Tunisia on the frontlines of the struggle against climate change

The Kerkennah islanders in Tunisia are faced with a double threat to their existence: rising sea water levels and the extractive operations of fossil fuel companies.

Hamza Hamouchene

Kerkennah is a group of islands lying off the east coast of Tunisia in the Gulf of Gabes, around 20 kilometres away from the mainland city of Sfax. The two main islands are Chergui and Gharbi. When approaching the islands by ferry, one is struck by a curious sight: the coastal waters are divided into countless parcels, separated from one another by thousands of palm tree leaves. This is what Kerkennis call charfia, a centuries-old fishing method ingeniously designed to lure fish into a capture chamber from where they can be easily recovered.

As the land is arid, agricultural activity is limited to subsistence farming. For the islanders fishing is one of the key economic activities, but for big multinational corporations it is the exploitation of oil and gas.

Despite a new article in the Tunisian constitution stipulating state sovereignty over natural resources and transparency in the related contracts, oil and gas companies continue to garner obscene profits and enjoy impunity. At the same time, local communities continue to shoulder the externalised social and environmental costs of this industry.

The Kerkennah archipelago is being doubly dispossessed and doubly threatened: firstly, by the effects of disruptive global warming, and secondly, by the extractive operations of oil and gas companies bent on making super-profits at the expense of the archipelago's development. The collision between neoliberalism and climate change is potentially disastrous for the people of Kerkennah caught in the intricate web of capitalist globalisation.

Fossil fuels and discontented fishermen

I visited Kerkennah in March 2016, after hearing there was simmering discontent about the British oil and gas company Petrofac's refusal to honour its engagements in helping finance an employment fund. On the ferry to the island, I noticed a delegation headed by the Tunisian Minister of Environment accompanied by a TV crew was also on the same boat. I found myself asking: 'Was the purpose of the delegation's visit the same as mine? Were they also there to investigate the now two-month-long labour mobilisation around Petrofac?'

Sit-ins had been organised by the islanders in front of its factory, partially halting production, to pressure the company to honour its engagements and resume payments in the employment fund, which was ensuring their meagre salaries for jobs they were doing in different public administrations.

On the island, we took a taxi to Sidi Fraj beach, thinking we were heading to Petrofac. When we arrived we realised it was not the Petrofac factory but rather the headquarters of another oil company: Thyna Petroleum Services (TPS). There was indeed a protest taking place, organised by fishermen, but this wasn't the unemployed graduates' sit-in that we were looking for.

TPS is a British-Tunisian company exploiting some offshore oil concessions in Kerkennah, and the fishermen were protesting a significant oil spill that, they asserted, was from a submarine pipeline. TPS denied the allegations, declaring that it was instead from a leak in a wellhead on one of the drilling platforms.

The fishermen were angry at what had happened, not just because it was killing fish, endangering marine biodiversity and thus threatening their livelihood, but also because TPS attempted to cover up and downplay the impact of the spillage. They told us that this was not the first time, but rather the third or fourth time this had occurred.

The visit of the Minister of Environment was not exactly what I anticipated. He had indeed been dispatched to the island as a result of this situation, and to reassure the fishermen and other Kerkennis that an investigation would be carried out and that measures would be taken to clean the mess. However, it seemed less likely that he was there to address the fishermen's grievances than to protect the interests of the oil industry by helping to avoid an escalation and radicalisation of the protests. This was particularly pressing at a time when another oil and gas company was being targeted by the people's anger.

Petrofac at the centre of the Kerkenni uprising

Ten years after acquiring the Chergui gas concession in Kerkennah through a corrupt deal, and five years after Tunisia's uprising for bread, freedom and social justice, Petrofac faces growing discontent on the island. In the first two weeks of April, Kerkennah was the scene of violent police repression of protests that targeted the company.

The protests and repression that ensued (including allegations of torture) came after the police violently dismantled the months-long peaceful sit-in by the Kerkenni unemployed graduates, represented by a national union (Union des Diplomes Chomeurs), in front of Petrofac's gas factory. The purpose of this sit-in had been to pressure the British company to resume its contributions to an employment fund, the closure of which had caused hundreds of people to lose their jobs.

On the island, the young people who had participated in the February-March sit-in conveyed their determination to defend their rights and to recover their lost jobs. When talking to them, you could sense a certain resentment and anger at what they were enduring. How is it possible to be unemployed with such a wealth of oil and gas on the islands? What happened to the promises of the 2011 revolution and the demands of social justice and national dignity? These interrogations echo the sentiments of many Tunisians across the country, who are still fighting the same pauperisation, corruption and everyday injustices that sparked the popular uprising five years ago.

