On October 5, 1988, fierce rioting broke out in Algeria’s capital, Algiers, and spread to many of the country’s other urban centers. The government proclaimed a “state of siege” and responses with heavy force. By the end of the week, when an uneasy calm had been restored, the dead numbered in the hundreds, with thousands wounded or in jail. [1]

For many years, Algeria had seemed to be one of the most stable countries in the Third World. Suddenly its political and economic future had been cast into question. What had gone wrong? There are numerous proximate causes. Labor strikes created an initial nucleus of social protest. A sharp decline in hydrocarbon revenues injected greater austerity into the prevailing environment of high unemployment and inflation, lack of housing, and squalid urban conditions. Drought and a devastating locust invasion resulted in food shortages and higher food prices. Deeper structural causes include the political bankruptcy of the ruling FLN party.

Certainly one feature of the events in Algeria has been the failure of the country to feed itself through its own agricultural production and its increasing inability to cover the cost of food imports and food subsidies. This is ironic, since government policies dating back to the first years of independence from France have ostensibly emphasized self-sufficiency in food production. Now an increasing proportion of the population lives near the threshold of hunger, and this in turn engenders political and economic instability.

Food Policies Since Independence

The War of Independence from 1954 to 1962 devastated Algeria. More than 1 million Algerians died — mostly peasants — and over 2 million rural Algerians were uprooted and forced into detention camps to create free-fire zones in the countryside. Hundreds of villages were destroyed, cropland and forests were napalmed and burned, and livestock perished by the millions. The destruction of agrarian Algeria was compounded by the fact that many of the approximately 22,000 colonial farmers severely neglected their holdings during the war. At war’s end, most abruptly abandoned their farms. Some four fifths of this abandoned farmland produced wheat and barley, Algeria’s major food crops.

Given this destruction, one of Algeria’s most pressing problems at independence was simply feeding itself. At the time, while various factions struggled for control of the government, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Throughout the countryside, landless peasants who had formerly worked on the abandoned colonial farms as wage laborers occupied these farms and kept them in production. This so-called self-management (autogestion) movement succeeded in averting famine, and Algeria’s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, adopted self-management as a strategy for garnering the support of the rural masses and meeting the country’s food needs. He legitimized the agricultural workers’ fait accompli and decreed autogestion a central pillar of Algerian socialism. Remaining colonial agricultural holdings were nationalized and added to the self-managed sector.

Peasant self-management, though, presented the new government with a major dilemma: how to reassert control over the countryside. This former colonial sector of approximately 2.7 million hectares represented Algeria’s best farmland and accounted for the majority of the country’s high-value crops. [2] The solution involved measures that gradually encroached on the autonomy of the autogestion farms and subjugated them to decisions made by the central government. Between 1963 and 1966, the 22,000 self-managed farms were consolidated into approximately 2,000 large state farms. On these large units, the government controlled virtually all production and marketing decisions, and finances. These farms absorbed the vast majority of government funds accorded to agriculture. Expanding agricultural production in the state sector represented the government’s exclusive strategy for providing for Algeria’s food security.

Houari Boumediene, who seized power in 1965, quickly dropped autogestion as his regime’s showpiece, substituting instead state-owned heavy industry. The rural sector, though, retained considerable ideological importance. Boumediene promised a far-reaching agrarian reform in 1966 and, after neutralizing internal opposition, inaugurated Algeria’s “agrarian revolution” in 1971. The reform had two explicit goals: to reduce agrarian inequalities engendered during colonial times and to provide for national self-sufficiency in basic foodstuffs. The reform outlawed exploitative forms of tenure and distributed land to landless and land-poor peasants from state lands and expropriated private holdings. Algeria’s 26,000 large landowners were to relinquish all land in excess of about 45 hectares. Holdings of some 34,100 absentee landowners were to be entirely expropriated.

