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Kerkennah: on the frontline of resistance to the fossil fuel industry in Tunisia
by Hamza Hamouchene
26 July 2016

The effects of climate change and neoliberalism converge in Kerkennah in the worst possible way – but the islands are fighting back.

Kerkennah is a group of islands lying off the east coast of Tunisia in the Gulf of Gabès, around 20km away from the mainland city of Sfax. The two main islands are Chergui and Gharbi (Eastern and Western in Arabic). Approaching the islands by ferry, one is struck by a very curious view: the waters seem to be divided into many parcels (in fact they are) by lines made of thousands of palm tree leaves. This is what Kerkennis call charfia, a centuries-old traditional fishing method that was ingeniously designed to lure fish into a capture chamber where they are later recovered.

As the land is arid, agriculture activities are limited to subsistence farming. This means that fishing is one of the key economic activities on the archipelago. Octopus are particularly emblematic of the islands, and are captured from the end of October until the end of April using another Kerkennian method: the use of jar-shaped receptacles.

Local communities continue to bear the externalised social and environmental costs of this industry.

The first time I heard of Kerkennah was when I was conducting research on a British oil and gas company called Petrofac in 2014. The research focused on corruption in the deal by which Petrofac acquired the Chergui gas concession, back in 2006 in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Grasping the details of this deal is crucial to understanding recent developments on the islands, some of which were violent and linked in one way or another to the fossil fuel industry.

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

These communities suffer from an extractivist model of development synonymous with resource pillaging and environmental degradation. This situation cannot be dissociated from the current context of disenchantment due to ongoing counter-revolutionary efforts taking place in Tunisia, which are aimed at maintaining the status quo, depoliticising society and putting the brakes on the potential radicalisation of demands from below.

Kerkennah is being doubly dispossessed and doubly threatened, first by the effects of disruptive global warming and second by the extractive operations of oil and gas companies, bent on making super-profits at the expense of the archipelago’s development.

No country exists in isolation from the international system of neoliberal globalisation that weakens states and generates discontent, instability, poverty, wars and uprisings; this article will argue that the collision between neoliberalism and climate change could be calamitous for the people of Kerkennah.

Fossil fuels, discontented fishermen and unemployed graduates

I visited Kerkennah in March 2016, after I heard that there was simmering discontent due to Petrofac’s refusal to honour its engagements in helping finance an employment fund. I came from Gabès early in the morning. After a brief visit in Sfax and in its industrial port (exporting phosphate products), I hopped on the ferry to Kerkennah with a friend.

A delegation headed by the Tunisia Minister of Environment and accompanied by a TV crew was also on the ferry. I found myself wondering if the purpose of the delegation’s visit was the same as mine. Were they also there to investigate the now two-month-long labour mobilisation around Petrofac? Sit-ins had been set up by the islanders in front of its factory, partially halting production, demanding that the British company honour its engagements in local development and employment creation.

After an hour’s journey on the ferry, we finally arrived. 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 – but by fishermen, not the unemployed graduates we were looking for.

We came to discover that TPS is a British-Tunisian company, also exploiting some offshore oil concessions in Kerkennah. The fishermen were protesting a significant oil spill that had been discovered, and according to them the leakage was from a submarine pipeline. TPS denied the allegations, declaring that it was from a leak in a wellhead on one of the drilling platforms – I counted six from Sidi Fraj beach – that surround (in a crescent shape) Chergui island.

Phillips Jereme/public domain.

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 underestimate the impact of the spillage and even to cover it up. They told us that this was not the first time, but rather the third or fourth time this had occurred. They took us alongside the beach to show us where the black substance (most likely oil) ended up on the shore and how in some places, it had been covered with sand to conceal it from view. The irritated fishermen were asking TPS to take responsibility for the spill and the environmental damage it had caused, and demanding that Tunisian authorities hold the company accountable.

The visit of the environment minister 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 measures would be taken to clean up the mess. However, it seemed less likely that he was there to address the fisherman’s grievances than to protect the interests of the oil industry, by helping to avoid escalation and a radicalisation of protests. This was especially important at a time when another oil and gas company was beginning to be the target of people’s anger.

Petrofac: from corrupt concession to causing an 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, the British oil and gas company Petrofac faces growing discontent on the island. In the first two weeks of April, Kerkennah was the scene of violent police repression of protests against the oil company.

