Increased security measures along Tunisia’s border with Libya have adversely affected local communities, particularly herders, who no longer have free access to pastures and water sources for their livestock. Indeed, the desire for enhanced security has come with a heavy price tag. Communities in marginalized border regions have long relied on pastoralism and cross-border interaction for their livelihoods. Today, such activities are threatened, and the Tunisian state may soon face new rounds of social discontent amongst the inhabitants of its border areas.

Hamza Meddeb
Hamza Meddeb is a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on economic reform, political economy of conflicts, and border insecurity across the Middle East and North Africa.
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In southern Tunisia, livestock breeding has mainly involved goats and camels. While they are not nomads, herders require mobility to find pastures and water for their animals. In the past they relied on customary and tribal arrangements to allow transhumance routes on both sides of the border. This system survived into Tunisia’s independence with the consent of authorities on both sides of the border, although modernization and changes in lifestyle have eroded pastoral ways of life. Local populations have supplemented livestock activities with farming or cross-border trade or smuggling.

A series of terrorist attacks in Tunisia in late 2015 led the government to strengthen security measures by establishing a physical barrier along half of the country’s 500-kilometer border with Libya, with the support of international partners. Under a grant awarded in 2016, the U.S. government’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency helped install an electronic security surveillance system. Germany contributed mobile observation and surveillance equipment. The border barrier is composed of a network of sand berms, water-filled trenches, and fences, along with motion detectors, cameras, ground surveillance radars, and infrared sensors.

Along the more densely populated northern half of this border, a 10 to 20-kilometer-deep buffer zone makes up the first line of defense. Much of the land in this buffer zone had been allocated to herders, but is now under the control of the Tunisian Army, which patrols the area and coordinates the activities of customs authorities and the National Guard. The southern half of the border—from the border post of Dhehiba to Burj al-Khadra—is a military exclusion zone to which only the Defense Ministry can authorize access.

The state’s focus on security has left no room to consider the region’s deep-rooted socioeconomic realities, where pastoralism and agriculture are a way of life and important sources of revenue, particularly so following 2015 government restrictions on cross-border trade and smuggling activities as well as a slowdown in the border economy resulting from Libya’s financial crisis, a consequence of the conflict there. Many cross-border traders turned to livestock and farming activities to make up for their losses. With access to grazing areas and water sources reduced by government decree, local populations are seeing further restrictions on local livelihood opportunities.

The Tunisian state’s border policies have not only harmed the border economy, provoking a socioeconomic crisis, but have also led to a livelihoods crisis amongst pastoral communities. The Tataouine region remains severely underdeveloped, with above-average unemployment rates – almost twice the national average in 2019 – failing public infrastructure, and a stunted private sector. Remada and Dhehiba also have among the country’s highest percentages of unemployment, estimated at 38 percent and 42 percent, respectively. The dire economic situation has provoked anger in these border communities, with incidents leading to strikes and an increase in tension between authorities and locals.

The economic crisis in Tataouine Governorate has aggravated the condition of herders, but other factors have further exacerbated their situation. The first is the tribal land tenure system, under which thirty percent of land is subject to collective tenure and is managed by tribal councils, with each tribe in Tataouine having such a council. The system has created tensions over land ownership among tribes, causing communal disputes over boundaries and the use of these areas, which have disrupted transhumance routes. A second factor is the drastic reduction in the land available for pastoral activities. This is primarily due to desertification and climate change, but also the privatization of communal lands and their purchase by large farms. In 2010, private land ownership in Tataouine Governorate was estimated at 65,710 hectares (around 82 percent). The remaining land that is owned communally is a source of conflict between small farmers and herders. Small farmers are tempted to expand farming lands, which encroaches upon grazing areas and transhumance routes.

The militarization of the southern border regions, the growing role of the military in the region, and the army’s frequent dealings with border communities in a context of rising tensions and scarce resources have also raised concerns over relations between the military and the local population. The Tunisian Army lacks expertise in civil affairs, hampering public acceptance of its border security measures. Calming tensions and building trust among the local population, especially herders and farmers, requires transparency around the military’s role in maintaining security. It also necessitates communicating on the size and limits of restricted border zones and eventually loosening the conditions of access to them. Providing services that could compensate the population for any loss of revenue, such as providing health services, youth vocational training, boosting regional development and increasing the region’s attractiveness to investors and employers, may also contribute to improved relations.

The crisis in these marginalized border areas is likely to perpetuate social instability. During the past five years, particularly in 2020, the government faced months of protests in Tataouine, which hindered oil production and forced Tunis to offer significant concessions to the local population. To avoid a return to that situation, authorities must approach border security with more flexibility, and take into consideration the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of a region that, both literally and figuratively, is living on the edge.

This article was originally published in Peripheral Vision.

This publication was produced with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a program funded by UK aid from the UK government. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.