Residents of Gafsa have been suffering for years, despite the profits from its phosphate reserves. They have protested, only to disrupt production of the very resource they need to survive.
During the onset of the Tunisian uprising, the youth of Gafsa, which ranks first in phosphate production and export, hoped to enjoy a better life, far from poverty, unemployment and the marginalization they long knew.
However, the conditions of the south–known for its rich natural resources–remained unchanged, six years after the Dignity Revolution sparked in Sidi Bouzid, adjacent to Gafsa.
No sight of the profits
The irony between extracting phosphate from Gafsa’s mining basin and keeping the living conditions unchanged has not been accepted by Ramadan bin Omar, a human rights activist and a resident of Gafsa Governorate.
The situation “has deteriorated despite the phosphate revenues that go to the state treasury,” says Bin Omar, who is also a member of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
Despite the significant natural wealth in the region, the province’s unemployment rate has reached 26 percent, one of the highest nationwide compared with a national rate during of 15.3 percent during the first quarter of 2017, according to the National Statistics Institute.
Ramadan says that the Gafsa mining basin, which took the lead in the pre-revolution protests against former president Ben Ali, “is still at the forefront of the public protests.”
Although the phosphate sector suffered a setback after the revolution due to the strikes that significantly led to unprecedented production declines, signs of change loom large as production in the first quarter of this year has risen.
Figures by the Ministry of Energy and Mines show that the phosphate production has risen by about 46 percent in the first quarter of 2017 to reach 1.33 million tons, a record level given the significant decline caused by road blockages and sit-ins by unemployed protestors.
Despite these indications, the General Manager of Gafsa Phosphate Company (GFC), Ramadan Suwaid, says phosphate production is still way below 2010 levels due to the protests and sit-ins. He claims that the repeated sit-ins and strikes have crippled production and disrupted phosphate exports.
Losses in the last five years reached about TND 5 billion (USD 2.2 billion), an amount equal to one of the loans Tunisia received from the International Monetary Fund in 2013.
Owing to these protests, Tunisia’s annual phosphate production has dropped to a record level of about three million tons compared to the average level of eight million tons.
Suwaid says the production decline has impacted the level of phosphate supply to foreign clients by 40 percent, resulting in a shortfall in GPC revenues.
Yet, Suwaid states, GPC has done its best to take on a number of unemployed persons because “it understands the protestors’ demands and their desire to have decent jobs.”
However, regardless of the number of jobs GPC can create, its capacity remained limited, given the high unemployment levels in that region, charging the social situation.
Ramadan bin Omar says the local youth do not trust the government efforts to advance employment, development and living conditions.
He adds that, despite the disruption in some production units, GPC continued to mine as usual, without affecting the people’s welfare.
The crisis in Tunisia’s southern region in general is attributed to the development policy of more than five decades, which failed to “respond to the expectations of the marginalized areas,” according to economy expert Rida Shakandali.
Shakandali said that the development strategy in place in these regions since 1956 have not taken into consideration the need to diversify the economic base and consolidate the business structure. The successive governments have focused on phosphate, but this gift has turned into a curse.
Faced with a lack of employment prospects and the high local unemployment rates, “the youth will either protest as an expression of indignation or resort to smuggling, illegal trafficking, or joining extremist groups,” according to Shakandali.
Shakandali criticized the continued successive governments’ “disregard” of the unemployed youth’s demands and their “failure” to simplify project development procedures under rampant bureaucracy.