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. When approaching the islands by ferry, one is struck by a curious sight: the coastal waters are divided into countless parcels, separated from one another by thousands of palm tree leaves. This is what Kerkennis call charfia, a centuries-old fishing method ingeniously designed to lure fish into a capture chamber from where they can be easily recovered.
As the land is arid, agricultural activity is limited to subsistence farming. For the islanders fishing is one of the key economic activities, but for big multinational corporations it is the exploitation of oil and gas.
Despite a new article in the Tunisian constitution stipulating state sovereignty over natural resources and transparency in the related contracts, oil and gas companies continue to garner obscene profits and enjoy impunity. At the same time, local communities continue to shoulder the externalized social and environmental costs of this industry.
The Kerkennah archipelago 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. Caught in the intricate web of capitalist globalization, the collision between neoliberalism and climate change is potentially disastrous for the people of Kerkennah.
Fossil Fuels and Discontent Fishermen
I visited Kerkennah in March 2016, after hearing there was simmering discontent about Petrofac’s refusal to honor its engagements in helping finance an employment fund. On the ferry to the island, I noticed a delegation headed by the Tunisia Minister of Environment accompanied by a TV crew was also on the same boat. I found myself asking: “Was the purpose of the delegation’s visit the same as mine? Were they also…