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

When I was on the island, I had the opportunity to talk with a few young people who had participated in the February-March sit-in. The men and women I spoke with were determined to defend their rights and to recover their lost jobs (even if these were not decent enough).

From our discussions, I sensed resentment and anger at what they are enduring. How is it possible to be unemployed when all this oil and gas wealth is being created on the islands? What happened to the promises of the 2011 revolution and the demands of social justice and national dignity? These questions echo what I have heard throughout my travels in Tunisia; the Tunisia of the interior, away from bustling touristic sites, the Tunisia of underdevelopment, where people are still fighting pauperisation, corruption and everyday injustices.

While Petrofac’s responsibilities and duties in developing the island and helping create jobs have come under scrutiny, its corruption in acquiring 45% of the Chergui gas concession 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 Ben Ali. Trabelsi was convicted in October 2011 for accepting bribes in relation to helping secure the concession permit for Petrofac. [1]

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 both the UK and Tunisia and continue to enjoy impunity. The court documents name Amjad Bseisu, then CEO of Petrofac Resources International, as having asked Moncef Trabelsi to help Petrofac attain a permit for the Chergui gas field. According to the documents, Bseisu transferred $2 million from an account in London to Moncef Trabelsi’s account with the National Bank of Dubai.

Tunisian authorities consider the practices associated with the fossil fuel industry a Pandora’s box they are afraid of opening.

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 is particularly egregious about this case in light of the recent sit-ins, is that not only did Petrofac participate in corruption and in illegal acquisition of a concession, but now it shows contempt for the Tunisian people by refusing to adhere to its engagements, as well as by siding with police repression.

Furthermore, it has directed condescending accusations at the young protestors through the declarations of Imed Derouiche, its CEO in Tunisia. One must ask, how can Petrofac continue to enjoy impunity for a crime they committed ten years ago under Ben Ali, in light of the 2010-2011 uprising?

The reality is that the oil lobby is extremely powerful in Tunisia; moreover, the influence of the fossil fuel industry is so pervasive that opacity and unaccountability have become trivial matters in this sector. For example, no one knows if exploration or exploitation of shale gas is taking place in the country; similarly, the actions of this industry in southern Tunisia are unclear – from Tataouine to the closed military zone (apparently not closed to oil and gas companies).

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. Despite the revolutionary process initiated by the uprising more than five years ago, we still see the same repressive methods employed by a state that clearly chose to be on the side of oil and gas multinationals, at the expense of the legitimate demands of people who want simply to lead decent lives.

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

Wherever I go in Tunisia, I have seen young people holding protracted sit-ins, protests and occupations, halting the production of key industries (such as phosphate mining, oil and gas, etc.) and demanding jobs. The state’s failure and incapacity to provide these is the result of a reckless insistence to apply the same recipe for disaster, and is one aspect of the neoliberal violence being relentlessly visited on Tunisians.

The archipelago and the threat of climate change

Kerkennah is one of the most vulnerable places in the Mediterranean. It is characterised by a semi-arid climate (evolving towards aridity), with a long dry summer season, high temperatures and water evaporation, and an average water deficit of 1000 mm/year. The rise of sea level due to global warming is endangering the low-lying archipelago as the maximal height is 13 metres, with most of the land lying below ten metres.

Fishing boats in Kerkennah. Abir Arous/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Several studies have already documented the erosion and retreat of the coastline, estimating it at more than ten centimetres a year. In some areas, this erosion reached forty metres in less than fifty years, further emphasising the danger of the islands disappearance. A study carried out by the Tunisian government on the impact of climate change in Tunisia made alarming predictions: the archipelago could be transformed into a larger number of small islands and the submerged surface could reach 30% of the total (around 4500 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%. Sea water is intruding into ground water reserves and the soil is becoming more saline (due to evaporation and evapotranspiration). 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.

Palm trees are typical in the archipelago; numbering in the hundreds of thousands, they are sparsely distributed on the islands. They represent a gem that needs protecting, especially that they have several uses: food, tools for fishing and traditional handicrafts, etc. There is a huge ecological and human toll entailed by their loss in the hundreds to climate change.

