This section analyses the shifts in access to resources and agricultural policies that took place in North Africa in the post-colonial era, in order to better understand the transformation of the agricultural economy and the dominant development model in the region over time.
1.1 Access to land and water in the post-colonial era
Discussions about the agrarian question were prominent during anti-colonial struggles and in the aftermath of national liberation projects.17 After the colonial era ended, countries pursued multiple pathways in regard to managing their agricultural resources and the colonial heritage within the sector.18 Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco implemented a variety of agrarian reform models in the period 1950–1970, which produced crucial shifts in agricultural policies and the state of rural societies across these countries.
Following Algerian independence in 1962, the National Liberal Front (FLN) adopted agrarian reforms that amounted to an agricultural revolution. It promoted rural development by facilitating the access of small-scale and landless farmers to land and by providing them with social and technical support.19 Additionally, 250,000 hectares were redistributed to war veterans who were grouped into 250 productive peasant cooperatives. The lands previously held by colonists were distributed to over 2,200 farms, the majority of which were large farms with an average of 1,000 hectares, for a total area of 2.5 million hectares.20 During the 1970s, uncultivated lands were nationalized while large land holdings were restricted.21
In Morocco, agricultural modernization became a central pillar of the country’s development path after independence in 1956. In 1962, for example, the National Institute of Agricultural Research was established with the aim of modernizing the agricultural sector. Under pressure from the Moroccan Workers’ Union (UMT), the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP), the Party of Progress and Socialism (PPS), and the Istiqlal Party, the government passed agrarian reform laws in 1963 to recover the lands of colonizers, implemented over two phases, ending in 1973. Expropriation of previously colonial land was significant, amounting to 1 million hectares of arable land:22 the monarchy redistributed the lands formerly in the hands of French colonists to rural elites as a means of securing power and buying loyalty towards the Makhzen.23 In 1969, the Agricultural Investment Charter was approved, and in 1972 a law was passed which granted farmers agricultural lands from state-owned private property. A law on peasant cooperatives, giving them access to modernized plots in former collective lands, was also enacted. The state also invested in building dams and undertook large-scale irrigation projects, with the aim of developing a new, loyal class of middle-income farmers. Nevertheless, the system of land control remained in the hands of the state. Indeed, it served as a tool to purchase local elites’ loyalty and to reduce conflict.24
In Tunisia, three years following independence, Law 48 of 7 May 1959 enabled the state to take possession of neglected and unused collective agricultural properties, covering an area of approximately 500,000 hectares. In the same period, local notables, merchants, self-employed and powerful members of the ruling Constitution Party were able to buy some of the colonial lands.25 Then on 12 May 1964 a law was passed that nationalized 300,000 hectares of colonial lands. Thus, by the end of the 1960s, the Tunisian state owned 800,000 hectares of agricultural land: approximately 10 per cent of the total area of agricultural land in the country.26 These lands helped initiate the short-lived experiment of peasant cooperatives in Tunisia, which disintegrated in 1969, just eight years after it was launched. After this, Tunisia began to shift towards a more market-based, neoliberal approach. In a move that benefited local leaders and powerful individuals, Tunisia privatized collective lands through the Law of 14 January 1974.27
In Egypt, agrarian reform was a central policy during the first era of the July 1952 regime, in the early post-colonial period. Between 1952 and 1970, 343,000 hectares (12.5 per cent of agricultural land) were redistributed, to 343,000 families, consisting of 1.7 million individuals – almost 9 per cent of the rural population.28 As the result of the Nasser regime agrarian policies, villages saw significant changes in their class composition: while the larger, more influential landlords lost much of their lands, there was an increase in the area owned by small- and medium-scale farmers, and there was improved rent security for tenants. Also, there was a minor improvement in the situation of landless farmers and agricultural workers.29 The ‘green revolution’ instituted by postcolonial governments relied on agricultural mechanization, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid seed varieties to increase agricultural production.
