Gafsa: Consultations on Transforming Natural Resources into an Engine of Development
“We are only used to hearing that Tunisia loses billions when production stops for days, but we do not see one billion when production lasts years without interruption.” Citizen from mining basin of Gafsa.
Weak Development Indicators and Production in Decline.
Gafsa is the largest phosphate-producing region in Tunisia. The phosphate-mining is mainly concentrated in the mining basin, in the sites of Mdhila, Redeyef, Moularès and Métlaoui that alone produce 75% of the phosphate.
For decades, the economy in the mining basin has been dependent on phosphate production, the most important wealth in terms of value of incomes, direct employment in the Gafsa Phosphate Company, and indirect employment in environmental and plantation companies. However, the revenues from phosphate exports have declined sharply since 2011, falling from 1728 million dinars in 2010 to 1014 million dinars in 2018. This decline is the result of a decrease in production from 8.2 million tons in 2010 to 2.8 million tons in 2018 with a rate of 66% which resembles the same rate of production of 1928.
Several factors triggered this crucial decline, among these the obsolescence of the production equipment, the problems faced by the transport of phosphates through railways and the weak governance of the Gafsa Phosphate Company. However, the most impactful factor behind this production’s decline are the social movements related to phosphate, especially those that led to the disruption of the production process. According to the bulletin issued by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, the number of protests mobilizations in the governorate of Gafsa during the first six months of 2019 amounted to 421, which makes Gafsa ranks third after Kairouan and Sidi Bouzid. An analysis of these protest movements shows that they often targeted the operations of the Gafsa Phosphate Company. These protests mostly aim at disrupting the phosphate production in different ways, one of these is the blockage of roads and railways used to transport phosphates to the processing factories at the chemical complex in Gafsa, Sfax and Gabes.
Although the main protesters’ demand is related to employment for the local population in the Gafsa Phosphate Company, many requests are also centered on environmental and health caused by the high pollution generated by phosphate production. This has severe impacts on the health of residents of the mining basin surroundings areas and creates an austere environment for agriculture. Additionally, the excessive consumption of water by the phosphate laundries leads to continuously leads to interruptions of access to drinking water.
These ongoing protest mobilizations prove that natural wealth governance did not contribute to the creation of sustainable development in the mining basin. The unemployment rate reached 27% by 2017, with higher graduates’ unemployment reaching 58.2%, compared to the national unemployment rate of 15%. The poverty rate was 18% in 2015, compared to 15.6% at the national level. The regional development index for 2018 indicates that the governorate of Gafsa ranks 17th out of 24 states. This indicator also shows that all the delegations of the province are in the two least developed groups within this index. The governorate of Gafsa also ranked 14th in the region’s attractiveness index for 2016.
How does the government deal with the protesters’ demands?
The eruption of protests represents a huge pressure for the government, which tends to be more responsive when demonstrators point at interrupting the production of phosphate. However, the government’s official response remains limited and mostly tackles the demand for employment, resulting in increased recruitments in environmental companies, despite the lack of real need for more workers.
The environmental companies were created as a part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program of the Gafsa Phosphate Company and a closer look at their management reveals the low-quality governance of the Gafsa Phosphate Company, which scored 35/100 in the 2017 Natural Resources Governance Index.
Over the past years, the company spent 60 million dinars in the region under the Corporate Social Responsibility program, but this plan did not achieve the required goals despite the importance of the amount allocated.
The number of employees in environmental companies increased from 4900 in 2010 to 13,000 in 2018, with a financial burden of 73 million dinars in 2018 from 13 million dinars in 2010. Most importantly, these massive recruitments have been implemented in response to the eruption of protests rather than being driven by a real need for labor. As a result, the environmental companies are not efficiency and income-oriented investments and do not contribute to the needed economic diversification and relieve the pressure on the Gafsa Phosphate Company, whose social role remains dominated by its economic status of phosphate production.
Despite the important recruitments, protests movements did not decrease, on the contrary, the poor management of the environmental companies result in renewed social mobilizations. Indeed, there is widespread doubt about the national recruitment exams’ results and suspicion of corruption during the hiring process. It is also widely doubted that the distribution of positions in the environmental companies is based on tribal affiliations rather than professionalism. In this context, decentralized authorities, mainly represented by governorate officials, have limited power of decision-making and restricted resources to intervene.
Given the limited power of local government officials, the Gafsa Phosphate Company remains a permanent refuge for the protesters. Not being able to reach the government, they turn to the company to make their claims. The company became the only responsible for responding to these demands regardless of their nature, whether they are health-wise, sports-wise, environment-wise, education-wise, culture-wise or social-wise.
In this situation, the region appears to be in a vicious circle. Given the phosphate production decline, the eruption of protests, reliance on fragile circumstantial solutions and weak development indicators, achieving sustainable development does not seem easy. The most crucial challenge is to find alternative paths not solely based on phosphate production. This is certainly possible, considering the significant potentials in agriculture, industry and tourism, that are not being sufficiently valued.
The Mushawarat project seeks to tackle urgent socio-economic challenges in the governorates of Gafsa and Tataouine and to improve natural resources governance. Through an inclusive policy development process, the project opens the door to citizens, civil society organizations, activists, unions and local government officials to engage in a series of consultations to evaluate current policies and discuss feasible alternatives.
Learn more here: https://www.magef.org/item_portfolio/mushawarat/
The Maghreb Economic Forum (MEF) is an independent Think-and-Do Tank founded in 2011 on the premise of supporting economic and social development in the five Maghreb countries. Our mission is to convene and mobilize diverse actors to catalyze sustainable economic and social development in the Maghreb. MEF believes that an informed, active citizenry is the key to building sustainable economies and inclusive societies.