal puz­zle has been a per­sis­tent refrain of Tunisian agri­cul­tur­al plan­ning and of farm­ers them­selves prac­ti­cal­ly since inde­pen­dence: the country’s con­stant­ly and odd­ly ris­ing cere­al imports, and the tread­mill-like effort to try to ensure that exports exceed imports. One farmer, Abd Al Karim, from Gâafour in Sil­iana gov­er­norate, a cere­al farm­ing region south­west of Tunis, insists: “Tunisia can feed its pop­u­la­tion and export over­seas. We export dates, olive oil, pome­gran­ates. Every­thing is export­ed over­seas. And we say that Tunisia is poor! We export oil, pome­gran­ates and dates and you bring us what? Gru­el? You buy us gru­el from the Amer­i­cans?”

These organ­ic intel­lec­tu­als offer a cut­ting series of insights. First, Tunisia’s ten­u­ous food import bal­ance is a social fact, deter­mined by men and the state, not a nat­ur­al one dic­tat­ed by cli­mate and soil. Sec­ond, Tunisia pro­duces prod­ucts like pome­gran­ates, olive oil, and dates, which few oth­er coun­tries can – cer­tain­ly not in such quan­ti­ties, so cheap­ly, and so sus­tain­ably, as Tunisia with its rare Mediter­ranean bio­me is capa­ble of grow­ing. Tunisia exports such trea­sures and has to import genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied soft wheat from the world mar­ket. Its agri­cul­tur­al cur­rent account bal­ance often dips into deficit because its own crops do not com­mand a suf­fi­cient price. But there is no rea­son this has to be the case. The farmer’s frus­tra­tion speaks to unease with an imposed price struc­ture and dam­ag­ing terms of trade. The mar­ket is where such extor­tions are reg­is­tered. But the mar­ket was made by human choic­es, and is con­stant­ly remade.

The farm­ers point out that much of this is due to state neglect of small­hold­ers since the 1980s. Al-Karim asserts: “The state must sup­port agri­cul­ture,” high­light­ing the ques­tion of state pol­i­cy and the need for a polit­i­cal scaf­fold­ing to sup­port what anoth­er farmer calls “a sort of com­mu­nal house”: the coun­try itself. The farm­ers see this dynam­ic as linked to the depen­den­cy rela­tion­ship which col­o­niza­tion insti­tut­ed – the farm­ers use that word to describe their oppres­sion. It is a res­o­nant one in a coun­try in which many still frame pow­er and pow­er­less in terms of a lin­ger­ing neo-colo­nial­ism. Some in the South refer to the colo­nial state, and small farm­ers or the land­less might use the word “colon” as they crit­i­cize the largest farm­ers.

Such depen­den­cy is not nec­es­sar­i­ly, or sole­ly, in terms of agri­cul­tur­al com­modi­ties, but also in terms of the tech­nolo­gies which Tunisians have been pushed – coerced – into using to grow their own crops: “He who occu­pies you has no need to come to you, to keep watch over you and ration you. He does it while remain­ing in his coun­try by oblig­ing you to buy from him your seeds and even spare parts. If he doesn’t sell you seeds, you remain with­out any­thing to plant.” Thus the for­mer and cur­rent colo­nial pow­ers which deter­mine glob­al agri­cul­tur­al poli­cies replace agri­cul­ture as a local tech­nol­o­gy by an agri­cul­ture reliant on inputs pro­duced else­where. Cer­tain­ly some farm­ers have thus seen the tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, or devo­lu­tion, which went along with the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, the reliance on oth­er cap­i­tal-inten­sive inputs in the irri­gat­ed sec­tor, and the embrace of West­ern-style cap­i­tal-inten­sive agro-indus­try, a mod­el whose onset dates back to the colo­nial era.