Ultimately, North African agriculture development models in the two decades following independence focused on modernizing the agricultural sector and preserving large farms, whether through state administration or through highly centralized and controlled cooperatives. To various degrees, North African countries adopted progressive, state capitalist and ‘green revolution’ policies. This was achieved through a combination of strategies, such as providing technical and material support to farmers, supporting production inputs, inaugurating large irrigation projects, boosting and disseminating modern agricultural knowledge and guidance, establishing research centres and agricultural schools, and establishing agricultural cooperatives. In this era, the state in these countries utilized discourses of modernization reliant on mechanization, commercial and export agriculture, and the marginalization of small-scale local knowledge. In fact, despite the emphasis on food self-sufficiency, the export of cash crops continued to follow the same pattern that had been dominant in the colonial era, especially for commodities such as citrus, vines, vegetables, cotton and olives.30
1.2 The impact of neoliberalism on agriculture and natural resources
The turn towards neoliberalism in North Africa began in the 1980s. Under pressure from international financial institutions, namely the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, countries in the region began to liberalize foreign trade, devalue local currencies, and allow an increased dominance of the market, through both the continued privatization of public companies and the gradual erosion of public services. Priority was accorded to reducing public debt, social spending and employment rates in the public sector.31
As a result of neoliberal transformations, North African countries saw a major change in water and land management. The state withdrew from the management of natural resources, allowing the private sector to take over. This led to an increase in the penetration of private investment companies in the agricultural sector, with the private sector acquiring more resources, particularly in vast desert areas, through access to groundwater and land that the state made available to major agricultural investors.32
In Algeria, the era of state farms came to an end in 1980s, with the latter being divided into small farms of 10 to 70 hectares. In 1987, these lands were progressively moved into the hands of agricultural investors. Accompanying this change was a gradual shift towards market forces,33 notably with the long-term liberalization of agricultural production inputs, leading to an increase in the price of fertilizers, pesticides and farming equipment. This in turn led to an increase in the prices of agricultural products as a whole. Following the 1994 agreement between Algeria and the IMF, state support for agricultural inputs was completely removed.
In Morocco, the neoliberal transformation in the agricultural sector intensified in 2003. This was exemplified in the privatization of two public companies that had managed the bulk of the lands recovered from colonists: the Agricultural Development Company (SODEA) and the Agricultural Land Management Company (Sojita). With this move, the ownership of 90 per cent of former colonial lands was transferred to private investors, the state’s major administrative notables, the army, and the security apparatuses.34
In Tunisia, neoliberal policies were implemented before the initiation of the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) under the World Bank in 1986. The state geared agricultural production towards export and high value-added crops, facilitating private sector access to land and putting an end to state commercialization of agricultural products.35 These policies were coupled with the state’s progressive withdrawal from traditional agricultural sectors.36
Since 1979, Egypt has pursued a policy of economic openness. State-owned farms were dismantled, agrarian reform laws were amended, and the Agricultural Cooperative Union was dissolved. Also, the state applied a set of measures to reduce subsidies to farmers in the Nile Valley and Delta, such as removing pesticide and fertilizer subsidies, and allowing the private sector to control agricultural production inputs.37 Further, the ownership limit imposed on agricultural companies was abolished, enabling investors to own more reclaimed lands. In 1992, Law 96 was passed, regulating rental relations between landlords and tenants. This law put an end to rental security, triggering a sustained wave of protests in the Egyptian countryside.38
In North Africa as a whole, during this period, states focused on expanding their hold over desert agriculture for the export market while accelerating the commodification of state lands, making them available to agricultural investors.39 Since the 1990s, policies of agricultural development in the desert have been regarded as a solution to the food provision and production crisis in North Africa.40 International financial institutions supported policies of agricultural expansion in the desert based on a capital- and technology-intensive model of production of mostly export crops, with associated degradation of water and land resources.41
As a result of these neoliberal transformations, food self-sufficiency policies were terminated in favour of more market-based food security policies. The latter meant that food came to be sourced through market mechanisms, often irrespective of provenance – whether this be global commodity markets, domestic production or even food aid. Accordingly, major shifts occurred in diets, leaving North African countries exposed to a sharp increase in nutritional diseases and food dependency. Algeria and Egypt became amongst the biggest importers of wheat globally.
Following 40 years of neoliberalism, the key features of the current dominant agri-food system in North Africa can be summarized as follows:
- The removal of subsidies for small peasant farmers and the gradual withdrawal of the state from all forms of technical and material support for agricultural production. This includes the state abandoning its role in centrally controlling agricultural operations and practices, such as fertilization, and the types of seeds and pesticides used. This withdrawal has given the private sector unfettered access to food staples and import channels. The state also entirely surrendered its role in determining the prices of agricultural inputs and outputs to the forces of the market, ceasing agricultural input and credit subsidies.
- The promotion of a model of industrial agriculture based on large-scale farms. This was achieved by reclaiming desert spaces and enabling agricultural investors to access large areas of land. Thus, colonial structures were repurposed and reproduced through a system in which land is now in the ownership of the few; these dynamics are particularly visible in the cases of Morocco and Egypt.
