General Issues
Human Rights & Civil Rights


The Association for the Protection of Jemna's Oasis (APJO)

April 24, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
August 9, 2017 mattgordner
General Issues
Human Rights & Civil Rights

Mission and Purpose

After a century of land disputes, the people of Jemna reclaimed their land during the “Jasmine Revoluton” of 2010-2011. Two days before the January 14 ouster of longstanding dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, the youth of Jemna occupied the date plantation long viewed as a symbol of colonialism and corruption and, along with elders from the town, established the ‘Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis’ (APJO). Rather than acquiescing to the demands of locals to have full autonomy over their land, however, the Tunisian state has employed several tactics to maintain a measure of control over the APJO and its resources, including freezing its financial accounts and threatening the association and its buyers with fines and sanctions. In spite of the vast increase in productivity and impressive redistributive mechanisms that Jemna has put in place to benefit the region through the profits of its date yields (that pale in comparison to the productive capacity of previous operators), the government refuses to allocate ownership of the land to the APJO. Instead, the state continues to offer arrangements that the town of Jemna considers inimical to its project of local autonomy.

Jemna thus serves as an example of successful grass-roots mobilization and cooperative economics. As exemplar, the APJO also threatens the state’s claims to be able to provide for its citizens at a time when the legitimacy and confidence in state institutions and political parties is at an all-time low (Yahya, 2016). The ‘case’ of Jemna is in the spotlight. If reached, a future resolution will undoubtedly be considered as a precedent for other towns in the south of Tunisia making similar land claims. The cooperative model may also stand as a challenge to Tunisia’s decades long neo-liberal turn. 

Origins and Development

The south of Tunisia is famous for its deglet nour, or ‘dates of light.’ Initially sold or seized to be cultivated by the French under colonial occupation, agricultural land has gone through a number of hands since independence—from state-led cooperative enterprises with titular ownership sometimes returned to the original tribes and families under Bourguiba, to sales or confiscations—whether coercive or altogether illegal—under the Ben Ali regime. The Tunisian state is struggling to provide its citizens (especially in the marginalized south) with any hope that their post-authoritarian economic policies will benefit the very individuals and communities who rose up against the former regime in 2010-2011. High unemployment and poverty rates, rampant corruption, and growing dissatisfaction continue to yield an unwieldy population of aggrieved citizens who mobilize and protest en masse against a dilatory state bent on maintaining similar neo-liberal economic policies that brought about calls for ‘freedom, justice, and national dignity’ prior to, during, and following the Tunisian uprising (TAP, 2017). Some suspect a ‘second revolution’ is in the waiting (Yerkes, 2017).

While the myth of the founding of Jemna dates back centuries, the townspeople’s claim to a collective identity is traced on paper to an 1879 decree issued by the Bey at the request of the local governor, Hamid Beh Hammad, to exempt denizens of Jemna from paying taxes on the grounds that they provided preeminent religious education throughout the region. The year 1881 marks ‘official’ French colonialism (Anderson, 1986), yet it was not until 1912 when the French made their presence felt in Jemna upon appropriating and seizing lands from local families and tribes in order to establish a date plantation for export back to France.

At independence, in 1956, the French had reportedly left 3600 mature and productive palm trees in Jemna’s oasis farmland. Under then President Habib Bourguiba—the founding father of modern Tunisia—residents signed a promise for sale of the trees (but not the land) from the state for 80,000 dinars. Locals raised 40,000 dinars by variously fundraising and selling off their property and gold, and they were advised to put the funds into the account of Governor Hamed Bin Lallouna. The contract was nullified by the state, however, and the governor is accused of using the capital to invest in semi-public companies: hotels and import/export businesses (Interview with Taher Etahri; Szakal, 2016).

Following an aggressive state-led socio-cultural modernization program (Gallagher, 1968), Bourguiba’s dirigiste policies turned to restructuring the economy, including the ambitious imposition of a nation-wide agricultural cooperative program. Hiring Ahmed Ben Salah as ‘super-Minister’ of Planning, Economy, and Education on May 12, 1964, Bourguiba signed into law N°64-5, the nationalization of 800,000 hectares of French colonial land. While, under the cooperative program, legal title was returned to deed-holding families, in practice all former French colonial land was managed by the conseil d’administration (Simmons, 1970; Ashford 1967, 1973).

With few exceptions, the cooperative initiative was deemed a failure (Stone, 1971), and by 1968 a political crisis led to its collapse (Simmons, 1971). However, months before the announcement the end of the cooperative system, STIL (Société Tunisienne de l’Industrie Laitière), a state-owned public company with private investors within members of Tunisia’s political and economic elite, leased the land. STIL managed Jemna’s date farm until its bankruptcy in 2001, and a year later the Ben Ali regime leased the land to two private investors for a nominal sum through the Ministry of State Properties and Land Affairs. The government also forced residents to sell their land on the adjacent side of the main thoroughfare to private investors for one dinar per 150 hectares (which was later struck down by the courts in 2004).

