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Europe’s “Green Battery”: Extraction and Dispossession of Energy Infrastructure in Tunisia’s South

Plans to generate solar and wind energy in the southern parts of Tunisia for export to Europe promise prosperity and development to local communities, but their implementation may yield more impoverishment.

North Africa has been identified as a potential “green battery” for Europe, offering a seemingly unlimited supply of solar and wind energy on the Mediterranean’s southern shore. Like oil and gas extractivism before, the infrastructure that is built to extract these resources will greatly shape both domestic relations of power and international geopolitics in North Africa, and the Mediterranean basin more generally. 

Tunisia is likely to be one of the first North African states to build an interconnector with Europe which is set to serve as a model for how natural resources will be exploited in North Africa, how clean energy will be exported to international markets, and who is set to benefit.

The undersea cable between Cape Bon in Tunisia to Partanna in Sicily, allowing a two-way electricity transfer, has received financing from the European Union as part of the Connecting Europe Facility. It is classified as a “Project of Community Interest” by the European Commission, which entails having the “highest strategic importance for development of European energy infrastructure.”

It was the first time that such a fund was used for a project outside of the European Union. The interconnector is also supported by the World Bank and represents “the first pillar of the new partnership between Tunisia and the World Bank.” It joins other projects that have looked to connect Europe with North Africa.

This article will consider how the politics of energy infrastructure reflect relations of dispossession and appropriation in Tunisia’s south. 

“Reformed” regulations: Energy

Around 97 percent of Tunisia’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, both from local gas production and imports from Algeria. The state power utility company, STEG, controls the sector and produces 84 percent of the country’s electricity. Created in 1962 with the nationalization of all electricity production and distribution infrastructure, STEG enjoyed a monopoly over Tunisia’s electricity sector until it was partly liberalized in 1996. This ushered in the entry of Independent Power Producers (IPPs) into Tunisia’s energy sector. 

STEG has looked to retain control over the renewable energy sector, and expanded its operations into the wind power sector. Groups seeking to bolster private energy production in Tunisia have heavily criticized STEG, especially since 2011, for resisting the expansion plans of private investment in the sector. Despite such resistance, a 2015 renewable energy law was passed opening the door to private companies and partly liberalizing the sector. The law was centered around three forms of energy production, one of which is geared toward exports. This was augmented by a 2019 bill seeking to improve the attractiveness of Tunisia to private renewable energy companies.

The government awarded the first private renewable energy contract in 2017, and dozens more have come since. Foreign companies from France, the UAE, and Germany, among others, have expressed interest or signed contracts to invest in Tunisia’s nascent green energy sector.

“Reformed” regulation: Land

Key to paving the way for the entry of private green energy has been the reform to Tunisia’s land law. Both solar and wind projects require access to significant land. In the Tunisian context, and in North Africa more generally, this is often previously communal or agricultural lands. Following independence from France in the 1950s, the government of President Habib Bourguiba adopted protectionist land policies which aimed to reverse the depletion of Tunisian agricultural real estate that had occurred under the French protectorate. 

Law No. 5 of 1964 for instance placed strict prohibitions on the foreign ownership of agricultural real estate. The Tunisian state also sought to protect agricultural lands from urban encroachment and land use change. Notable here is Law No. 87 of 1983 that placed strict controls on changing the use of agricultural lands. 

Tunisian authorities have sought to loosen these laws, open agricultural lands to other forms of economic activities, and bring Tunisia’s final parcels of common lands into private ownership

In recent years, both of these protectionist policies—against foreign ownership and land use transformation—have come into conflict with the needs of the green transition. Since 2016, Tunisian authorities have sought to loosen these laws, open agricultural lands to other forms of economic activities, and bring Tunisia’s final parcels of common lands into private ownership. These proposals have faced stiff opposition, with critics arguing that such a liberalization of Tunisian land law would “restore colonialism to the country.”

