Sidi Bouzeid/Tunisia – Stories of farmers colluding with merchants selling agricultural supplies and employees of the Agriculture Commission in Sidi Bouzeid to abuse drip irrigation state-run grants are routine in this agricultural city that lacks water.
These grants are meant to encourage farmers both to use cost-effective irrigation methods to help limit water waste and to boost farm yield and hence improve their livelihood in a city known for its tomatoes, peppers and potatoes: all staples of the Tunisian table.
According to an official study carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture, such transactions, which have been going in Sidi Bouzeid since the Efficient Irrigation Water Grant Project went into effect in 1985 until the start of the revolution have cost the Commission almost 29 million dinars (18 million dollars) out of a total of 118 million dinars (74 million dollars) earmarked for all of Tunisia.
The ministry admits to these transgressions, citing a lack in human and financial resources as the reason for not sending enough committees to follow-up on grants, before and after awarding them. Meanwhile, the tales of corruption continue and those behind them are using innovative means.
Basheer, a farmer, filed an application for a grant that promoted efficient irrigation water usage from the Agriculture Commission in Sidi Bouzeid in early 2011. He wanted to instil drip irrigation canals in his farm as well as purchase a motorized water pump and storage tank, all according to agreed upon specifications.
In March 2012, Basheer received 10,000 dinars ($6,500) in grants but he did not buy any equipment. Instead, he rented drip irrigation equipment from a merchant for 3000 dinars ($1800), which he paid for with grant money. He also gave him 3600 dinars ($2300) in exchange for building a storage tank, which did not adhere to specifications and was not good for gathering water.
Basheer’s violations have all been noted in a complaint file carried out by a clerk from the primary court in Sidi Bouzeid at the request of a lawyer who wanted to document these transgressions. However, he failed in convincing the farmers to admit to them. Basheer also paid a 300 dinars ($180) bribe to the commission employee who came over to inspect and sign off before the grant was paid; this was carried out with help from the same merchant.
Basheer received a net amount of 3100 dinars ($1900) of the total amount of the grant. A few months later, limited funds forced him to lease his farm to another farmer.
Basheer is one of twenty farmers this investigative journalist met with during a period of six months. Fifteen of these farmers admitted to violating grant regulations by colluding with government employees who would withhold on their renting old equipment from merchants or borrowing from their neighbours and relatives. Saleh for example is a farmer who used a fake invoice as well as borrowing old irrigation equipment from a neighbour and rented a motor.
The confessions of most of the farmers whom this reporter met included the means with which they carried out their contraventions. These included; renting or borrowing of irrigation equipment, using bogus invoices and bills and building less expensive tanks. They would also claim ownership to lands owned by their neighbours and showing farming certificates issued by the mayor without actually practising that profession as well as presenting unfit wells. All this would be carried out by bribing a Ministry of Agriculture employee.
The farmers themselves are the first victims of these violations; they waste almost half the amount of the grant on leasing old equipment and paying bribes to officials at the Agriculture Commission.
Farmer Abdul Razak who received a grant in 2008 worth 8000 dinars ($5000) says he “only got 3500 dinars ($2200) after giving up 4000 dinars ($2500) for the rental of farming equipment and paying 500 dinars ($300) to the Agriculture Commission employee.”
According to the famers there are three reasons as to why this happens: the meagre amounts of the grants which only cover 60% of the cost of the drip irrigation equipment; the slow movement of procedures which could take years; and the plotting between the merchants and a number of the commission employees which forces the farmers to rely on said merchants in order to get approval from the ministry for the drip irrigation grant.
Salem, another farmer, waited for three years to receive a grant despite meeting all requirements. He says “I used to go to the Agriculture Commission in Sidi Bouzeid three times a week to urge employees to do follow-ups on the storage tank that I had built. However, they would constantly come up with excuses saying there weren’t enough vehicles, no available drivers or they were busy with other files.” Habib sighs as he recalls his own journey with the officials: “I suffered a lot from the lack of transparency of the Commission employee. Every inspection required a six month wait period, that is why it is not surprising that famers resort to other means to try and befriend the officials to hasten the process.”
Commission officials refused to provide this reporter with a list of the farmers who received financial aid despite being provided with an application to the effect in accordance with the Information Act of 2011.
