The Tunisian government has moved to curtail the spate of recent fires across farmlands to secure the national grain harvest. According to the Minister of agriculture, water resources and fisheries, Samir Taieb, his ministry had consulted with the Interior Ministry over the surge in fatal fires across the nation. Deploying drones was the outcome of that meeting.

Pointing out that drone handlers had already been trained, he said, “For the first time, drones will be used to secure the harvest and monitor the culprits suspected to be at the origin of the fires.” Taieb hinted that the operation will be a three-ministry effort, with the ministry of defence also involved.

Since the start of June, a series of fires have ravaged up to 328 hectares of cereals, wheat, and barely around Siliana, a modern farming community 130km southwest of Tunis. In the last six days, fires have ravaged several fields of wheat and barley, coinciding with a remarkable rise in temperature. Hundreds of hectares were destroyed to ashes.

Even though the country is working towards innovations in power and renewable energy, agriculture remains an essential contributor to national GDP. The International Trade Centre puts the figure at twelve percent, with the sector providing jobs for one-quarter of the country’s working population. Tunisia exports olive oil, dates, vegetables, wheat, barley, and meat, forming a reported six percent of its export earnings.

There have been several speculations over the true cause of these fires. Sometimes, natural disasters are blamed, with the temperature at the Mediterranean rising to dangerous levels at this time of year, bringing fatal heat waves which start several forest fires. The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture estimates the losses caused by climate hazards throughout the last eight years at 345 million TND. But sometimes too, like now, it pretty much looks like a coordinated attempt to flatten the production of crops, a direct knock on government’s effort to balance imports with exports and increase self-sufficiency.

Tunisia has been working very hard since the 2000s to reduce the food it imports, focusing on increasing home capacity to meet demand. Around this time last year, over 2000 hectares of forest were chewed by fire in separate outbreaks across regions. Emergency services put the figure at 94 across eight provinces. Only about eight percent of Tunisia’s 500,000 farmers are insured.

In March this year, the government announced plans to set up an agricultural damage-indemnification fund to stem natural disasters, with a national insurer charged to manage the fund.

Agriculture is one of the most important sectors in Tunisia. It uses up to 8 million hectares nationally, ninety percent of it owned by the private sector. The government runs the rest on rent basis.

By Caleb Ajinomoh

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