In this paper, we examine the greenhouse horticulture in Algeria’s Sahara, which
is one illustrative example of the agricultural transitions that have taken place in
North Africa on the new irrigation frontiers created through groundwater use. The
entrepreneurial farming systems in the region are characterized by considerable
mobility. Geographic mobilities of people, ideas, capital, information, and objects
and socio-professional mobilities are intrinsically intertwined, whereby skilled sha-
recroppers and laborers move sometimes over hundreds of kilometers, attracted by
the opportunities of quick monetary gains and by the opportunities of rapid so-
cio-professional upward mobility. This paper analyzes, rst the dierent forms of
socio-professional and geographical mobilities associated with the groundwater-ba-
sed farming systems in Algeria’s Sahara, with a particular focus on mobile young
farmers; then focuses on the multiple borders that these young farmers crossed on
their trajectory; and their return journey after they quit the Sahara.
Keywords: Agriculture, irrigation, groundwater, mobility, North Africa
Devinen Tarım: Kuzey Afrika’nın Yeraltı Suyu Ekonomisinde İç İçe Geçmiş Coğ-
ra ve Sosyo-profesyonel Hareketlilikler
Bu makalede, Kuzey Afrika’nın yeraltı suyu kullanımıyla oluşturulan sulama sı-
nırlarındaki tarımsal dönüşümlerin aydınlatıcı örneklerinden biri olan Cezayir
Sahra’sındaki sera bahçeciliği incelenmektedir. Bölgedeki girişimci tarım sistemleri,
dikkate değer bir hareketlilik ile nitelenmektedir. İnsanların, kirlerin, sermayenin,
bilginin ve nesnelerin coğra hareketliliği ve sosyo-profesyonel hareketlilikler, or-
takçı çiftçiler ve işçilerin, hızlı parasal kazançların ve sosyo-profesyonel yükselme
olanaklarının çekiciliğine kapılarak bazen yüzlerce kilometre yer değiştirmeleri
vasıtasıyla, özünde iç içe geçmiş durumdadırlar. Bu makale, hareketli genç çiftçile-
ri odağına alarak, Cezayir Sahra’sındaki yeraltı suyu merkezli tarımsal sistemlerle
ilişkili sosyo-profesyonel ve coğra hareketliliklerin farklı formlarını, bu genç çift-
çilerin güzergahlarında geçtikleri çoklu sınırları ve Sahra’yı bırakmaları ardından
yaptıkları geri dönüş yolculuklarını analiz etmektedir.
Anahtar sözcükler: Tarım, sulama, yeraltı suyu, hareketlilik, Kuzey Afrika
* CIRAD International Agricultural Research Centre For Development, France; Hassan II
Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Sciences (IAV), Morocco
** ENSA Higher National Agronomic School, Algeria; Hassan II Institute of Agronomy and
Veterinary Sciences (IAV), Morocco
*** University Center Morsli Abdallah Tipaza, Algeria; ENSA Higher National Agronomic
Agriculture in Motion: Intertwined
Geographical and Socio-professional Mobilities
in North Africa’s Groundwater Economy
İzmir Akdeniz Akademisi Dergisi
No. 4, Kış 2018, 33-45, DOI 10.32325/iaad.2018.31
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
In 1995, a farmer that we had met in the rich Mitidja plain in Northern Alge-
ria had decided to invest in Saharan agriculture in Biskra, some 500 km to the
south-east. Following urbanization in the fertile coastal plains in the north, in
a context of limited land and water resources, he considered that “the future
[was] in the South”.1 Attracted by the possibility to produce early vegetables un-
der greenhouses in a desert climate, encouraged by the agricultural subsidies
and the availability of pumped groundwater, this farmer was one of the many
who would contribute to a “renewal” of Saharan agriculture.2 Two decades later,
this groundwater-based agricultural boom has transformed the landscape, as
hyper-arid Saharan regions such as Biskra, El Ouedand Ouargla have become,
paradoxically, some of the most productive agricultural departments (in terms
of added value) of the country. For example, Biskra has become the main produ-
cer of vegetables under greenhouses, tomatoes in particular (50% of the national
production3) and El Oued has become the rst producer of potatoes irrigated
by artisanal centre pivots (35% of the national production4). This is a typical
example of what Shah has called a “groundwater economy”,5 that is the rapid
and massive development of agriculture in semi-arid and arid regions based on
the intensive use of groundwater through mainly individual tube-wells. This
particular groundwater economy opened up new irrigation frontiers on previ-
ously non-irrigated land, outside existing oases, enabling a rapid agricultural
transition based on entrepreneurial agriculture. From a wider perspective, the
groundwater economy in North Africa has expanded at a remarkable rate, es-
pecially since the 1980s. It is estimated that more than 500,000 farm holdings in
Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, irrigating more than 1.75 million hectares (ha)
land, are currently actively taking part in this groundwater economy.6
The opportunities oered on the new irrigation frontiers in Algeria’s Sahara
attracted many people (investors, young farmers, and laborers) often coming
from several hundreds of kilometers away. In the Biskra district, for instance,
18,000-26,000 young farmers are currently active in greenhouse horticulture.7
1 Amar Imache, Tarik Hartani, Sami Bouarfa and Marcel Kuper, La Mitidja vingt ans après:
Réalités agricoles aux portes d’Alger (Algiers: Alpha Editions; Versailles: Editions Quae, 2011).