These inputs have also dam­aged the soil, the agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts, and the peo­ple. One farmer notes, for exam­ple, that before for­eign vari­etals arrived Tunisia had no can­cer hos­pi­tal. The ques­tion of human health touch­es on anoth­er aspect of Ayeb’s film. It is not mere­ly about grow­ing crops, but also about grow­ing peo­ple. When old­er farm­ers speak of heir­loom vari­eties, they dis­cuss not just dif­fer­ences in resilience, but their taste – from how far away you can smell the cous­cous made using such vari­eties. Cous­cous is not mere­ly a film about the eco­nom­ics of dom­i­na­tion, the mech­a­nisms of pow­er, but also the resis­tant under­bel­ly of pow­er, which is the sen­so­ry, olfac­to­ry, and tac­tile world of pro­duc­tion and repro­duc­tion. The incom­pa­ra­ble aro­ma and fla­vor of the old wheats gave way to wheats whose val­ue reduces to their exchange val­ue on the mar­ket and their raw pro­duc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics: how many calo­ries per hectare per day per farmer, how many quin­tals of wheat, and how many dinars per quin­tal. These are inescapable ques­tions, of which the farm­ers are well aware. But not to the exclu­sion of oth­er ques­tions, nor the rejec­tion of the use-val­ue of the com­modi­ties in favor of treat­ing them mere­ly as things to be exchanged for mon­ey on the mar­ket.

As Ayeb moves into food he also moves into house­hold labor – labor over­whelm­ing­ly, but not uni­form­ly, per­formed by women – of trans­form­ing olives into olive oil, wheat into wheat flour into mlawi, or durum wheat into semoli­na into cooked cous­cous slathered in sauce. Thus we are brought into the inner realm of pro­duc­tion, where we also see chil­dren. This is also skilled labor: his cam­era lingers on the knead­ing and the arti­sanal trans­for­ma­tion of ingre­di­ents into food, and cap­tures dis­cus­sions between women about the char­ac­ter of this work. Here Ayeb rais­es the gen­dered dimen­sions of rur­al life, but only par­tial­ly. There are some inter­views with women farm­ers, for instance. But because cere­al cul­ti­va­tion is pri­mar­i­ly a male activ­i­ty, we do not see much of the fre­quent phe­nom­e­non of male migra­tion to urban cen­ters or France, which often leaves the women who stay behind to do large quan­ti­ties of cul­ti­va­tion.

What might be less vis­i­ble, or seem mere­ly hap­pen­stance to some­one who knows lit­tle of Tunisian agri­cul­ture, is a gen­er­a­tional prob­lem: the farm­ers who speak are old. That isn’t poor sam­pling on Ayeb’s part. Tunisian farm­ers are old. Farm­ing is not attrac­tive – or has been made unat­trac­tive – to Tunisia’s youth. This is the effect of the slow poi­son of urban-cen­tered mod­ern­iza­tion. Pre­dom­i­nant and unsus­tain­able pat­terns of city-growth and slu­mi­fi­ca­tion are not just dep­re­cat­ing rur­al life, but caus­ing the loss of skills which once lost can­not eas­i­ly be regained. The shine of city life may be sim­ply the gleam of fool’s gold, catch­ing and reflect­ing the light of the burn­ing fires of fos­sil cap­i­tal­ism in its last moments.

It is that con­ver­sa­tion and that vision which the film enters and debates. Although one learns a great deal about Tunisia’s rur­al world, the doc­u­men­tary is less soci­ol­o­gy than mas­ter­ful­ly sub rosa man­i­festo – for food sov­er­eign­ty, for dig­ni­fied rur­al life, for coun­tries to have strong, resilient, and sus­tain­able rur­al sec­tors, for coun­tries to val­ue their farms and the fam­i­lies liv­ing on those farms. “Cer­tain peo­ple say that farm­ers are a bur­den for soci­ety,” observes Ayeb. It is this accu­sa­tion, a con­stant in the mod­ern­iz­ing ide­ol­o­gy of the Social­ist Des­touri­an Par­ty (PSD) which ruled Tunisia from 1964 to 1988, which he also aims to rebut.