They cited their lack of authority to produce such documents “which pertain to work secrets” as an excuse. However they did not deny that farmers were carrying out violations. According to Mohammad Al Mawlidi Abdul Lawi, from the Department of Supplies and Incentives: “Farmers resort to deceiving inspectors by leasing or renting irrigation equipment.” His colleague Abdul Baki Naji accuses a number of farmers of providing false information about their farms.
On his part, director of the Department of Irrigation Areas at the Commission, Jalal Al Rabihi explains the length of the procedure by saying: “ The inspection stages to prepare the farms for drip irrigation are not contingent upon certain time periods but related to the number of applications to the commission and the availability of cars.” He said a total of15 cars were lost as a result of burning and looting during the revolution, in addition to not having enough employees to oversee the irrigation grants.
The responsibility for these violations does not fall on the shoulders of farmers alone since a large amount of these grants goes into the pockets of agricultural equipment merchants.
This reporter got in touch with 10 out of 50 of these merchants from different villages in the city of Sidi Bouzeid. Theses merchants supply 37,000 farmers with fertilizers, seed and agricultural equipment. This reporter convinced them that he was the son of a farmer who had initial approval for a grant and asked them to provide him with supplies for the project.
Eight of them accepted to provide him with irrigation equipment asking in return for amounts between five and eight thousand dinars: almost half the amount of the grant.
One of the merchants, Izzedine said he was prepared to let this reporter lease used irrigation canals and a motor as well as willing to build the water storage tank for three quarters of the amount of the grant. He also said that he would take on convincing the commission official to sign-off on the project. However, if this reporter wanted an estimate for the equipment, he had to give up 18% of the grant — around 1800 dinars ($1100).
Mustapha, owner of an agricultural supply store, agreed to leave the leased equipment with the farmer for two months due to an increase in inspections during that period, in return for an augmented price. He admitted to having provided farmers with various irrigation equipment, for a number of years, confessing that he leased “used irrigation canals and motors for five or six farmers per day to the knowledge of inspectors who turned a blind eye in return for bribes.”
It became obvious to this reporter that a large number of merchants took to leasing equipment to farmers in return for grant money. Many of them also did not mind urging commission employees to speed up an applicant’s demand or asking them to inspect another’s farm to make sure that the requirements for the drip irrigation grants had been met.
These corruptions also involve government officials but the Agriculture Commission does not give this issue much importance.
Mustapha, a merchant, confirms he was eyewitness to a final inspection that took place in 2000 on one of the farms. The Commission inspector who was in agreement with him gave his approval to the grant after having received 500 dinars as “commission”.
Ammar a commission official who asked to remain anonymous admits that a number of his colleagues accept gifts and bribes from merchants who make use of opportunities such as festivals and anniversaries as an excuse to get closer to them.
He also accuses several employees of tampering with files in exchange for money. He referred specifically to changes in laboratory results carried out by the commission to find out water salinization levels and soil specifications.
According to Ammar, there are thirty employees who have direct involvement with the inspection of the Efficiency Irrigation Grants at the commission. They work in 12 agricultural areas in different villages in Sidi Bouzeid in addition to the areas of water, soil, water resources, financing and incentives.
In light of these violations one wonders what role the ministry plays in the allocation and follow-up of these irrigation grants and whether the farmers are putting the money to correct use.
The farms that are inspected are chosen randomly. The director of the Investment and Financing Department Lutfi Farad justifies this as a “lack in logistics and human resources.” He explains that the ministerial inspection teams are unable to oversee all breaches and at the most oversees 10 farms in a monthly inspection. And that is why, according to Abdul Baki Naji, the employee at the Agriculture Commission, in the period since the start of the grant and until 2010, only eight farmers in Sidi Bouzeid have been taken to task by having their equipment removed for violations committed. Chapter 65 of the Tunisian Investment Journal stipulates that the grant should be removed if not put to use or the concerned party has changed. This is in addition to the leniency with which the commission deals with those who have violated grant regulations. Mohammad Al Mawlidi Abdul Lawi from the Department of Financing and Incentives at the Commission confirms that farmers can still receive grants after they overcome the violations they have committed.
According to the Director of the Irrigation Areas, Jalal Al Rabihi, the Agriculture Commission in Sidi Bouzeid is doing its best to bring an end to these contraventions through increased and better inspections on the farmers as well as urging its employees to remain steadfast and diligent in their application of grant regulations.
As to the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Lutfi Farad says that despite being aware that such transaction were going on, it considers the various Agricultural Commissions in the cities responsible.
