Clash of the Contested Commons: The inspiring struggle over the oasis of Jemna

In a two-part feature Profs. Rachida Justo of IE University, Karim Ben‑Slimane of ISC Paris Business School, and Nabil Khelil of UNICAEN dive deep into the Tunisian oasis of Jemna to explore the depths of the tug-of-war between institutional entrepreneurs and the opponents of a contested commons.

In a two-part feature Professors Rachida Justo of IE Business School, Karim Ben‑Slimane of ISC Paris, and Nabil Khelil of UNICAEN dive deep into the Tunisian oasis of Jemna to explore the tug-of-war between institutional entrepreneurs and the opponents of a contested commons.

By CoBS Editor Megha Sureshkar with kind thanks to Profs Concepcion Galdon and Rachida Justo of IE Business School, IE University.

Wrinkled dates lay strewn across the floor of a palm grove in the village of Jemna. Hundreds of young men gathered in fury under the vigorous young palm trees, claiming that they were legitimately reclaiming the oasis, a common property of their ancestors. But who were they dead set against?

On the opposite side of the fence stood the private investors and the state who declared their rights on the same treasure. So, why did these two sides come into conflict? What is their story? Before delving into history, it is important to shed some light on the logic of commons.

A battle of wills

Commons, with its roots in economics, refers to resources that a group of people manage for collective benefit. The state or market have no part to play in the governance of such entities. Originally limited to natural resources, the term has now been extended to include digital, creative, and cultural artefacts or issues, among others.

However, there are certain resources whose social meaning is disputed. And this means that there is real disagreement in society about whether they should be held and governed collectively or whether they are better managed by the private sector or the government. Another term, contested commons, is used for such resources.

Research has already highlighted the role of institutional entrepreneurs (IEs) in creating a new commons logic that is eventually agreed upon by the important stakeholders. But how do these change agents go about addressing contested commons? What strategies do they use to re-establish legitimacy to resources that exist, but suffer from a lack of buy-in from some sectors of the society? Prof. Justo and her co-researchers go all out to find the answers to these neglected questions.

The Tunisian canvas

Contested commons and the case of the Jemna Oasis, Tunisia
Photo by Dennis Jarvis

The researchers picked the Oasis of Jemna, located in southwest Tunisia in the Sahara, as the setting for their probe. Before colonisation, the oasis was a collective property belonging to the community of Jemna. However, during the colonial era, the community was expropriated, and the oasis became a private property of French colons. After the country’s independence in 1964, it became a state-owned property, despite vivid dispute from the community. And in 2011, during the Arab Spring anti-government protests, members of the community gathered and created the Association for the Safeguard of the Oasis of Jemna (ASOJ), seeking to recover their ancestral land, and entered a struggle with the state over the ownership of the oasis. The IEs in this story are the members of ASOJ.

Unearthing the gems

Jemna’s IEs performed two strategies geared towards supporting a commons logic – idealizing the commons and unifying the community to harness its potential. The corresponding strategy from Jemna’s opponents dealt with demonizing the commons.

The researchers begin with the reveal of the “idealising the commons” tactic that encompasses 3 actions: constructing a sense of legitimacy of the commons; linking the commons with broad moral issues; and, using a rhetoric of performance.

A just cause

During the turmoil of the revolution, a group of young men occupied the oasis and forcefully ousted the two entrepreneurs of the palm grove. Many observers considered the activity violent, and the two evicted entrepreneurs sued the occupiers, asking the regional army for protection. However, Tunisia’s chaotic political situation, and suspicion of corruption surrounding the entrepreneurs, prevented the army from confronting hundreds of Jemna inhabitants who placed the oasis under siege.

As such, justifying the occupation of the oasis and its re-appropriation was key for Jemna’s IEs. Memories of the oasis’s history were still alive in people’s minds, and the IEs adopted a recurring narrative on how the community had been both evicted by the colons and short-changed by the state. Following this rationale, establishing a commons became an act of restoring justice. The community was taking over land that represented more than just a source of subsistence. It was sacred ground.

By emphasizing the collective ownership of the oasis and highlighting its vital importance for the Jemna community, the ASOJ tried to frame the reclamation as an act of civility and collective responsibility. The group engaged in refuting accusations of anarchy and wrongfulness while insisting on the peaceful nature of their mobilization, which was countered instead by the violence of the army.

Establishing a broader context

Contested commons and the case of the Jemna Oasis, Tunisia

In order to garner wide support for their cause, the IEs sought to connect commons to broader moral issues that Tunisians cared about. Supporting Jemna’s cause was framed as adhering to values of solidarity, dignity, and freedom, which were very much aligned with the slogans voiced during the early days of the Tunisian revolution.

Similarly, Jemna was portrayed as an alternative to ruthless capitalism and state intervention. IEs engaged in conversations which resonated with the citizens’ calls for release from state control and the need for more freedom in local communities. As such, the establishment of the ASOJ was a symbol of the community’s willingness to manage the oasis as a common property to benefit all its inhabitants, putting the value of solidarity at the heart of economic development.