The PSD con­demned small farm­ers as trapped in the amber of tra­di­tion, a rem­nant from a pre- or anti-West­ern, ante­dilu­vian, mind­set. Ayeb defends the rur­al world against this assault of a half cen­tu­ry of plan­ning – a vio­lent and cor­ro­sive rev­o­lu­tion from above. The crafters of such schemas con­fi­dent­ly assert­ed that one could have farm­ing with­out farm­ers. But they remained blind to the farm­ers whose num­bers kept grow­ing in absolute if not rel­a­tive terms amidst con­stant dri­ves for depeas­an­ti­za­tion, in the ser­vice of an urban utopia impos­si­ble for any coun­try in the long-term and which Tunisia could nev­er accom­plish on any terms.

Pover­ty is not absent from Ayeb’s film, and lit­tle of rur­al life as rur­al peo­ple expe­ri­ence it is hyped amidst the home-spun scenes, bare met­al fences, and felt rage at can­cer epi­demics and poi­soned and plague-rid­den pro­duce. Still, rur­al social dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion is not so present in the nar­ra­tive. The dif­fer­ent sizes of farms, the impli­ca­tions of land inequal­i­ty for social well-being, and their entan­gle­ment with devel­op­ment, under­de­vel­op­ment, and the eco­log­i­cal ques­tion, are some­what unex­plored. These ques­tions were far more vis­i­ble in his 2014 film, Gabès Lebess – “all is well in Gabès” – which sur­veyed the spo­li­a­tion of that city’s oth­er­world­ly sea­side oasis.

But against those neg­a­tive val­ues pro­duced in the quest for pro­duc­tion and exchange val­ue, Ayeb gives us peo­ple who insist on sub­stan­tive val­ues that are not reducible to quan­ti­ty and cap­i­tal, and their ideas for a very dif­fer­ent Tunisia. He jokes with a farmer near Sousse, Mon­ji, offer­ing him mon­ey for land: “The land is like my chil­dren,” the farmer responds.

Many – too many – might respond with ridicule to the sen­ti­ment of valu­ing land as a per­son. Be that as it may, can such a sen­ti­ment pos­si­bly match in absur­di­ty the notion that one can for­ev­er pol­lute fields and peo­ple, pour mon­ey into can­cer treat­ment, grow crops with­out peo­ple, dump human and ani­mal waste far from where it can ever be used as fer­til­iz­er? Is it not equal­ly absurd to imag­ine and bank on turn­ing farm­ing, a closed meta­bol­ic cycle for almost as long as humans have lived in set­tle­ments, into a kind of pro­duc­tion that mim­ics indus­try? That one can per­ma­nent­ly con­vert farm­ing from an ener­gy-gath­er­ing tech­nol­o­gy to an ener­gy-dis­si­pat­ing one?

Such is the wis­dom the West, with its spe­cif­ic mod­el of devel­op­ment, has tried to impose on Tunisia. There are those in Tunisia who have accept­ed this coun­sel. It is also one Ayeb rejects in his film’s supreme­ly effec­tive col­lage of tes­ti­mo­ny and analy­sis. He has spo­ken to those who do not and have not accept­ed this coun­sel, and placed them before us, with a ques­tion: can we hear them? We will see.

I thank Lamis Deek for her insights in help­ing me think through the role of affir­ma­tion in defend­ing that which is sub­ject to the attack of West­ern racism and chau­vin­ism. The read­er should also know that Habib Ayeb is on my doc­tor­al com­mit­tee.

  1. Joan Mar­tinez-Alier, The Envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the Poor (Northamp­ton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2002). 

  2. John H. Perkins, Geopol­i­tics and the Green Rev­o­lu­tion (Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1997). 

  3. Ibid. 

Author of the article

is an editor at Jadaliyya and Viewpoint and a member of the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network.