2 Marc Côte, “Des oasis aux zones de mise en valeur: L’étonnant renouveau de l’agriculture
saharienne,” Méditerranée 99, no. 3.4 (2002): 5-14.
3 Sami Assassi, Ali Daoudi and Caroline Lejars, “Les profits ‘excessifs’ des commerçants de
fruits et légumes en Algérie: réalité ou préjugé infondé? Le cas de la tomate primeur à
Bisk ra,” Cahiers Agricultures 26, no. 2 (2017): 25002.
4 Abdelkrim Ould Rebai, Tarik Hartani, Mohammed Nacer Chabaca, and Marcel Kuper,
“Une innovation incrémentielle: la conception et la diffusion d’un pivot d’irrigation artisa-
nal dans le Souf (Sahara algérien),” Cahiers Agricultures 26, no. 3 (2017): 35005.
5 Tushaar Sha h, Taming the Ana rc hy: Groundwater Governanc e in South Asia (Washington, DC: Re-
sources for the Future; Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 2009).
6 Marcel Kuper, Nicolas Faysse, Ali Hammani, Tarik Hartani, Serge Marlet, Meriem Farah
Hammamouche, and Fatah Ameur, “Liberation or Anarchy? The Janus Nature of Ground-
water Use on North Africa’s New Irrigation Frontiers,” in Integrated Groundwater Manage-
ment, ed. Anthony J. Jakeman, Olivier Barreteau, Randall J. Hunt, Jean-Daniel Rinaudo and
Andrew Ross (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2016), 583-615.
7 Mohamed Naouri, Tarik Hartani and Marcel Kuper, “The ‘Innovation Factory’: User-led
Incremental Innovation of Drip Irrigation Systems in the Algerian Sahara,” in Drip Irriga-
tion for Agriculture: Untold Stories of Efficiency, Innovation and Development, ed. Jean-Philippe
Venot, Marcel Kuper and Margreet Zwarteveen (London, New York: Routledge, Earthscan
Studies in Water Resource Management, 2017), 266-283.
Meltem , No. 4, Winter 2018
They engage in intensive, entrepreneurial farming, strongly connected to the
agricultural markets both for the inputs (e.g. seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides),
technology (e.g. greenhouses, irrigation equipment) and for the marketing of
agricultural production. Greenhouse horticulture in this area is an interesting
mix of global farming systems, relying on external knowledge and marketing
chains; but also dependent on local innovation systems, adapting equipment
and practices to local (harsh) conditions.8 We have explained elsewhere that
these young farmers are not only attracted to these irrigation frontiers to make
money in what can be considered as highly protable farming but also to gain
the experience and capital to achieve upward social mobility.9 We focus on the
mobility of the young farmers involved in greenhouse horticulture in the distri-
ct of Biskra. In doing so, we hope to contribute to the emerging literature on the
engagement of young family farmers in entrepreneurial agriculture, which may
be temporary or permanent.10 The objective of this paper is, therefore, to analyze
the dierent forms of social and geographical mobilities of young farmers who
engage in the Sahara’s entrepreneurial farming.
Study Area and Research Approach
The study took place in the Ziban (literally, an ensemble of oases), which is lo-
cated in the administrative district (wilaya) of Biskra in the southeast of Algeria,
approximately 500 km of the capital Algiers. Biskra, often considered as the
gateway to the Sahara Desert, has been characterized by a very rapid agricul-
tural development over the past 30 years, due to the availability of land promo-
ted by the 1983 land reform, the access to pumped groundwater through deep
tube-wells, the agricultural subsidies and the presence of peasantries keen to
develop agriculture outside of the existing oases.11 The irrigated area of the Bis-
kra district was multiplied by ve, from 16,615 ha in 1969 to 83,350 ha in 2008.12
In parallel, the number of date palms increased from 2 million in 1990 to 4.28
million in 2015, out of which 91% are producing dates.13 The principal variety is
degletnour, which is much appreciated on the domestic and international mar-
kets. Date palms were traditionally grown in layered oases with respectively
8 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “The ‘Innovation Factory’,” 266-283.