By 1980, when the reform had run its course, over 1.3 million hectares had been distributed to nearly 100,000 beneficiaries, who were required to join a production cooperative and work the land in common. [3] Land remained in state ownership, and beneficiaries had no right of resale. In the end, the agrarian revolution sector was remarkably like the self-managed sector. The major differences were in production-unit size and quality of land. Agrarian revolution cooperatives were much smaller than the self-managed farms — averaging around 260 hectares versus 1,230 hectares on the self-managed farms. In addition, agrarian revolution land was generally much poorer in quality.

A second goal was complete self-sufficiency in cereal production by the year 1980. The authorities reasoned that expanding the state agricultural sector would enable the government to expand the use of modern inputs and techniques and harness a new agricultural labor force. A greater sense of ownership would motivate beneficiaries of this reform to produce more than they had been under previous, less secure tenure arrangements.

The agrarian revolution also had other, less explicit motives. It would enable the government to subsidize its program of industrialization by providing inexpensive supplies of raw materials for Algeria’s emerging industrial complex and cheap food for its industrial workers. It would also help raise rural incomes, thereby slowing peasant exodus from the countryside and expanding the market for industrial output.

Government commitment to food security, though, faltered in 1973, once skyrocketing world oil prices produced windfall revenues that could finance both food imports and industrialization. By 1980 it was apparent that the policy of concentrating development funds in the state agricultural sector had failed to meet the country’s food needs. Food imports had reached dangerously high levels, urban consumers were complaining about empty shelves, and social and economic conditions in the countryside were rapidly deteriorating. Furthermore, the state agricultural sector had become a major drain on the national treasury; its deficit had grown to an annual total of roughly $2 billion. [4]

Promoting Private Ownership

Chadli Benjedid, who took over after Boumediene died in 1978, initiated a series of policy shifts. The government’s 1980-1984 plan officially gave priority to agriculture once again, and called for fully satisfying the country’s food needs and promoting the wellbeing of the rural masses. [5] The government began to restructure the state agricultural sector in 1981, intent on creating more economically viable units. By 1985, the self-managed and agrarian revolution units had been completely merged and reorganized into some 3,429 state farms of roughly equal size known as domaines agricoles socialistes, comprising slightly over 2.8 million hectares. An additional 700,000 hectares of former agrarian revolution land were privatized — sold or leased to individual farmers or returned to their former owners. [6] In 1987, claiming persisting inefficiency in the state agricultural sector, the government further restructured this sector to promote private ownership. Since 1987, the government has gradually been converting the domaines agricoles socialistes into smaller autonomous units known as exploitations agricoles collectives (EACs).

This latest reform breaks dramatically with past approaches. Rather than being imposed from above, the new collectives are formed voluntarily by their members. EACs must have a minimum of three members and are not to exceed 2,000 hectares. [7] This means that each farmer can hold roughly 667 hectares — as opposed to about 45 hectares during the agrarian revolution period. The EACs lease land from the state, but individual collective members are allowed to sell their shares of the leases after five years. They are given complete autonomy in their operations. Although they can obtain loans from the government on very favorable terms, they must otherwise rely on their own initiative rather than on government support.

Since 1980, the government has also been extending assistance, mainly credit, to the private sector, which had received little or no assistance from previous post-colonial governments. This sector accounts for some 80 percent of Algeria’s farmers and 60 percent of the country’s agricultural land. It mainly comprises traditional dryland farmers who grow cereals on small landholdings. Their holdings are primarily located on marginal lands characterized by unfavorable slopes, poor soils and unreliable rainfall, but the private sector also includes modern entrepreneurs who produce market vegetables and other high-value crops on irrigated holdings.