Jemna’s land disputes under the Ben Ali regime continued until two days before the longstanding dictator’s ouster when, on January 12, 2011, youth from Jemna affiliated with the ‘League for the Protection of the Revolution’ (Patel and Belghith, 2013) peacefully occupied the date farm, asking personnel to vacate in order to encamp there. The army maintained a presence alongside the main road to Jemna, and on February 27, 2011 they attempted to reinstate the land to the two investors, but to no avail. Taher Etahri, in his role as Secretary General of the Secondary Education Teachers Union with close ties to the town youth, was called in to mediate. The ‘League for the Protection of the Revolution’ ceded authority to the newly created ‘Association for the Protection of the Jemna’s Oasis’ as the body that, to date, represents the town in its every interaction with the state—with Mr. Taher Etahri voted in as President.

Following failed negotiations with the army, the government invited the APJO to sit with the investors, whose offer of partial ownership of the land and profits was flatly refused. Negotiations went from the local to the national as political parties attempted to insert themselves into the fray and word of Jemna’s struggle for, and success in, local autonomy over its resources gained momentum. In the five years of Jemna’s cooperative enterprise, the APJO reinvested its revenues—approximately 1.5 million dinars (Hamouchene, 2017)—in local projects, building classrooms and a gym in a local school, a covered souq [market] for dates, financing the purchase of an ambulance to operate throughout the region, establishing a centre for children with special needs, and donating to charities throughout the region.

In September 2016, the Ministry of State Properties and Land Affairs threatened to cancel the APJO’s tenders. On September 15 2016, just three days before the auction was set to take place, a tribunal ruled in favor of the state’s claim of ownership over the land. As the harvest season neared, Jemna proceeded with the auction illegally, and one day later, on October 10 2016, the Ministry of State Property and Land Affairs released a statement promising prosecution, freezing also the account of Said Joudi, who bought the APJO’s seasonal yield (MosaiqueFM, 2017)

On January 19, 2017 the APJO met with the government. Three months after the harvest, two proposals bore fruit. The first, suggested by Minister of Agriculture Samir Bettaieb, was the creation of a Cooperative Union of Agricultural Production (UCPA). The UCPA would calculate the salaries and overhead costs for the upcoming year, and the state would appropriate the remainder. The second proposal, advanced by Mabrouk Korchid, began with the state selling the yield for 2016 on the understanding that the APJO would then be given the opportunity to rent the property from the state as a legal commercial entity for a 30-year period (Djilali, 2016). Korchid then offered a 49/51 per cent split between the people of Jemna and the government, respectively, in perpetuity. Following further negotiations, Korchid suggested a 66/34 per cent split between Jemna and the government. That proposal was later augmented in Jemna’s favor to 75/25, in which the people of Jemna would lease the state’s land for 25 to 30 years renewable with the state willing to resell its shares after 4 or 5 years, pending the continued high performance of the APJO. On this agreement, 75 per cent of the profits would go to the people of Jemna, and the state would promise to redistribute its 25 per cent back to the region. The people of Jemna held a meeting and reached quasi-unanimity on 22 January. The people of Jemna were awaiting Korchid’s agreement to be put into print with a 30 January deadline (Baron, 2017). The timeline for the government to offer a formal written proposal lapsed, however, and the APJO became suspicious of Korchid’s proposal, as well as his connections with the investors of the 2002-2011 period. One interviewee mentioned that Korchid’s proposal is ‘like [the agreements between] Israel and Palestine because if Jemna can’t hold up one of its conditions,t he state could take it over. So it’s not really a partnership’ (Interview with APJO employee) At the time of writing, the community of Jemna is now considering the establishment of a UCPA. This decision was reached at a meeting one day prior to Ramadan, on May 25, 2017—with reservations. The government has yet to come back to the negotiating table. 

Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding

From the occupation of the date fields to the current standoff with the government, a number of people and parties supported the town of Jemna. At the outset, elders were seminal in encouraging the cooperative model. A number of interviewees reported that when the youth first occupied the town, they considered looting the equipment, partitioning and even burning the land and raising the French colonial-era buildings. The elders convinced the youth to maintain the infrastructure and keep the plantation’s date trees. Upon seizing the date farm, locals who worked on the land offered the movement the information necessary to maintain and improve the infrastructure and date trees.

Once the APJO was established, donations from around the region, the country, and France helped the town to refinance and refurbish its equipment for the first, 2011, harvest.

Deputies of Al Irada, Attayar and Ennahdha supported Jemna with site visits. Hamma Hammai, spokesperson for the Popular Front and Abdellatif Mekki, Ennahdha deputy and former Minister of Public Health, were present at the October auction to informally lend support to the process (Tarfa, 2016). Nizar Snoussi (also a Speaker for the Defense of Chokri Belaid) assembled a team of lawyers and provided pro bono counsel. 