9 Farida Amichi, Sami Bouarfa, Caroline Lejars, Marcel Kuper, Tarik Hartani, Ali Daoudi, Hi-
chem Amichi and Mohamed Belhamra, “Des serres et des hommes: des exploitations mo-
trices de l’expansion territoriale et de l’ascension socioprofessionnelle sur un front pionnier
de l’agriculture saharienne en Algérie,” Cahiers Agricultures 24, no. 1 (2015): 11-19; Mohamed
Naouri, Tarik Hartani and Marcel Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux pour intégrer les
nouvelles agricultures sahariennes (Biskra, Algérie),” Cahiers Ag ricultures 24, no. 6 (2015):
379-386; Mohamed Lamine Ouendeno, Ali Daoudi, and Jean-Philippe Colin, “Les trajec-
toires professionnelles des jeunes dans la néo-agricult ure saharienne (Biskra, Algérie) revi-
sitées par la théorie de l’agricultural ladder,” Cahiers Agricultures 24, no. 6 (2015): 396-403.
10 Christine Okali and James Sumberg, “Quick Money and Power: Tomatoes and Livelihood
Building in Rural Brong Ahafo, Ghana,” IDS Bulletin 43, no. 6 (2012): 44-57; Hichem Amichi,
Zakaria Kadiri, Sami Bouarfa and Marcel Kuper, “Une génération en quête d’opportunités
et de reconnaissa nce: les jeunes rurau x et leurs trajectoi res innovantes dans l’agriculture ir-
riguée au Maghreb,” Cahiers Agr icultures 24, no. 6 (2015): 323-329; Olivier Petit, Ma rcel Kuper
and Fatah Ameur, “From Worker to Peasant and Then to Entrepreneur? Land Reform and
Agrarian Change in the Saïss (Morocco),” World Development 10 5 (2 018): 119 -131.
11 Côte, “Des oasis aux zones de mise en valeur,” 5-14.
12 Kuper et al., “Liberation or Anarchy?,” 583-615.
13 Salah Eddine Benziouche, “L’agriculture biologique, un outil de développement de la filière
dattes dans la région des Ziban en Algérie,” Cahiers Agriculture s 26, no. 3 (2017): 35008.
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
date palms, fruit trees and annual crops (e.g. cereals, fodder crops). Nowadays,
date palms are often grown in mono-cropped, single variety palm groves out-
side the traditional oases. In addition, the Ziban are increasingly reputed for
early season vegetables and fruits, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants,
melons, watermelons that are produced in greenhouses. Greenhouse horticul-
ture increased rapidly from 1,370 ha in 2000 to 5,165 ha in 2014, amounting to
almost 130,000 greenhouses (a greenhouse typically measures 8 m by 50 m). The
Sahara, and in particular the Ziban, is indeed the only region in Algeria which
provides vegetables to 40 million domestic consumers during the winter.
While in the past, the irrigated areas were concentrated in community-ma-
naged collective irrigation schemes in the traditional oases around artesian wel-
ls, springs, or diverted river ow through spate irrigation, more than 70% of the
total irrigated area is now qualied as private or individual irrigation areas,
relying exclusively on pumped groundwater.14 Indeed, most of the rapid expan-
sion of irrigated agriculture took place outside the traditional oases, thanks to
access to the groundwater through a multitude of deep tube-wells. However,
these new extensions did not develop independently from the existing oases.
In many cases, young descendants of the oasis community left the traditional
palm groves, where social constraints were considerable and economic oppor-
tunities limited, to engage in new forms of Saharan agriculture. Also, most of
the investors engaging in “modern” palm groves originated from the Ziban.
Some were local investors; others had made money elsewhere but came back
to invest. However, the “renewal” of Saharan agriculture15 also attracted many
outsiders to the area.
In this study, we will take a close look at the mobility linked to the green-
house horticulture, which we consider as a frontier type of phenomenon in the
Ziban.16 The setting of this case study diers from most studies of (inter)natio-
nal labor migration in agriculture, where seasonal laborers move to established
(large-scale) farms, for example in Australia17 or in Spain.18 In the case of Biskra,
young men travel to engage, often as laborers, in small-scale greenhouse hor-
ticulture with the explicit ambition to rapidly climb the agricultural ladder to
become sharecroppers and even farmers (e.g. lessees, landowners) in turn enga-
ging other laborers and sharecroppers. In sum, we will show that geographical
and socio-professional mobilities in our case are intrinsically linked.