While Petrofac's responsibilities and duties in developing the island and helping create jobs have come under scrutiny, its corrupt involvement in acquiring 45% of the Chergui gas concession in Kerkennah has gone largely unreported. A series of Tunisian court documents revealed Petrofac's role in bribing Moncef Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Trabelsi was convicted in October 2011 for accepting bribes in relation to helping secure the concession permit for Petrofac.

Despite Trabelsi's conviction and prison sentence for accepting a $2 million bribe, the British businessman and company named as paying the bribe have avoided investigation in the UK and Tunisia and continue to enjoy impunity. This is not the first time Petrofac has been implicated in a corruption scandal: one of its former top bosses has been reported to have paid $2 million in bribes to win a contract in Kuwait.

What becomes apparent by studying the oil and gas sector is that Tunisian authorities consider the practices associated with the fossil fuel industry a Pandora's box they are afraid of opening. We still see the same repressive methods employed by a state that clearly chose to be on the side of the oil and gas multinationals, at the expense of the legitimate demands of people who want simply to lead decent lives.

This choice, or rather the obligation, to side with these multinationals does not occur in a vacuum and must be understood within the neoliberal framework, in the context of a paid counter-revolutionary pact imposed on Tunisia with the approval of a domestic elite that appears subservient to global capital.

Young people holding protracted sit-ins, protests and occupations, halting the production of key industries and demanding jobs, is now a common sight across the country. The state's failure and incapacity to provide these is the result of a reckless insistence on applying the same recipe for disaster and is one aspect of the neoliberal violence being relentlessly visited on Tunisians.

Threatened by climate change

Kerkennah is one of the most vulnerable places in the Mediterranean. It has a semi-arid climate with a long dry summer season, high temperatures and water evaporation, and an average water deficit of 1,000 mm/year. The rise of sea levels due to global warming is endangering the low-lying archipelago as the maximum height is 13 metres, with most of the land lying below 10 metres.

Several studies have already documented the erosion and retreat of the coastline, estimating it at more than 10 centimetres a year. In some areas, this erosion reached 40 metres in less than 50 years, further emphasising the danger of disappearance of the islands. The archipelago could be transformed into a bigger number of small islands and the submerged surface could reach 30% of the total (around 4,500 hectares) by 2100 if global carbon emissions are not reduced drastically.

Today we see that in less than three decades, the zones called sebkhas (coastal salt flats) that constitute almost half the surface of the archipelago have expanded by 20%. Seawater is intruding into groundwater reserves and the soil is becoming more saline. All of this is exacerbating water scarcity, killing nearby palm trees and eating into potentially arable land, increasing the food and economic vulnerability of the population.

Droughts caused a significant decrease in the islands' population throughout the 1980s. The islands were unable to provide suitable irrigation systems and, with clean water rapidly running out, many islanders were forced to leave for mainland Tunisia. Currently, the population is estimated at 15,000. This number increases almost by tenfold, reaching 150,000, in the summer when former islanders return home.

The violence of climate change is not natural, but instead is driven by a set of choices made by those in power: the choice to keep burning fossil fuels - a choice made by corporations and by Western governments, together with domestic elites and military leaderships of the Global South, including Tunisia.

Climate change is only one aspect of the imperialist logic of plundering nature and people, and the fossil fuel industry plays a crucial role in causing this phenomenon. It is responsible for what may be termed 'energy colonialism', or the attempt to grab more resources in order to maximize profits. Companies are unconcerned with the ecological and social ramifications of their actions, including the degradation of the environment (water pollution in the case of Kerkennah), and the further dispossession of people in the Global South.

In fact, repeated marine pollution caused by this industry combined with rising sea temperatures and illegal fishing will most certainly have a deleterious impact on fishing activities, ecosystems and biodiversity in Kerkennah. In a document prepared for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), this issue has been highlighted, raising the possibility that the artisanal mode of fishing in the islands (charfia) will be constrained. There are even reports of offshore fracking, which are cause for concern.