The case of Chenini wind farms

The case of a recent investment plan in the Dahar mountain range, southeast of Tunisia, is a good example to help understand the power dynamics between green energy companies and local communities.

The 100 kilometer range was identified by Tunisia’s Energy Control Agency as fertile for wind generation in terms of slope and terrain analysis and wind speed. The area spans three governorates, is sparsely populated, and has historically been home to Amazigh tribes engaging in herding and the caravan trade, among other activities. 

The Saudi Arabian private equity investment group, Swicorp, and Spanish infrastructure company, Acciona, were both awarded the tender for the development of a wind farm on 200 hectares in the area between the villages of Chenini and Douiret. The land in question was previously a mixture of privately-owned and collective lands, and was used for olive cultivation and sheep pasture. The project will include 14 wind turbines, with a total production capacity of 74 MW and is estimated to cost 500 million Tunisian dinars (about $160 million). Construction should begin in late 2025 and will take 18 months. Once completed, the Tunisian Electricity and Gas Company (STEG) is contracted to purchase the farm’s output.

A number of land owners told TIMEP that the land will be rented from at an annual rate of 1,200 Tunisian dinars ($384) per hectare for 30 years, with 5 percent annual increase, raising concerns about the circumstances under which the agreement with the local communities was reached. 

The rental rate is “incredibly low” given the number of families who use the land and it will end up at less than 100 dinars ($32) per year for any individual, Sami Amri*, a day laborer from Chenini, told TIMEP. “No authority intervened in the issue or answered our questions.” 

“Authorities do not take our demands into account nor do they speak or listen to us,” he said, adding that foreign companies designed contracts that were wilfully obscure and opaque, presenting them to illiterate members of the community. 

Essia Guezzi, engagement manager at Hivos, an international development organization operating in the area, pointed out that “the majority of citizens contacted by the local authorities in Tataouine (to sign the contracts) are farmers and elderly people,” who were unable to fully understand the terms. She added that the state used its power “to motivate them and, sometimes, force them to sign contracts.”

Additionally, the individual nature of the contracts fail to recognize the traditional ownership structures of the lands and the familial and kin networks that own and use the land. Agricultural land in such areas are often passed down and parceled out through generations, creating a complex network of ownership and use patterns that are not easily compatible with western corporate compensation schemes.

Erasure of the old

The enthusiasm for green energy projects can be, however, well justified. Tunisia’s 12 million citizens have seen their living standards decline since 2011 as the country suffered from various economic crises. Last year, President Kais Saied rejected measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund, including cutting public spending, halting a bailout deal worth billions of dollars. Officials are betting that investments in green energy could offer a way out of the country’s chronic trade deficit, shore up government finances, and provide a catalyst for diversifying the economy away from traditional sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and extraction. 

However, these projects, while framed in the language of local development and community engagement, practically work to erase local forms of land use and the social practices and relations they are based upon. The Chenini project is relatively small compared to the kinds of solar megaprojects proposed for the Sahara, but it raises a number of issues that should frame the conversation for similar endeavors in the future. 

Green infrastructure will radically change the natural environment of Tunisia’s south and in doing so will reshape the economy of the area. As it stands, there is little evidence it will significantly benefit local communities. The construction and maintenance of wind and solar infrastructure produces relatively few jobs while simultaneously requiring large amounts of land and disruption of other economic activity, most notably herding and farming. Moreover, Tunisia is seeing a propensity for speculative projects that precede, and thus shape, renewable energy infrastructure in North Africa. For instance, it remains unclear how the energy from the Chenini project will be used to serve domestic and foreign electricity markets. Nevertheless, foreign companies appear willing to pursue such projects in the knowledge that they will create a new renewable energy reality in North Africa that will inform infrastructure and energy flows for years to come.

* Sami Amri is a pseudonym to ensure the safety of the people interviewed by TIMEP.

Achref Chibani is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa region. 


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