MAC: Mines and Communities

Land-grab, repression, in Tunisia's phosphates belt

Published by MAC on 2008-07-14

Locals fight colonial industrial exploitation

Revolt in a Tunisian mining town

Le Monde Diplomatique

7th July 2008

The phosphate mines of Gafsa in Tunisia were discovered in the French colonial era and have been run since for the benefit of a few, with much of their output sent to France. Since the start of this year, local people in Redeyef have protested, despite state persecution, at the way things have always been done. They want jobs, fair pay and a basic infrastructure.

By Karine Gantin and Omeyya Seddik

The angry women of Redeyef in the Gafsa mining belt of Tunisia ordered a general evacuation on 7 May, saying: "If they want our town so badly, let them have it." Many left the town protesting against police harassment, taking to the road with just a few goods and chattels. They were cautioned by the police that if they got as far as a mountain towards the nearby Algerian border, they would be arrested and charged with treason, as neighbouring villagers who had asked for political asylum in Algeria had been a few weeks earlier. The women approached the mountain but eventually turned back, persuaded by negotiators from a perplexed local authority obeying a clear logic: stay put and continue the fight.

Since early this year the inhabitants of this working-class redoubt 400km southwest of Tunis, who have a history of rebellion, have become legendary, staging a proud and angry revolt against state tactics that surround them with police, and against the total media control that stifles any dissent.

The flashpoint was 5 January, when results of a recruitment competition by CPG (Gafsa Phosphates Company), the region's only major employer, were published - and declared fraudulent. Unemployed youths occupied the regional trade union office in Redeyef and were joined by miners' widows and their families, who pitched camp in front of the building. The situation moved fast. Workers and those out of work, students and other locals called meetings for strike action. There is both deep poverty and escalating prices here, and protest targeted the system's corruption and nepotism, and its unjust employment practices.

Like other towns in Gafsa's mining belt (Oum Laarayes, Metlaoui, El Mdhilla), Redeyef has been in thrall to the CPG since the company was established in 1897 to mine phosphate deposits discovered by Philippe Thomas, a veterinary surgeon, warden of the local prison and amateur geologist. Extraction of underground riches was, from the start, typically colonial: a brutal land-grab from indigenous people; intensive exploitation of resources; work practices that did not value human life and produced huge amounts of polluting waste; destruction of the ecosystem and of the social fabric; production volumes exported for France's benefit; organisation of a workforce based on patronage, clan and family ties (caidat) outside the civil authority; heavy, exhausting work with a high mortality rate; the institutionalised import of replacement labour; a hierarchy based on ethnic lines with a few salaried workers and a high proportion of labourers without job security; a controlled but weak formal and informal economy run to keep wage levels below the cost of retaining and training manpower.

From the colonial era

Just about all of these practices survived the colonial era. The company, which merged in 1996 with GCT (the Tunisian Chemical Group), remains the region's major employer. During the past 25 years modern production methods and the closure of deep-shaft mines in favour of open casting have made the work less physically demanding with fewer mortalities. But modernisation, which brought structural change, disposed of 75% of the workforce. Today only 5,000 are directly employed. They enjoy a status and work conditions that are the envy of a region where unemployment officially stands at 30%, double the national rate. The many sub-contractors surrounding the company use workers who are badly paid with no job security.

Outside CPG the only other employment is in small businesses often trading across the Algerian border. Things are so bad that some risk their lives trying to migrate across the Mediterranean while others move to the poorer outskirts of towns along the littoral, the Tunisia that "works".

The 5,000 company jobs, together with funds set aside for reconstruction, are managed in close collaboration with the UGTT (the regional union of Tunisian workers). Until recently, regional stability was maintained by meagre handouts from the enormous profits generated by the phosphates industry, keeping a subtle balance between the clans and families favoured by the union branch and by the ruling party, the RCD (the Constitutional Democratic Party). Local managers were used as go-betweens with the main tribes, the Ouled Abid and the Ouled Bouyahia. But continual contraction of funds, plus widespread corruption, destroyed this balance, even when the price of phosphate on world markets rose spectacularly. The UGTT's regional office became the centre of a parasitic network ensuring that the phosphate bonus went only to friends and close relatives. The union is the most powerful local representative of what people now see as an unjust foreign power.