Following the recent literature on this concept, we understand mobilities to
include rst both large-scale movements across the world and more local travel-
s;19 secondly, address not only people, but also “ideas, images, objects, waste produ-
cts and money”; 20 and nally, be as much a geographical as a social phenomenon,
14 Kuper et al., “Liberation or Anarchy?,” 583-615.
15 Côte, “Des oasis aux zones de mise en valeur,” 5-14.
16 Marcel Kuper, “Liberation or Anarchy?, 583-615; Farida Amichi, Sami Bouarfa, Marcel Ku-
per and Patrick Caron, “From Oasis Archipelago to Pioneering Eldorado in Algeria’s Saha-
ra,” Irrigation and Drainage, forthcoming.
17 Nic Maclellan and Peter Mares, “Labour Mobility in the Pacific: Creating Seasonal Work
Programs in Australia,” Globalisation and Governance in the Pacific Islands (20 06): 137-171.
18 Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, “Work Transitions into and out of Involuntary Temporary Em-
ployment in a Seg mented Market: Evidence from Spain,” ILR Review 53, no. 2 (2000): 309-325.
19 Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mo-
bilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1-22.
20 John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-first Century (London, New
York: Routledge, 2012).
Meltem , No. 4, Winter 2018
when it relates, for instance, to social upward (or downward) mobility.21 In ad-
dition, this literature emphasizes the fact that “people” and “places” should not
be considered as distinct, as “there is a complex relationality of places and persons
connected through performances”. 22 The network of connections stretching betwe-
en places and people is of particular interest to this study.
We interviewed 42 dierent farmers, out of which 22 are considered as young
(20-35 years old), based on the distinction made in the administrative subsidy
schemes and 20 farmers are over 35 years old, but employ young men on their
farms. Out of these 42 farmers, 24 came from the Ziban, while 18 farmers had
come from other regions in Algeria. The sample is made up exclusively of male
farmers, as the mobility related to greenhouse horticulture in this frontier area
is restricted to men in practice. The 22 young farmers were mostly single at the
time of the interviews, which facilitated their mobility. The sampling was based
on (1) the farmer status (e.g. laborer, sharecropper, lessee, landowner), (2) the
origin (native or coming from another area), and (3) the location of the farm on
which he was active. The interviews focused on identifying: (1) the farming sys-
tems, including the farmers’ relation with the land (e.g. owner, lessee or sharec-
ropper), the cropping pattern (e.g. mono-cropped, multiple crops), the number
of greenhouses, the source of capital (e.g. personal, credit, subsidies); and (2)
the trajectory of each farmer (e.g. origin, experience in farming, involvement in
agriculture in the Ziban).
Greenhouse Horticulture at the Intersection of Social and Geographical Mo-
bilities in the Ziban
At the Heart of the Dierent Mobilities: Protable and Mobile Farming Sys-
tems on Agricultural Frontiers
At the basis of the mobilities towards and inside the Ziban, are the very pro-
table and complementary farming systems of greenhouse horticulture and date
palms. Installing a palm grove requires a considerable initial investment, inc-
luding installing a tube-well and irrigation equipment, obtaining a land title,
clearing the land, and buying the seedlings. Moreover, a date palm takes more
than ve years to start producing. The total investment and operational cost
before the palm grove starts producing is in the range of 2,2 million Algerian
Dinars (DA) per ha (about 16,300€ in 2017 rates). In order to nance this opera-
tion, many landowners rent out plots to lessees who install greenhouses, once
these landowners have acquired and cleared the land and installed a tube-well
and irrigation equipment. Greenhouse horticulture is very protable in its own
right (typically, 70,000€ per ha per season23) and also the advantage is that these
prots are generated right from the rst year. After a period of three years, the
lessees generally move on to “new lands”, as the soil gets exhausted through
intensive horticulture, and the landowners take care of the palm trees that they
have started to plant. Thus, the junction of both farming systems in the Ziban
has created new agricultural frontiers, as farmers are constantly seeking new
lands to perpetuate this mobile agricultural model.24
21 Mimi Sheller and John Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” Environment and Planning A
38, no. 2 (2006): 207-226; Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies.