Despite these three dimensional violations, the Agricultural Commission employees are proud of the success of the efficiency irrigation strategies in providing at least 80% of the irrigation lands in Sidi Bouzeid with drip irrigation equipment. According to a commission source, that is equivalent to more than 38000 hectares out of a total of 48000 of irrigation lands in the city.
This estimate however, remains ink on paper as it is related to the theoretic calculations of farmed lands owned by farmers who received water efficiency grants but were not used. More than one source has confirmed that the ministry lacks fundamental area studies that could verify the usefulness of this cost-efficient fund for water.
Water expert Mohammad Al Ammouri warns of the depletion of the water table due to the haphazard use of irrigation water. A study on water resources carried out by the German Development Cooperation Agency in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment in 2013, points to the use of ground level water at rate of 132%.
The results for the farmers vary. It became obvious to this journalist that out of ten farmers who received money, only three benefitted financially from the drip irrigation grants and made use of the equipment in improving their income from vegetable farming.
One of the farmers, Amer made a profit of 15000 dinars ($9000) by planting tomatoes in one hectare of land and using the drip irrigation methods in 2002, an increase from 10 000 dinars ($6500) he had made from the same area of land in 2000.
Another farmer, Habib, who grows potatoes, says by using the same method and planting on two hectares of land in 1999, his annual profits went from 18 000 dinars to 35 000 dinars ($21 000). On the other hand, the remaining seven farmers did not witness any improvements after receiving the grants, as they did not put the money towards the purchase of the required equipment.
Mohsin points to his herd of ten goats roaming around his dilapidated house as he says that the amount of money he makes annually from planting vegetables barely covers the cost.
In accordance with the achieved results, the drip irrigation project has proved successful. However, its implementation leaves a lot to be desired. The Ministry of Agriculture and its Commissions must place a watchful eye over the farmers and their employees. The law needs to be upheld and corruption, which squanders tax- payers money must be stopped.
Meanwhile, attorney Mohammad Al Amari Jallali has failed in his crusade to start legal procedures to put an end to these violations by following a number of farmers from the beginning of the application process and the granting of the money to the final inspection of the “bogus leased” equipment and the role of the ministry employees and the merchants in these fabricated plots.
He points to the caution of the farmers in outing these “manipulators” lest they be indicted as well.
Jallali provided this reporter with two reports proving the violations that were carried out during the grant that Basheer received, which confirmed that he had instilled used irrigation canals on his farm and not new ones as the law stipulates. One week after the initial official inspection the legal expert from the primary court in Sidi Bouzeid returned to the same farm to find that “all the drip irrigation equipment had been removed.”
According to commission statistics, there are 37,000 farmers in Sidi Bouzeid, 63% of which are of low-income with less than five hectares of land per farm. Their earnings come from planting fruit trees and growing vegetables, which need regular watering. What most of these farmers agree on is the inadequacy of the grants since they only cover 60% of the cost of the efficiency irrigation equipment and they have a hard time covering the remaining 40%. This is what forces them to split the funds with merchants and officials. In comparison with this cost-efficient water project, according to the official website of the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, the kingdom provides an investment plan that covers the total cost of irrigation equipment for low-income farmers whose lands are less than five hectares.
According to a study by the Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture in 2010, the ministry implemented its efficiency irrigation projects in 1995 to promote cost-efficient irrigation methods among the farmers.
The study refers to the ministry’s reliance on “ a cost-efficient national program for irrigation,” with the aim of saving water since “ agriculture consumption of water is 80% that of all economic and social sectors.” A decision was passed on May 12, 1995 to issue a grant as incentive to help promote between 25% and 60% water conservation for low-income farmers.
As a result, ministry numbers indicate that by December 2011, 358000 hectares of land have been prepared with cost-efficient irrigation equipment, that is 87% of the total area that can be used for irrigation. 43% of these lands have been equipped with drip irrigation methods.
The study also showed that the budget for water conservation for low-income farmers from June 1995 until December 2011 has been estimated at 197.6 million dinars, 25% of which went to the city of Sidi Bouzeid that is 49.4 million dinars.
The ministry stipulates that all farmers who wish to apply for a grant need to submit an application with a copy of their national identity cards and an ownership certificate of the farm where the project will be carried out, as well as proof from the mayor that they are working farmers and a farming certificate from the National Federation for Farming and Fishing. They are also legally bound to keep the equipment after they receive the grant.