- The adoption of a policy of primarily export-driven agriculture through financial incentives, the provision of chillers in airports, etc. Most importantly, North African states form part of a system of international trade that serves to bolster the interests of the Global North at the expense of local populations in the Global South.
- The dominance of a globalized, consumerist diet with a high rate of cheap carbohydrates, leading to an increase in the rates of food-related diseases, high rates of obesity and malnutrition. Additionally, there has been a replacement of food self-sufficiency policies with market-based food security policies.
1.3 The current situation: a marginalized peasantry and an extractive capitalist mode of agriculture
The decline of the welfare state in the post-colonial, neoliberal era saw the emergence and reproduction of a localized dualism that had existed in the colonial era: the existence of two agricultural sectors – one characterized by private, large-scale farms in receipt of state support, the other based on small-scale farmers in plains, valleys and oases, dependent on rain-fed agriculture and characterized by under-development and marginalization.
In North Africa, agriculture is a major sector of employment for women, accounting for 55 per cent of women’s employment, in comparison to only 23 per cent for men.42 With the migration of men and women (whether it be for economic reasons, or as a result of wars and conflict), the number of seasonal migrant workers is continuing to increase. In Egypt, for instance, according to the 2010 agricultural census,43 the total number of women workers in the agricultural sector amounted to 5 million in that year, 40 per cent of whom undertake unpaid labour for their own families. Further, the growth of capitalist forms of agriculture has amplified the feminization of agricultural work, along with the dependence on girls, who can be as young as eight years old, who work in very poor and exploitative conditions.44 The nature of agricultural work is problematic on many fronts, starting with the working conditions and health and safety issues (see the next paragraph), and extending to the local and global division of labour and its relationship with women’s empowerment and development. The working conditions of women farm workers are especially important in light of the current Covid-19-related health crisis, as well as fears of a new food crisis, which would exacerbate already existing tensions in the region. For instance, the recently published FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) shows a large increase in the prices of meat, dairy, cereals, vegetable oils and sugar between November 2020 and November 2021, worldwide.45
Agriculture is one of the most dangerous production sectors in the world. According to estimates of the International Labour Organization, approximately 170,000 agricultural workers are killed every year. Workers in agriculture are at least twice as likely to die at work as workers in other sectors. Millions of agricultural workers are exposed to serious work injuries in accidents linked to agricultural equipment or poisoning with pesticides and other chemicals.46 Indeed, due to the underreporting of deaths, injuries and work-related diseases in the sector, it can be assumed that the real picture of health and safety for agricultural workers is likely to be worse than official accounts.
Relationships of unequal exchange in the global system underpin the agricultural crisis in North Africa. Countries in the region are subjected to unequal exchange with the Global North, particularly the European Union (EU), through a variety of trade agreements that enable the EU to benefit from North African agricultural products at preferential rates. These agreements not only facilitate the exploitation of the region’s resources, they also maintain and further entrench the difference in wages in the agricultural sector in the South compared to the North, and the extraction of surplus value for the benefit of European consumers.47 As the biggest trading partner of North African countries, much of the region’s production is geared towards export to the EU market. The EU therefore directly impacts development policies and the dominant trade and agriculture plans in the region. Under the slogan of ‘trade for development’,48 the EU, in partnership with local elites, pushes North African countries to sign free trade agreements, which, in turn, aggravates the structural crisis.49
As dependency theorists argue, while colonialism may have gone, the development model of the colonial era has remained dominant in different ways, perpetuating the disparities between the Global North and South. Under neoliberalism, former colonizers played a key role in integrating peripheral economies into the global economy and trade system and creating patterns of dependency.50 Meeting the needs of the European market necessitates monocropping, large farms, and catering to the preferences of European citizens – for example in the way in which olive oil is prepared, or in the cultivation of specific varieties of dates, strawberries, flowers and citruses.
In sum, these agricultural policies and practices have created another form of dualism. On the one hand, industrial agriculture degrades land and water. Based on the intensification of capital and energy, capitalist agriculture further pushes agricultural workers – men and women – into precarity. It also exacerbates inequalities and centralizes land ownership. This is clearly the case for desert agriculture, where large areas are allocated to big investors while small-scale farmers are restricted to limited spaces.51 On the other hand, the absence of subsidies for peasant farming has led to the impoverishment of small farmers and the degradation of natural resources in oases and rural areas. Further, the legacy of the ‘green revolution’, with its intensive use of fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds, has culminated in the neglect of intergenerational local agricultural and ecological systems. As a result, natural resources such as land and water have deteriorated, the biodiversity of seeds has declined, and the balance between humans and the environment has been disrupted, causing what is referred to as a ‘metabolic rift’.52