To facilitate loans to this sector, the government established the Banque de l’Agriculture et du Developpement Rural in 1982, which now has some 300 branches and offers loans at subsidized interest rates (2.5 to 5 percent). [8] Responsiveness to credit availability is reflected in rapidly increasing private purchases of agricultural machinery. Tractor purchases, for example, increased from virtually none during the 1971-1977 period to 1,321 in 1980 and 5,383 in 1983. [9] In 1983, the Algerian government issued a law that abrogated prior restrictions on private land transactions and also established an ambitious homesteading program. [10] Homesteaders are given start-up loans and various subsidies. And in exchange for putting previously undeveloped state land into production, homesteaders are granted property rights to the land. This program is expected eventually to subsume some 800,000 hectares. Most allotments are fairly small (under three hectares), and most have been on steppe and desert lands in Algeria’s south. The aim is to expand Algeria’s agricultural acreage, increase the nation’s food production, combat rural-to-urban migration and counterbalance excessive urban development along the northern coast.

In 1984, the government announced a comprehensive development plan to increase cultivated area, raise agricultural yields and mobilize water resources for irrigation. The aim is to bring up to 2 million hectares of “new” land into production by the end of the 1990s through homesteading and by reducing the acreage left fallow each year. The plan also calls for mechanization, the introduction of high-yield seeds, and better cultivation techniques to increase crop yields. The 1985-1989 plan, for example, called for the purchase of over 45,000 tractors and 4,600 combine-harvesters. Finally, the government plans to roughly triple the country’s irrigated acreage by the year 2000, to nearly one million hectares.

The Crisis Worsens

Since 1980 the government has been engaged in an all-out effort to increase food production through aggressively restructuring the state agricultural sector and embracing the large private sector.

Have these initiatives been successful? Wheat and barley are the country’s staple food crops. These cereals are consumed primarily as bread and couscous. Cereals account for nearly two thirds of the daily caloric intake of the average Algerian, and more than 80 percent for the poorest urban classes. [11] Cereal production figures thus provide good insight into the country’s food security situation. Average annual cereal production during the period 1982-1989 was 10 percent less than that during the war years of 1954-1961. [12] The failure is even more striking in terms of per capita production, which has decreased 59 percent, from an annual average of 214 kilograms per person to only 87 kilograms.

During the period 1958-1962, Algeria’s cereal imports averaged 40 kilograms per person. Today, these imports have grown to over 200 kilograms per person. Imported cereals now account for nearly 70 percent of Algeria’s total cereal consumption. [13] And cereals are not the only food import: Over 80 percent of Algeria’s total food supply is now imported. [14]

Food imports are not necessarily bad, if the importing country can afford these imports. The financial burden of Algeria’s food imports has grown to nearly $2 billion annually, placing a severe strain on the national treasury. [15] How will the government manage to feed twice as many Algerians within the next 30 years, a period when hydrocarbon exports and revenues will probably be in sharp decline?

A number of complex factors underlie this failure, including constraints of environment and climate, the continuing legacy of colonialism, and high demographic growth. To a significant degree, though, Algeria’s food security crisis can be understood as a crisis precipitated by government neglect, peasant resistance and the relative failure of land reform.

Government Neglect, Peasant Resistance

Despite the political importance of the agrarian sector, and verbal commitments of the country’s leaders, agriculture has continuously taken second place to industrialization in terms of government funding. In the 1967-1969 “pre-plan,” agriculture received roughly 26 percent of the total investments. In the 1970-1973 plan, its percentage fell to 15 percent and in the 1974-77 plan, to only 11 percent. In the 1980-1984 and 1985-1989 plans, both of which supposedly give priority to agriculture, its share was less than 6 percent. [16]

Shortages of funding have meant that fertilizer, improved seeds and agricultural machinery have often been in short supply in the state agricultural sector. Due to a lack of imported spare parts, between 15 and 25 percent of Algeria’s agricultural machinery is non-functional at any given time. [17] Cereal storage deficiencies are responsible for an estimated 20 percent annual loss in grain stocks. [18] There has also been inadequate agricultural experimentation, extension and training, with obvious implications for production.

Most of Algeria’s private agricultural sector remains traditional due to long-standing government neglect. Although more prosperous landowners have recently been able to modernize with government assistance, the majority of private-sector farmers still depend on animal traction and the traditional swing plow. The private sector accounts for over half of the country’s production of wheat and barley, yet is characterized by pathetically low levels of production. Cereal yields are less than a third of those obtained in Turkey, and only about a seventh of those in France. [19] These low yields are principally due to the constraints of traditional agricultural technology.