22 Sheller and Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 207-226.
23 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
24 Amichi et al., “Des serres et des hommes,” 11-19.
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
A Rapid Socio-professional Upward Mobility in Greenhouse Horticulture
Young farmers sometimes compare working in greenhouses, which combine
extremely high temperatures and unhealthy agricultural practices (application
of pesticides, in particular), to the compulsory military service, which brings a
lot of suering, but only temporary for them.25 These young men are very moti-
vated to climb what can be called the “agricultural ladder” in this farming sys-
tem26 to escape from the daily toil of those situated on the lower stairs of the lad-
der. Generally, they start as laborers and try to become sharecroppers as soon as
possible. Each sharecropper handles ve to ten greenhouses and can make up to
4,000€ per season, which is the equivalent salary of an engineer in Algerian the
public sector.27 These sharecroppers are employed by the landowners, but more
frequently by the lessees who rent in the land from the landowner. The lessees
provide all the inputs to the sharecroppers with whom they contract, own the
greenhouses and handle the marketing of the produce. These lessees, who have
generally been sharecroppers before, are integrated into the highly structured,
albeit informal, value chains through which they benet from the credit sys-
tem put in place by inputs sellers.28 A lessee can obtain up to 1000€ net benets
per greenhouse per season (typically a rotation of tomato/melon). In the Ziban,
lessees often have several tens of greenhouses, leading to considerable annual
gains. Most of the lessees remain in this business for several years, gradual-
ly increasing the number of greenhouses, before investing in other activities.
Some of the lessees become landowners and plant palm trees, which constitute
perhaps the nal step of the ladder, while others remain lessees and invest in
other economic activities. Out of the 22 young farmers we interviewed, eight
started as laborers, while the others started directly as sharecroppers. Out of
these eight ex-laborers, seven are now lessees and one has even become a lan-
downer and date producer.
A Geographical Mobility Based on Expertise and the Capacity to Innovate
On a typical plot of 10 ha of greenhouse horticulture, 30-75 farmers will be ac-
tive, which explains the high demand for young sharecroppers and laborers in
the Ziban, in particular, those who already have an experience in greenhouse
horticulture.29 In 2014, the total area under greenhouse horticulture was estima-
ted to be 5,165 ha on which about 18,000 to 26,000 young farmers were active.
Young farmers come from hundreds of kilometers away to work in greenhou-
se horticulture, attracted by the protable farming systems and quick gains.
In addition, some local young men also engage in the greenhouse horticulture
once they observe the signicant gains that can be obtained. Young men are
recruited through informal networks of family/kinship/friendship/fellow vil-
lagers and never by formal ways of recruitment. The recruitment of these young
farmers obeys to very precise criteria. Every home region is reputed for a spe-
cic farming system. For example, Tipaza (to the west of the Mitidja plain and
25 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
26 Ali Daoudi Ouendeno and Jean-Philippe Colin, “Les trajectoires professionnelles des
jeunes dans la néo-agriculture saharienne,” 396-403.
27 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
28 Caroline Lejars, Ali Daoudi and Hichem Amichi, “The Key Role of Supply Chain Actors in
Groundwater Irrigation Development in North Africa,” Hydrogeology Journal 25, no. 6 (2017):
29 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
Meltem , No. 4, Winter 2018
more than 600 km away from the Ziban) is renowned for tomato production
under greenhouses and the knowledge of its producers (e.g. selection of seeds,
dealing with diseases, application of irrigation and fertilizers). Young men from
Tipaza are, therefore, actively recruited for tomato production by the lessees,
some of whom are also from this area. Other young men come from Médéa
or Ain Dea, which are the areas reputed for the production of bell peppers.
Young men from nearby districts (e.g. Batna, Khenchela) are not only recruited
for greenhouse horticulture, but also for vegetable plots without greenhouses.
More generally, sharecroppers are not only recruited for their expertise, but also
for their resourcefulness and their capacity to adapt equipment and practices to
local climatic and socio-economic conditions. What travel here are not only the
innovations themselves, but also the capacity to innovate.30
The sharecroppers are attracted by the nancial gains, as discussed above,
but also by the possibility of rapid upward social mobility. We have shown el-
sewhere that in addition to these large-scale movements, there is also a lot of
local mobility of these sharecroppers within the Ziban, who are always looking
for opportunities of status and nancial gains.31 For example, with only two
years of experience in the west of the Ziban, sharecroppers can move to the east
of the Ziban to become qualied sharecroppers in Canarian greenhouses. The-
re, they gain sucient money and experience to return to the west to become
small-scale lessees. This situation conrms the statement of Sheller and Urry:
“Moving between places physically or virtually can be a source of status and power”. 32
Apart from this big mass of mobile sharecroppers, there are also some ot-
her more specic geographical mobilities, often associated with the demands
for highly specialized expertise and innovation. For instance, in 2009 the rst
Canarian greenhouse (1-6 ha) was imported from Morocco. This type of green-
house is much larger than the classic greenhouses of the Ziban (8 x 50 m) and
also allows for vertical intensication through higher tomato plants (up to 3 m).
Rather than importing the physical object, which was dicult given the distan-
ce and the size of the object, the local farmers called on Moroccan technicians,
who travelled to the Ziban, to design and install these greenhouses. Those te-
chnicians also trained local sharecroppers and laborers on the new agricultural
practices required for this type of greenhouse. This shows how the mobility
of specic objects and ideas lead to the mobility of people. More generally, the
highly intensive greenhouse horticulture requires the presence of several hund-
reds of engineers, sales agents, and retailers. This corps of service providers is an
interesting mix of people coming from other regions of Algeria, having specic
expertise, and local people, who both expertise and have good local networks.
