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An Algerian village’s tryst with colonialism and development

The Soviet Kolkhoz experience further alienated the peasantry in Algeria because the model was imposed on a society which was rather individualistic

Ehtesham Shahid

Published: Updated:

A village called Shabat, perched on the hills across the Mediterranean Sea in western Algeria, has witnessed remarkable transformation over and over again. For centuries, the region surrounding Shabat contained agricultural wealth that became subject of greed for outside powers – from the Romans to the Spaniards, and the Ottomans – until the French arrived in the last century.

As a result of outside interventions, these rather idyllic surroundings transformed from being the “granary of Rome” to the “wine cellar of France” in the 19th and 20th centuries. What followed though was a Soviet Kolkhoz-style experiment that reduced this fertile land into an expanse that now depends on food imports.

Dr. Farid Azzi, an Abu Dhabi-based sociologist, hails from Shabat. He remembers the days when French settlers transformed the village – and many others in the neighborhood – into huge neatly cut vineyards. Ironically, these were looked after by local laborers whose ancestors once owned these lands. According to him, French settlers in Algeria created “an apartheid system from which the locals were excluded”.

“I was born in the first year of the Algerian liberation war. Growing up as a kid I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t understand why my father didn’t come home as he was in the Algerian liberation army,” he says. Dr. Farid was eight years old when Algeria became independent.

“I remember that day as if it is today. Few months before independence I saw my father hoisting the national flag on the roof of our house. On the day of independence, we took our flag like everybody else in the village. We walked toward the colonial village, danced and burst crackers. We were free, at last,” he says.

The Soviet Kolkhoz experience further alienated the peasantry in Algeria because the model – essentially a commune system – was imposed on a society which was rather individualistic.

Ehtesham Shahid

As a result of this liberation, the French and other European settlers (estimated to be more than a million) left the country in indescribable chaos. They left everything behind, millions of hectares of fertile lands, factories, cities and villages. Initially the colonial farms were taken over by laborers in a movement known as “self- management”.

Agrarian reform?

These farms were soon taken over by the state. Unfortunately, what followed was a spell of bureaucracy and mismanagement leading to steady decline in agricultural production. “The ancient granary of Rome now imports most of its loaves of bread from Europe and the US,” he laments.

The fascinating part of Shabat, however, is a major agrarian reform that was implemented in the 1970s as part of the process to distribute land to poor peasants. Despite the good intention of ensuring justice for the landless, it led to a further downward spiral for the local community.

The trouble was the so-called agrarian revolution tried to ape the then socialist bloc collectivist land reform. The Soviet Kolkhoz experience further alienated the peasantry in Algeria because the model – essentially a commune system – was imposed on a society which was rather individualistic.

Dr. Farid’s grandfather was ideologically opposed to this system. “If you want a pig to be satisfied and have enough to eat, then leave it eat alone,” he said. In other words, peasants should be left alone too.

Instead, the government put them to work in what was then called Agricultural Production Cooperation. The state built new agricultural farms named “socialist villages” where it gathered peasants scattered across the hills. They were given facilities such as electricity and water, schools, health centers and concrete houses.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Wanting to change rural conditions and alleviating poverty through reforms and top-down policies ended up in complete failure,” says Dr. Farid. According to him, the collectivist mode of agricultural work and production ended up with peasants becoming functionaries in their own farms, and turning into consumers in their socialist villages.

The system was indeed abandoned over a period of time. The cooperatives mode of work organization was dismantled and replaced with private property and free market mechanisms. However, for Dr. Farid, “productivity in agriculture didn’t rise to match local needs and the country now imports 60 percent, especially vital products like cereals, milk, sugar, cooking oil …etc.”

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Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.