Funding shortages also show up in pricing policies. Until relatively recently, prices paid to farmers for wheat, barley, and other staple foods were far below world market prices — a World Bank study claims that they were only between one fifth and one half of what they would have been without government price fixing. [20] The government’s primary motive was to obtain inexpensive food for its industrial workers, thereby subsidizing its program of industrialization, and more generally to help feed the urban poor and prevent social unrest. Low crop prices, though, have greatly discouraged food production and helped encourage a massive exodus out of the countryside and into the cities. Without jobs, these rural refugees have become an idle and politically dangerous force.

Funding shortages for agriculture have also meant extremely low wages for agricultural workers in the state sector — much lower than industrial wages. For many years, salaries in the state agricultural sector provided for only about half of an average peasant family’s food needs. By resorting to other income-generating activities, public-sector farmers have helped to feed their families, but the consequences in terms of productivity have been highly inimical to the nation’s food security. [21] Peasant resistance is thus another component of the food crisis. Peasants in the state sector arrange to be paid for work days when they are engaged elsewhere. They illegally appropriate part of each cereal harvest for their own family needs. They rent state agricultural machinery to farmers in the private sector, and sell state-owned fertilizer and other inputs to these private farmers. They divert forage crops to large commercial stock-raisers or stock-raising relatives, and allow these stock-raisers to graze on fallow state lands. State sector peasants themselves are prohibited from owning flocks and herds, but they have nonetheless acquired livestock by the millions. In many cases, invading livestock have eaten a significant percentage of grain in surrounding wheat and barley fields.

“Disappeared” Land

Another reason that Algeria’s food security situation has deteriorated is that the country’s land reform was never so extensive as it claimed to be. A total of over 2.4 million hectares “disappeared” between 1962 and 1975. Most of this “disappeared” land is owned or controlled by large and/or absentee landlords. [22]

Approximately 400,000 hectares disappeared from the self-managed sector between 1962 and 1965, when European farmers fled the Algerian countryside. Much of this land is believed to have been appropriated by leaders of the independence struggle.

Another 1.4 million hectares disappeared from the public sector in 1974-1975 — public lands that, before the agrarian revolution, were typically leased out to wealthy farmers who used sharecroppers or wage labor to work the land. In early 1974, the government announced it had expropriated 3 million hectares of this land for the land reform fund. By 1975, the total had fallen to 1.6 million hectares. It appears that farmers pressured local authorities to withdraw 1.4 million hectares from the land fund.

The remaining 650,000 hectares disappeared from the private sector between 1962 and 1975. Large landholders bribed or coerced authorities to delete their holdings from the records — this accounts for about 300,000 hectares. The remaining 350,000 hectares disappeared from the land reform fund through various loopholes and sleights of hand.

In all, Algeria’s large and/or absentee landowners managed to retain nearly a third of the country’s arable land. The amount of land that evaded land reform is twice as large as the amount included. Using the rule of thumb that ten hectares of dry land are needed to support a peasant family in Algeria, an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 additional landless families could have acquired viable holdings. Inclusion of this land in agrarian reform might have enabled Algeria to increase its cereal production significantly.

What Next?

To cover production shortfalls, the government has had to import wheat, barley, and other basic commodities at significantly higher prices than the low, subsidized consumer prices it charges to its citizens. Food imports and food subsidies in Algeria now cost over $2.5 billion a year, contributing significantly to foreign indebtedness. Algeria’s foreign debt is now more than a third of its GNP, and the debt service ratio has grown to nearly 60 percent. [23]

In 1988, apparently in anticipation of borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, the Chadli government began to implement several of the “conditionalities” that are generally preconditions for IMF loans. Among other things, it devalued the dinar by approximately 30 percent, and also attempted to reduce the country’s expensive food subsidies. The resulting substantial rises in food prices helped to precipitate the October 1988 riots.