The Pooling of Resources Leads to the Mobility of Capital, Labor, and Objects
The way greenhouse horticulture in the Ziban is organized can be referred to
as the pooling of productive resources by dierent actors involved in farming.33
In a typical farming conguration, the landowner brings in the land and the
access to water, the lessee provides the capital necessary for installing the gre-
enhouses and nancing the agricultural season, the marketing expertise as well
30 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “The ‘Innovation Factory’,” 266-283.
31 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
32 Sheller and Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 207-226.
33 Amichi et al., “Des serres et des hommes,” 11-19.
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
as the technical know-how for production, the sharecropper furnishes qualied
labor and the capacity to innovate, and the laborer the workforce. We already
showed above how this conguration led to a high demand for specialized la-
bor, leading to an impressive set of geographical mobilities, but also to rapid
upward social mobilities. This labor mobility is associated with a high mobi-
lity of capital, due to the high amount of transactions of inputs, linked to the
very intensive farming systems.34 These inputs are partly imported (e.g. seeds
or pesticides) or produced in other parts of the country (e.g. fertilizers) and tra-
vel over long distances. These objects are traded in dense networks of service
providers, starting from the multinational companies up to the local retailers.
These networks make available the dierent inputs to all of the active farmers in
greenhouse horticulture and are strongly linked to the informal credit systems
that enable the ux of inputs, and thus, the intensive farming systems.
Lejars et al.35 made a description of the informal credit systems that are
dominant in the study area due to the insuciency of formal credit schemes.
Basically, this is a multi-tiered system in which the big (inter)national compa-
nies (e.g. manufacturers and/or importers) selling seeds, pesticides and fertili-
zers provide credit to their customers, the wholesalers, as part of a marketing
strategy in competitive markets. These wholesalers then provide credit to their
customers, the regional and local inputs sellers, who in turn provide credit to
individual farmers, mainly lessees. Lejars et al36 explain how informal credit is
reserved to “creditworthy and valued customers”, which is determined through va-
rious criteria, while other farmers have to pay cash for their inputs. Credit is ge-
nerally reimbursed 6-12 months later, once the farmers have sold their produce.
The sales of agricultural produce are mostly undertaken on the wholesale mar-
kets in the region. Traders from all over the country, travel hundreds of kilome-
ters, meet the farmers on these markets and then move the produce generally to
the main urban centers of Algeria. The credit is generally provided through the
physical objects, i.e. the farming inputs, which are often imported from abroad
and enter the country through dierent ports (e.g. irrigation equipment, ferti-
lizers, pesticides), airports (e.g. seeds), and then travel further to Biskra. Only
after these inputs are reimbursed, the money travels in the opposite direction.
On the Connections Between “Places” and “People”
The literature cautions us against considering the “people”, engaged in this
frontier type of agriculture and often coming through geographical mobilities
from far away, and the “places” where these agricultural dynamics are occur-
ring as distinct.37 While greenhouse horticulture (locally named as plasticulture,
which refers to the plastic-covered tunnel greenhouses) in the Sahara may seem
at rst as an agricultural activity disconnected to a large extent from the local
agricultural dynamics, it is rmly embedded in reality. In particular, greenhou-
se horticulture generally nances the extension of date palm groves.38 In the
composite landscape of the extensions, where new palm plantations and green-
house horticulture are juxtaposed, the contributions of external actors (e.g. les-