The association also demonstrated that a community could efficiently organize economic activity outside the state’s reach. The ASOJ President compared the Jemna experience with the “Commune de Paris”, referring to the attempt by French republicans to establish a self-organized structure to manage the city by replacing a government considered overly devoted to the monarchy with one dedicated to the citizens. This shows how IEs translated concepts and ideas from the West and combined them with elements and cultural codes from the East to drive home a powerful message.

The ASOJ sought to send this message during important occasions, such as the annual sale of the date harvest. The sale was accompanied by cultural events in the village where references to national and international figures of resistance were made.

Make much of performance

IEs also relied on a rhetoric of performance to prove the superiority of the commons logic over alternatives. The central message conveyed was that managing the oasis as a commons created higher social and economic returns than state or private ownership. ASOJ used numbers in an extensive way to support these arguments, emphasizing how the palm grove’s output increased 3.75 times compared with that when managed by the two entrepreneurs.

The collective management of the farm resulted in a large increase in village employment, with people mostly on stable contracts and at higher salaries. In addition to job creation, the community invested a total of 1,200,000 TND (717,000 USD) in development projects and this amount was often compared to the 100,000 TND (USD 60,000) in overall rent paid to the state by the two entrepreneurs during the years in which they managed the oasis.

Because such success was unique, Jemna garnered interest from academics and activists around the world. And by leveraging the skills and network of its board members, the ASOJ welcomed international recognition and actively nurtured it as a way to support its performance rhetoric and further idealise the commons.

Community building is the starting point of any commons endeavour. In the case of contested commons, IEs work to influence a pre-existing community in three ways: resurrecting the community; leveraging the community’s resources; and, distributing economic and social value inside and outside the community.

Rise again

Prof. Rachida Justo, IE Business School: Contested commons and the case of the Jemna Oasis, Tunisia.

To begin with, IEs need to revive the dormant community by uniting its members and encouraging them to go beyond narrow individual interests. In Jemna, these attempts started right after the eviction of the two former entrepreneurs of the oasis. People held initial talks about dividing the land and distributing it equally to inhabitants under a private property regime. Under this scenario, only families with roots in Jemna were eligible to benefit from the oasis. People from outside the village, including those who had been working on the land, were excluded. This prospect of inequality led to mounting tension, resulting in groups of young men resorting to violent clashes.

Ten town elders, known for their honesty and personal values, intervened to calm things down. They first came together and formed a committee to manage the oasis. This committee vowed to protect the integrity of the oasis and avoid its confiscation by the state, and it argued against the division of the palm grove. Leveraging its social capital within the community, the committee persuaded the rioters to join the enterprise of establishing a common property with a social purpose. As such, the democratic process by which land was allocated was the major act constituting the oasis as a commons.

The committee was later replaced by the ASOJ, with the association’s board members having different socio-economic statuses and political affiliations ranging from left liberal wing to conservative Islamic right wing, reflecting the strong social bonds that existed within the community.

Lending a hand

Once the decision of establishing a commons was made, ASOJ faced the operational challenges of managing the oasis and gathering needed material resources. The association lacked a legal status which made access to market loans impossible. To combat this hurdle, the ASOJ organized a fundraising campaign among the citizens and were able to raise TND 33,000 (USD 11,450).

The majority of people made contributions, each according to their own ability. The former treasurer of ASOJ recounted the story of a woman with very limited financial resources who gave TND 15 (USD 5) to the association. When the board saw her name on the list of contributors, they decided to issue a refund. Despite her extreme poverty, the woman refused the refund and stated that by participating in the campaign, she was performing her duty. Such was the citizens’ feeling of belonging to the land.

In addition to financial resources, many volunteers with different backgrounds, ranging from technical engineers to accountants and managers, helped implement new processes for the management of the oasis.

To everyone’s benefit

The ASOJ earned a significant amount of money each year from date harvests. The allocation schemes of these benefits were discussed among the community in public gatherings. Inhabitants participating in the gathering would suggest where the money should be spent and who could benefit from it. Most investments went into providing basic medical, educational, and recreational services that the central government had not been able – or willing – to supply.

For instance, the first investment went to the renovation of two primary schools offering the village’s children decent study conditions. Other expenditures were directed at building an indoor market and buying ambulance services for the free transportation of Jemna patients to bigger hospitals in the area. Investments were also made in cultural and sports infrastructure, various cultural and religious NGOs, and IT equipment for the public library and the police station. Part of the profits were even distributed outside the village.

The social relations binding members of the Jemna community played a major role in their fight against opponents of a commons logic. So, who were these opponents and what was their stand?

Read Part 2 of the contested commons and the Jemna Oasis case
Professor Rachida Justo, IE Business School
Prof. Rachida Justo

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