Climate change and the ills of neoliberalism

In a neoliberal economy like Tunisia's, where the economy is subordinated to the rule of the market, generating inequality, privatising public wealth and failing to create decent jobs, typical features of precariousness and instability are likely to be exacerbated by disruptive climate change, accelerating already existing crises. Climate change acts as a 'threat multiplier' for current problems. A 2007 report from a Pentagon-connected think-tank, CNA Corporation, formulates it clearly (although the ostensible aim of the report, to produce a justification for further militarisation, is alarming):

'Many governments in the region are on edge in terms of their ability to provide basic needs: food, water, shelter and stability. Climate change will exacerbate the problems in these regions and add to the problems of effective governance. Economic and environmental conditions in these already fragile areas will further erode as food production declines, diseases increase, clean water becomes increasingly scarce, and populations migrate in search of resources.'

Moreover, neoliberal capitalism impacts the way societies react to and address challenges. Christian Parenti argued in his book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence that decades of neoliberal pathologies (in addition to Cold War-era militarism) have 'distorted the state's relationship to society - removing and undermining the state's collectivist, regulatory and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities'. This, he argues, inhibits society's ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change kicks in.

Parenti used the concept of 'catastrophic convergence' to talk about the collision of political, economic and environmental disasters that compound and amplify each other. In this respect, the current and impending dislocations of climate change in Kerkennah, and Tunisia in general, intersect with the already existing crises of poverty and neoliberal violence. And, given the securitised and militarised response to the threat of 'terrorism', it is not hard to imagine that adaptation to climate change will be militarised, securitised to protect the powerful and the interests of the rich.

Moreover, in an era of disaster capitalism (to use Naomi Klein's expression), the climate chaos that might lead to the sinking of the Kerkennah archipelago could be seen as an opportunity for more dispossession and more profit-making.

Achieving environmental and climate justice

Recovering sovereignty over natural resources and breaking away from the clutches of market mechanisms are indispensable steps in the effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This is particularly true if the aim is climate justice, where the focus is on minimising the burden placed by climate change on the marginalised, dispossessed and vulnerable.

Gaining democratic control over these resources is another vital step in the march towards a just transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy. After all, how can such important decisions on the nature, structure and purpose of our energy systems be taken without the input of the people?

Yet democratic, ecological and redistributive control over our energy sources cannot happen so long as oil and gas multinationals control the lion's share of our resources as well as maintain considerable influence over future economic decisions. This cannot happen while multinationals and authoritarian states work in tandem to heartlessly accumulate capital in favour of a tiny minority at the expense of the majority.

Take, for example, the case of British Gas (BG), the largest gas producer in the country, which supplies approximately 60% of Tunisia's domestic gas production through the Miskar and Hasdrubal operations. BG Tunisia holds a 100% interest in the Miskar gas field, 125 kilometres offshore in the Gulf of Gabes. Gas is processed at the Hannibal plant and supplied under a long-term contract to Tunisia's state electricity and gas company at international market values and in hard currency. The result is that Tunisian gas is sold to Tunisians as if it were an imported commodity!

To paraphrase the eloquent words of the late Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano, it seems that 'the ruling elite has no interest whatsoever in determining whether patriotism might not prove more profitable than treason, and whether begging is really the only formula for international politics'.

Sovereignty is being mortgaged by the Tunisian ruling elite who accepted (and still do) the continuous looting of Tunisia's natural resources, generating our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others.

The paradox of extractivism

Islands like those in Kerkennah are at the frontline of climate change as their survival is already threatened due to rising sea levels. The effects of climate change and the climate crisis are compounded by environmental degradation and the exhaustion of natural resources caused by a productivist model of development based on extractivism, a mechanism of neo-colonial plunder and appropriation.

This model is based on what David Harvey has called 'accumulation by dispossession', which is accompanied by the development of underdevelopment and socio-ecological violence. This is the paradox of extractivism under capitalism, where sacrifice zones are created in order to maintain the accumulation of capital. Kerkennah is just one example.

The Kerkenni people are forced to adapt to a situation they did not create and are at the mercy of powerful and corrupt polluters who hide behind the shield of state repression. In order for the local population to avoid becoming climate refugees and to regain control over their lives, environment, resources and destiny, the fossil fuel industry must be curtailed and made accountable. Continuing its destructive operations would be akin to issuing a death sentence for the islands.                                               

Hamza Hamouchene is a London-based Algerian campaigner, writer, researcher, and a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC) and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA). This article is reproduced from the ROAR Magazine website (

*Third World Resurgence No. 312/313, Aug/Sept 2016, pp 27-30