Specializations, Methods and Tools

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Major Projects and Events

During the occupation phase in which members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, among others, sat in and established an encampment in Jemna, a ‘tent city’ was constructed with posts for communications, logistics, and information collection. Decisions were reached by consensus of the activists present.

The establishment of the APJO was likewise reached by consensus from the people of Jemna. Initially, the elders sought to establish a Sociétés de Mise en Valeur (development company), which would involve cooperation with one of Tunisia’s large banks in both assessing the value of the land and its yields, as well as splitting the profits between the bank, investors, and the community. The youth were against this decision, and instead the association was founded based on the principles of the cooperative model.

Once the APJO was established, the association would take its directives by consensus or elections, where overwhelming consensus was not evident. The APJO board consists of 11 members, including a president and secretary general. Meetings were announced by loudspeaker from a vehicle that drove through the community. Following opening remarks by the APJO president, Taher Etahri, the floor would open to any member of the community wishing to voice his/her opinion. Proposals would then be announced, followed by a vote—if overwhelming consensus was not reached (for a video documenting one of the town meetings see Szakal, 2016).

The influence and effects of Jemna’s conflict with the government have yet to be felt nationally. While it is a well-known case among environmentalists, academics, and journalists who focus on food sovereignty and issues of local autonomy, few Tunisians are aware of the goings on in this small oasis town in the south of the country. With that said, the hash tag ‘#Jemna’ is well populated, and more than a handful of articles are published about the case (ECPDM, 2016) in Arabic, English, and French. For nearby oasis towns with similar land disputes (Tozeur, Zaafrane), Jemna represents the ongoing struggle over local resources and redistributive politics. 

The immediate outcomes of Jemna’s occupation of its date fields are, however, quite measurable. The rental costs that the state took in from 2002 to 2011 under the corrupt arrangement reached between the Ben Ali regime and the investors is estimated at 250,000 dinars. This pales in comparison to the 1.5 million dinars that the APJO made in its first five years of its operations (Hamouchene, 2017). With this sum, the APJO has paid its workers more than minimum wage, as well as establishing a workers’ pension account (in the absence of the state, which froze all accounts in 2016); financed the reconstruction, refurbishment or purchase of new equipment; constructed classrooms in two primary schools, a football field and a covered gym in a local high school, a covered souq [market] for dates; purchased an ambulance to operate throughout the region; established a centre for children with special needs, and donated to charities throughout the region. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

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See Also


“Affaire Jemna : Le ministère des Domaines de l’Etat promet de sévir.” (2016). Business News.,520,67529,3
Anderson, Lisa. (1986). The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830-1980. Princeton University Press.
Baron, Alain (2017). “Tunisie: la victoire à portée de main à l’oasis de Jemna.”

Djilali, Emma (2016). “Dates with destiny: Tunisian oasis fights for land.” Al Araby.

Gallagher, Charles. F. (1968). “Tunisia modernizes.” Africa Report, 13(3), 7.

“Henchir Jemna oasis, Tunisia.” (2016). Environmental Justice Atlas.

ECPDM. (2016). “Jemna: The challenge of local empowerment in the Tunisian hinterland.”

Krichen, Azizen. (2016). “Jemna: The peasant question and democratic revolution.” Nawaat.

Kubinec, Robert. (2016). “How foreign aid could hurt Tunisia’s transition to democracy.” Monkey Cage.

Muasher, Marwan, Pierini, Marc, and Fadil Aliriza. (2016). “Capitalizing of Tunisia’s Transition: The Role of Broad-Based Reform.” Carnegie.

MosaiqueMF. (2017). “Oasis Jemna: la justice tranche en faveur de l’association.”

Patel, Ian and Belghith, Safa (2013). “Leagues for the Protection of the Tunisian Revolution.” Open Democracy.

Szakal, Vanessa. (2016).“In Jemna, a Social Experiment Against State Policies,” Nawaat.

Szakal, Vanessa. (2015). “Debt, Farmers, and Farming Companies in Tunisia: laying ground for security and stability through agricultural reform.“ Nawaat.

TAP. (2017). “Negotiations between government delegation and Kebili sit-inneurs fail.”

Tarfa, Inel. (2016). Tunisia Live. “Government Brands Kebili Communal Harvest Illegal.”

Yahya, Maha. (2016). “Tunisia’s Challenged Democracy.” Carnegie.

Yerkes, Sarah. (2017a). “Corruption at the heart.” Carnegie.

Yerkes, Sarah. (2017b). “Too Great Expectations?” Carnegie.

External Links

Nawaat, "In Jemna, a social experiment against State policies": 


Lead image: Nawaat,