The islands’ population decreased significantly throughout the 1980s due to drought. 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, the nearest town being Sfax. Currently, the population is estimated at 15,000. This number increases almost tenfold reaching 150,000 in the summer, when emigrants to mainland Tunisia and abroad return home.

The violence of climate change is driven by the choices made by those in power.

Due to the ecosystem’s fragility and the climatic and environmental constraints on agriculture and fishing, attempts are being made to promote eco-tourism (“sustainable touristic development”) on the island as an alternative. To date, these programmes have failed to materialise.

The violence of climate change is not natural and is instead 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 militaries 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”, the attempt by these corporations to grab more resources in order to maximise their profits. They are unconcerned with the ecological and social ramifications of their policies, 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 rises in sea temperature 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 will be constrained. There are even reports of offshore fracking, which are cause for concern.

The convergence of climate change and neoliberalism

In a neoliberalised economy like Tunisia’s – where the economy is subordinated to the rule of the market, generates inequality, privatises the social, and fails to create decent productive jobs – characteristic 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, could not have said it better (although the ostensible aim of the report, to produce 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 argues 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 and 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 could lead to the sinking of Kerkennah archipelago could be seen as an opportunity for more profit-making – and more dispossession.

Sovereignty over natural resources: a crucial struggle for 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. It 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. Despite the article in the Tunisian constitution stipulating state sovereignty over natural resources and transparency in related contracts, not much has changed in the aftermath of the uprising, due to the power of lobbies.

Tunisian gas is sold to Tunisians as if it were an imported commodity!

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 (the most productive), which is 125 km offshore in the Gulf of Gabès. Gas is processed at the Hannibal plant and supplied, under a long-term contract, to Société Tunisienne de l’Électricité et du Gaz (STEG), 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!

Another revealing example is the case of COTUSAL, the French salt company which started exploiting Tunisian saltworks during colonial times (early 20th century). COTUSAL escaped nationalisation after independence in 1956 and held a monopolistic position in the market for almost a century, until 1994 when its first competitor entered the market.

The exploitation of the saltworks continues to be carried out under an agreement dating back to 1949, which offers the Tunisian state a dismal revenue. The company produces around 1 million tons of salt, three quarters of which are exported, generating 32 million dinars in revenue in 2014 (around 14 million EUR). This however did not prevent the company from failing to pay its dues, a sum of 5.7 million dinars (2.5 million EUR) accumulated over a period of five years (2007-2012).

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.


Islands like Kerkennah are at the frontline of climate change as their survival is already threatened due to rising sea levels. The climate on the archipelago is moving towards aridity and increasing salinity of the soil, which exacerbates the already-existing water stress and food vulnerability of the islands’ population.

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 colonial and neo-colonial plunder and appropriation. This model is based on accumulation by dispossession, 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 case.

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. Thomas Sankara, the Burkinabe revolutionary and visionary leader, understood early on how corruption has been used as a tool by the international capitalist mafia to conquer markets and pillage the resources of the global south.

In order for the local population of Kerkennah to avert becoming climate refugees and to regain control over their lives, environment, resources and destiny, the fossil fuel industry must be curtailed and held accountable, because continuing its destructive operations is akin to issuing a death sentence for the islands.

Source : Open Democracy

Footnotes :

[1All the details of this corrupt deal are documented in an upcoming report that I co-authored for Platform London

Hamza Hamouchene

is an Algerian campaigner, writer, researcher and a founding member of Algeria Solidarity Campaign (ASC), and Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA), London-based organisations campaigning for peaceful democratic change in Algeria and for environmental and climate justice in North Africa respectively.
He also works for Platform where he researches British energy interests in Algeria.

Hamza has authored two publications for platform titled: “Reinforcing dictatorships: British gas grab and human rights abuses in Algeria” and “The coming revolution in North Africa: the struggle for climate justice”.
He previously worked for Global Justice Now on issues of climate, food and trade justice.

His writings appeared in the Guardian, Counterpunch, New Internationalist, Red Pepper, Jadaliyya, openDemocracy, Pambazuka, El Watan, Maghreb Emergent and Huffington Post. He has been interviewed by BBC Arabic, Al Jazeera, France 24, RFI amongst others.

Hamza has a PhD in environmental carcinogenesis at the Institute of Cancer Research, University of London.