Gas Company's Olive Oil Press Fails to Ease Tensions on Tunisian Island

Petrofac's donation of a modern olive oil press to Kerkennah has failed as an olive branch for healing the island's wounds

Dec. 6, 2016
By Julie Al-Zoubi

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The London-based oil and gas giant Petrofac splashed out TND 275,000 ($120,000) in 2014 to pro­vide the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah with a com­mu­nity olive oil press. Kerkennah’s first mod­ern olive oil press meant that olive farm­ers on the remote arch­i­pel­ago no longer needed to make the ardu­ous jour­ney to the main­land city of Sfax to press their olives. The farm­ers ben­e­fited by sav­ing time and money.

The new press meant that Kerkennah’s olives could be pressed at the per­fect time. Presses in Sfax tend to open up too late for Kerkennah’s olive har­vest. Farmers also gained an extra TND 80 – 100 ($35 – 45) per ton.

Kerkennah’s com­mu­nal olive press was used 950 times dur­ing the 2014/15 sea­son. Around 450 of Kerkennah’s olive grow­ers processed 650 tons of olive oil. This was about 40 per­cent of the island’s total olive oil pro­duc­tion. But the olive oil press (which is man­aged by Tunisian agri­cul­tural asso­ci­a­tion GDA El Borj) has failed to appease the islanders or improve rela­tions between Petrofac and the com­mu­nity.

2016 has been a cat­a­strophic year for Petrofac and res­i­dents of Kerkennah. In April the island became a bat­tle­ground with scenes rem­i­nis­cent of the rev­o­lu­tion as police bat­tled to dis­perse a long-stand­ing sit-in on Petrofac premises. Protestors became embroiled in vio­lent clashes with the police who were accused of using heavy-handed tac­tics. The police resorted to the use of tear gas and water can­nons on pro­tes­tors who set fire to police vehi­cles and build­ings. Several police cars were thrown into the sea.

The vio­lent clashes ended with the police being forced to leave Kerkennah. The island became a state of law­less­ness. All attempts to return police to the island failed. A small num­ber of mil­i­tary per­son­nel were tasked with guard­ing pub­lic build­ings. In September a police pres­ence was finally restored on Kerkennah.

Petrofac’s recent woes began on January 19, 2016, with a sit-in on their premises. The griev­ance related to pay­ments and ben­e­fits promised to unem­ployed grad­u­ates in a 2011 agree­ment; aimed at get­ting unem­ployed grad­u­ates work­ing fol­low­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Under the scheme, Petrofac promised 266 unem­ployed grad­u­ates pay­ments of TND300-450 ($131 – 196) per month to carry out envi­ron­men­tal work and assist in pub­lic ser­vices. Recipients were not given con­tracts or ben­e­fits.

Petrofac raised doubts over the eli­gi­bil­ity of many of the recip­i­ents and sug­gested that funds were being mis­used. According to pro­tes­tors, the Tunisian gov­ern­ment failed to honor a 2015 agree­ment in which they assumed respon­si­bil­ity for sus­tain­ing jobs on Kerkennah through a pub­licly financed envi­ron­men­tal com­pany. Petrofac had agreed to pay the grad­u­ates salaries until December 2016.

On September 22, after nine months of protests, dis­rup­tions and failed talks, Petrofac announced it was leav­ing Tunisia. The deci­sion was con­firmed in a state­ment by Mohd Akrout, gen­eral direc­tor of ETAP who said, Petrofac is def­i­nitely leav­ing Tunisia and it just started the pro­ce­dures of leav­ing the coun­try.” A gov­ern­ment spokesman reit­er­ated, Petrofac has offi­cially informed us that they have started the process of clos­ing down.”

On September 23 Petrofac had a sud­den change of heart. The com­pany announced an agree­ment had been reached and pro­duc­tion resumed on September 27. Since then there have been more than a dozen protests staged against the com­pany includ­ing the block­age of Petrofac trucks.

Petrofac has suf­fered trou­bled and tur­bu­lent times on Kerkennah since it opened there in 2007 and the com­pa­ny’s dona­tion of a mod­ern olive oil press to the islanders failed as an olive branch for heal­ing wounds.

Kerkennah is an arch­i­pel­ago in the Gulf of Gabes around 20km from the city of Sfax. The islands are depen­dent on fish­ing and agri­cul­ture. Petrofac opened for busi­ness in Tunisia in 2007 fol­low­ing a con­tro­ver­sial, and crit­ics say cor­rupt, deal signed with the for­mer pres­i­dent Zine El- Abidine Ben Ali.

Petrofac paid $30 mil­lion to acquire a 45 per­cent stake in Kerkennah’s Chergui gas field. The remain­ing 55 per­cent is held by Tunisia’s national oil com­pany Enterprise Tunisienne d’Activities Pétrolières (ETAP).

Petrofac sup­plies around 13 per­cent of Tunisia’s domes­tic gas require­ments. The gov­ern­ment incurred costs of around $100 mil­lion for import­ing gas from Algeria dur­ing the protests of 2016.


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