When rioting broke out in Algeria, food prices had already increased by some 40 percent since the start of 1988. Such price increases would create vehement political protest in even the wealthiest countries. In Algeria, where a majority of the population lives precariously close to impoverishment, these price increases helped stretch social tensions to the breaking point. It was no coincidence that rioters waved empty couscous boxes in the streets, or that they replaced the Algerian national flag flying over a prominent government building with an empty wheat sack. Algeria’s food security crisis will increasingly absorb the attention of government policy makers. The 1988 disturbances are ominous signs of the social chaos that may ultimately ensue in the absence of major changes in government policies.


[1] This article is drawn from research funded by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation. For a fuller treatment, see the author’s “Agricultural Policies and the Growing Food Security Crisis” in John P. Entelis and Philip Naylor, eds., Algeria: State and Society in Transition (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990).
[2] In 1966, the Boumediene regime gave approximately 330,000 hectares of former colon land to war veterans, who were required to join a cooperative auricle de production des anciens moujahidine (CAPAM). CAPAM land usually was not considered to belong to the self-managed sector, and its deduction gives the oft-seen total of 2.4 million hectares for the self-managed sector.
[3] Slimane Bedrani, L’Agriculture algerienne depuis 1966: etatisation ou privatisation? (Paris: Economica, 1982), p. 397.
[4] Revolution Africaine, June 27-July 3, 1966, p. 15.
[5] Ibid., pp. 15-21.
[6] Ibid.
[7] In cases where the available land is less than 2,000 hectares or of poor quality, this rule can be waived. See the Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Report 1 (1988).
[8] Marches Tropicaux et Mediterraneens 43 (1987), pp. 1434-1437.
[9] Bedrani, p. 277.
[10] See, for example, Francois Burgat, “Loi fonciere, d’aout 1983: la vraie revolution? Grand Maghreb 38 (1985), pp. 112-113.
[11] See Les Modeles de consommation et les politiques alimentaires dans les pays du Maghreb, proceedings of a conference at the Centre de Recherche en Economie Appliquee, Algiers, December 17-19, 1984.
[12] The cereal production average for 1988 and 1989 is 1,819,500 metric tons.
[13] FAO, Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, recent issues.
[14] Les modeles de consommation, p. 67.
[15] See, for example, Afrique Agriculture 142 (1987).
[16] See Revolution Africaine, June 27-July 3, 1986, pp. 15-21. In the 1985-1989 plan, an additional 7.5 percent was allocated for hydraulique (water development), most of which will go for dam construction. The Algerian government usually combines this category with agriculture, because much of the impounded water will go for irrigation, though much will also be used for hydroelectric generation and other urban/industrial uses.
[17] See, for example, Economist Intelligence Unit, Quarterly Economic Review of Algeria 1 (1981).
[17] Armelle Braun, “Rethinking Agricultural Development: Algeria’s Adjustment Process,” Ceres 16/3 (may-June 1983), pp. 39-45.
[19] FAO, Quarterly Bulletin of Statistics 1989 3.
[20] See Kevin M. Cleaver, “The Agricultural Development Experience of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia: A Comparison of Strategies for Growth,” World Bank Staff Working Paper 552 (Washington, DC, 1982), p. 38.
[21] For an excellent study in this regard, see Jean-Marc Codron and Bernard Cros, “Autogestion et intensification cerealiere en Algerie,” Tiers-Monde 25 (1984), pp. 419-425.
[22] I have based these calculations on Karen Pfeifer, Agrarian Reform Under State Capitalism in Algeria (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985) and G. de Villers, Pouvoir politique et question agraire en Algerie (Louvain: Institut des Sciences Politiques et Sociales, Universite Catholique de Louvain, 1978).
[23] Economist Intelligence Unit, Algeria: Country Report 4 (1988).

How to cite this article:

Will Swearingen "Algeria’s Food Security Crisis," Middle East Report 166 (September/October 1990).

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