sees and sharecroppers), and thus of geographic mobilities, are very important
34 Lejars et al., “The Key Role of Supply Chain Actors,” 1593-1606.
35 Lejars et al., “The Key Role of Supply Chain Actors,” 1593-1606.
36 Lejars et al., “The Key Role of Supply Chain Actors,” 1593-1606.
37 Ur r y, Sociology Beyond Societies.
38 Amichi et al., “Des serres et des hommes,” 11-19.
Meltem , No. 4, Winter 2018
in terms of capital, know-how, and workforce, as we showed above. However,
these actors have multiple interactions with local farmers (e.g. the landowners)
when engaging in greenhouse horticulture. These landowners play an impor-
tant role in stimulating the on-going agricultural dynamics. In addition, some
of the external actors decided to convert to date palm growing, thereby enga-
ging in a learning process from local date palm growers. Also, there are quite a
number of local farmers who get involved in greenhouse horticulture, as shown
by the high proportion of local farmers in our sample. Some of these are now
considered as leaders in the greenhouse farming systems. In sum, and as Côte39
hypothesized, the Ziban has turned out to be a dynamic and “modern” centre
for agricultural development precisely because of the presence of particularly
active peasantries engaging in entrepreneurial agriculture on the new irriga-
tion frontiers. However, this was only possible through the close interactions
and mingling with thousands of mobile young men coming from far away, and
bringing in capital, skill and their workforce, and thus, through the strong con-
nections between mobile “people” and “places”. Indeed, the idea of a creatio ex
nihilo of “modern” Saharan agriculture, i.e. an agricultural development created
by outside intervention ignoring existing dynamics and merely taking advanta-
ge of the available resources (principally land, water and temperature in winter
and spring) has been refuted.40 For example, Hamamouche et al.41 show that the
two Saharan agricultural landscapes, the ancient oases, and the new extensions,
are rmly connected in the Ziban. In both landscapes, the same actors are active
and their diverse farming systems now rely all on pumped groundwater.
Crossing Mult iple Borders Through Geographic and Social Mobilities to Par -
take in the Saharan Groundwater Economy
In this paper, we analyzed the dierent intertwined forms of geographic and
social mobilities in the Algerian Sahara through a case study in Biskra. These
mobilities are related mainly to young men engaging in entrepreneurial green-
house agriculture as lessees or sharecroppers. These young men often travelled
hundreds of kilometers and accepted to live in precarious conditions to take
part in a groundwater economy, which is sometimes labeled as an “Eldorado of
sands”.42 Their ambition was to make money, as greenhouse horticulture has
been very protable, but also to climb the agricultural ladder.43 Indeed, the
groundwater economy in Biskra developed in frontier conditions with many
possibilities for socio-economic advancement in a relatively short time.
Our case study shows that geographic and social mobilities are intrinsically
linked.44 Young men cross multiple borders thanks to these mobilities. Firstly,
they cross some physical and agro-ecological borders during their journey, as
39 Côte, “Des oasis aux zones de mise en valeur,” 5-14.
40 Ali Bensaâd, ed., L’eau et ses enjeux au Sahara (Paris: Karthala, 2011); Meriem Farah Ham-
amouche, Marcel Kuper, Hichem Amichi, Caroline Lejars and Tarik Ghodbani, “New
Reading of Saharan Agricultural Transformation: Continuities of Ancient Oases and Their
Extensions (Algeria),” World Develo pment 107 (2 018): 210-223.
41 Hamamouche, et al., “New Reading of Saharan Agricultural Transformation,” 210-223.
42 Jean Bisson, Mythes et réalités d’un désert convoité: le Sahara (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan,
43 Ouendeno et al., “Les trajectoires professionnelles des jeunes dans la néo-agriculture
44 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
they generally hail from the more temperate northern coastal plains. They usu-
ally rely on their compatriots, who preceded them to the Sahara, to acclimatize
to these new conditions; thus, taking advantage of existing socio-professional
networks. This situation relates to adapting agricultural practices, but also more
generally to adjusting to the living conditions in an unknown territory. Other
people come from even further away and cross international borders like the
Syrians reputed for drilling deep tube-wells or the Moroccans installing and
managing Canarian greenhouses. In line with Urry45, we have also shown that
it is not only people crossing such borders, but also ideas and objects, such as
the internationally developed seeds and pesticides (as an object), the Canarian
greenhouses (as an idea), the capital necessary to conduct intensive horticultu-
re, the capacity to innovate (through geographic mobilities of skilled sharec-
roppers), or the tube-well equipment (as an object), which heavily relies on se-
cond-hand equipment from the oil industry in the Sahara. However, despite the
fact that the geographic mobilities of men, ideas, information, and objects come
together in the highly protable farming systems of greenhouse horticulture,
the functioning of these farming systems relied on the constant adaptation of
practices, ideas and objects to local conditions. This explains the central place
taken by these young mobile men in these farming systems.
Secondly, the prospect of quick prots and rapid social mobilities, associa-
ted with greenhouse horticulture, encouraged these young men to accept the
extremely dicult conditions in which they had to work, in addition to the lack
of social facilities at the rst few years upon their arrival. It was, therefore, no
surprise that these young men would reconnect to the city, as soon as this was
materially possible. This situation was especially the case for those men who
managed to become lessees, which required less of a physical presence in the
greenhouse. Their dream was then to be on the farm in the morning and in a
café at the centre of town in the afternoon, thus crossing frequently the borders
of rural and urban spaces.46 Upward socio-professional mobility enabled more
protable economic activities but was also and perhaps foremost about quitting
as soon as possible the dicult conditions of the eld workers. In addition, their
engagement in this frontier-type agriculture certainly accelerated their coming
of age, as they would dispose of a small capital in their early twenties, opening
up new socio-professional opportunities. Some would pursue in greenhouse
agriculture, climbing the agricultural ladder. Others would engage with other
professional activities, such as transport or marketing. Many would also make
the choice to go back to their home districts.