"We, the mining community, are never unjust, but if people are unjust to us then..." runs the banner across one of the roads into Redeyef - the slogan ends in a curse. This is a poor and marginalised area, scene of recent skirmishes with the police, where the protest has continued since January. Action by unemployed graduates is backed by strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins involving the whole community. Families of those injured or killed working at the mine join sacked workers. Women whose sons or husbands were imprisoned after the first demonstrations have called for a general strike. At night young people patrol Redeyef in small groups for self-protection, sounding the alarm by beating stones against a metal bridge - "the drums of war" - and sharing what food they have. There's an impressive solidarity that the forces of law and order can't break. Despite state control of media outlets, the protests have become the longest-lasting, most powerful and best-organised social uprising in Tunisia's recent history.

Brutal repression

The response has been to counter the protest with brutal repression: at least two have died, many have been wounded or detained. Families have been bullied and humiliated, their possessions destroyed. Army paramilitary units joined the siege during June. Live bullets are now being used, more young people snatched for interrogation and detention, and military squads comb the mountains looking for those in hiding to avoid torture. Several groups of young people have already been hauled before the courts; sentences vary in harshness from one trial to another, a sign that the authorities are unsure what strategy to follow.

Opposition politicians in Tunisia (as well as support groups in Paris, Milan and Nantes, where there is an immigrant community originally from Redeyef), are fighting to break the information blockade. But their organisation is indecisive. Civil society in Tunisia is politically battered, flattened long ago by a hyper-repressive regime, and struggles to respond adequately. The authorities say little about the events and accuse "disruptive elements"; perhaps that is why the uprising has not reached other regions or the nearby town of Férianain in Kesserine province.

Right in the town centre of Redeyef, under the nose of the neighbouring sub-prefecture, the local UGTT office was taken over by protestors for a headquarters; UGTT heavies attempted to reclaim it and padlocked the doors, but the people broke back in. The ground floor café, where meetings take place, hums with visitors. Activists posted on the first floor balcony welcome those arriving for rallies on the huge terrace below. At meetings there's a striking female presence. Across the street, supporters hand out pamphlets and opposition newspapers. Boubaker Ben Boubaker, known as the Chauffeur, had his vegetable stall here; he is an out-of-work graduate well known for sending an amusing letter to the education minister with advice on solving unemployment. His stall was ransacked by police, who then broke into his family home. He fled to the mountains.

Adnan Hajji, general secretary of Redeyef's primary teachers' union and a charismatic figure, has been able to maintain the movement's unity in the face of local rivalries and the clan structure. He is outstandingly popular, particularly with women and children. He knows that the dream has already come a long way and that any attempt to force a climb-down could have uncontrollable consequences. During the night of 20 June, he was arrested at home and police are looking for his colleagues.

To Hajji the key issue remains at a regional level. He has said: "We must achieve a positive result. People must know that peaceful struggle is not in vain. Anything else would be a catastrophe." It's true that billboards proclaiming "Ben Ali 2009" for the presidential elections have been removed since the start of the protest (when not altered to read "Ben Ali 2080" or "Ben Ali 2500"). But the organisers forbid political slogans at rallies and meetings.

The area's people no longer believe that attitudes will change from the top. The only way to free them is a strong national and international campaign or extension of the struggle to other regions of Tunisia. Meanwhile their movement wants repression to end, and negotiations aimed to resolve the crisis. The recruitment competition should be declared void, replaced by a programme to hire out-of-work graduates. State involvement in industrial projects should respect international environmental norms. Public services - electricity, running water, education, health care - should be provided for the poorest. The movement's aim is determination and dignity.

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