What Happens on the Return Journey?
Urry47 questioned the “implications these mobilities have for the experiences of time,
space, dwelling and citizenship”. The question is then what happens on the return
journey of those young men that engaged in greenhouse horticulture in the Zi-
ban. An interesting study on tomato production in Ghana48 showed how young
people would seek “quick money” and autonomy through an engagement with
entrepreneurial and highly intensive agriculture. These young people were
45 Ur r y, Sociology Beyond Societies.
46 Naouri, Hartani and Kuper, “Mobilités des jeunes ruraux,” 379-386.
47 Ur r y, Sociology Beyond Societies.
48 Okali and Sumberg, “Quick Money and Power: Tomatoes and Livelihood,” 44-57.
Meltem , No. 4, Winter 2018
shown to have a very instrumental relationship to this type of agriculture, whi-
ch for many did not constitute a long-term engagement. This seems very similar
in the case of greenhouse horticulture in the Ziban, as shown by the rapid tur-
nover of laborers and sharecroppers. However, there are also dierences. We
met many young men who went back to their home districts to engage in gre-
enhouse horticulture there. This concerned rst those sharecroppers who did
not manage upward social mobility and could not become lessees in the Ziban.
In our study, such sharecroppers were the most vulnerable category of young
farmers to return home. The main reason for going home for them was the addi-
tional suering of working in the desert far away from home. Over the last few
years, the daily salary went up in their home districts (10€ for 4 hours of work)
and they have time while working in greenhouse horticulture, to do something
else during the rest of the day. Many of those who went back to the north stayed
in greenhouse and eld horticulture, half of the day working for other farmers,
and the other half in their own rented greenhouses or taking care of livestock.
These farmers tend to diversify their farming systems, for instance by buying
some livestock (mainly goats), or they go towards open eld horticulture. The
second reason is the desire to start a family life when these young men reach
their late twenties. The majority of them went to the Ziban when they were sing-
le, but after marriage or having kids, they preferred to endure the hardships of
greenhouse horticulture close to their family homes. The return journey also
depends on what their goals were before going to the Ziban. Some of them wan-
ted to build a house in their home district and to get married; others wanted to
start a new life elsewhere and considered greenhouse horticulture as their main
business. The return to the home districts does not mean automatically a failure,
as many young men feel that they reached their goals. In addition, many had
obtained some capital, making it easier to engage in farming or other economic
activities in their home districts. Those farmers who climbed the agricultural
ladder and managed to become lessees in the Ziban were more likely to stay
there. They got more involved in the farming systems of the Ziban and this
relationship is harder to break as they have made investments in greenhouses
and in some cases in the land. The majority of the lessees is generally attached
to greenhouse agriculture but remains very mobile. Even if the majority stays
there where the land is more protable such as in the south in places like the
Ziban; some lessees went back and rented land in their home districts or in ot-
her districts in the north where the land access is easier than at home, but in a
similar climate to their homeland.
We have shown how the recent agricultural groundwater-based boom in Al-
geria’s Sahara was made possible due to a perhaps unique imbrication of both
geographic and social mobilities of people, ideas, information, and objects,
deeply connected in many ways to local agricultural dynamics and more glo-
bal farming systems. Nowhere can be an island, in particular, “in the case of the
complex trading and travel routes that constituted the Mediterranean world over many
centuries” as Fernand Braudel posited in his reputed work on the Mediterranean
at the time of Philip II.49 The oases, often portrayed as islands in a hostile de-
sert, were rmly connected to the trans-Saharan exchanges in the past before
their decline from the 16th century onwards. Côte50 even refers to the advent of
49 Sheller and Urry, “The New Mobilities Paradigm,” 207-226.
50 Côte, “Des oasis aux zones de mise en valeur,” 5-14.
Kuper - Na ouri - Hartani
agriculture in these oases as a “by-product” of this long-distance trade and of
a world based on a “vie de relation” (a relational life). Algeria’s Sahara today is
once again connected in a myriad of ways to the new globalization as described
by authors such as Firth51, which means that agricultural development in even
these far-ung places can only be understood when accounting for the dierent
interlinked geographic and social mobilities of people, ideas, information and
objects that we revealed.
The research for this article was conducted in the framework of the “Groun-
dwater Arena” project, nanced by Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR). We
thank the organizers of the Symposium “Mediterranean in Motion” and the
Izmir Mediterranean Academy for having given us the opportunity to present
and discuss this paper during the Symposium.
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