Two hours from Tunis, in the woods of Ain Drahem, a group of Tunisians began their adventure: a way of living built around community and permaculture. With the GPS point as our guide, we follow the mark fastidiously until we find ourselves in the middle of the Homrane forest, facing a large gate. There is no doubt that we have arrived. A house appears in the middle of a stretch of land surrounded by mountains. A man who looks to be about thirty or so comes out to greet us, a dog at his heels.
Far from the romanticized images and clichés, this is not a group of hippies or ecological activists awaiting us, but a little family: Omar, Mariem and their four-month-old baby. Omar is an agricultural engineer who studied in Tunisia and France. Mariem is a researcher in the field of hydraulics. In 2019, artist and product designer Slim Baccar—the third founding member of Homrane Community—discovered a piece of land and encouraged the couple to buy it in order to launch their permaculture project. The couple abandoned their well-established careers in France in spite of the reluctance expressed by family and friends. In three years, the work they have accomplished is tremendous. The group independently financed the construction of two homes, which they built themselves with help from friends. « It took fifteen of us to build this roof », Omar tells us.
Each building is designed to be self-sufficient in energy. Rain water is collected, wood is used for heating, and the surrounding land has born its first treasures, guaranteed to be free of pesticides and GMOs. The soil is rich, alive. « Daily life follows the rhythm of work. We fall asleep feeling sore all over, but truly satisfied », Mariem tells us. Working a hectare and a half of land is not easy, and summer is the most difficult season. « Water is the greatest obstacle we face. We have a limited reserve. This requires us to keep track of how much we use and come up with solutions », Omar explains. Olive oil, flour, semolina, onions, garlic, honey, tomatoes, every square meter is a treasure and strict water management is vital. « We have not yet achieved our objective. We want to be 100% self-sufficient, which takes years of work and experimentation », says Omar.
A world vision
Permaculture was founded in 1970 by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Its ethics are simple: earth care, people care, and fair share. Community living is almost inseparable from permaculture. Beyond actions, permaculture implies a profound consciousness of the connection between people and the environment. « The dominant catastrophist narrative presents individualism and survival as the only possible escapes from the coming crises. Solidarity and collectivity are not presented as solutions even though they offer more advantages », Omar argues.
After jumping through the hoops of administrative paperwork and project management, the couple presented their file to the Ministry of Agriculture. The experience left them deflated. « He advised us to go into raising chickens, which is much more profitable. We felt politically and socially isolated. He considered ours to be a rose-colored vision of agriculture », Omar relates. This was not the only major obstacle that the group was to face. Once they finally arrived in Homrane, they had to assimilate into the village which has its own social structure and codes. Their home was broken into on three occasions. Their guitars were destroyed, as if to deliver a message. « We thought it would be easier. We are in a legal dispute with a neighbor who has a chicken farm. He has threatened us because we denounced his non-compliance with environmental laws. He insulted us as being « sold to France » … Today, our door remains open to everyone, but we are less naive » Omar recounts. Coexistence is nevertheless materializing elsewhere, with other neighbors slowly gaining an interest in their work. « This year, our neighbor, Aam Salah, tried our method after observing the results we’d had with wheat. Instead of plowing, he planted », Mariem tells us.
Sharing is a founding pillar of Homrane Community. It is not by chance that our discussion continues over lunch. Omar heads to the vegetable garden to collect the ingredients for a couscous made from their own wheat. « I experienced the cliché moment of biting into the first juicy tomato that ripened on the vine. And it remains a wonderful memory », he says as he pulls up some onions. Tasting all that their land has produced, we are aware not only of the notion of sharing, but of a different relationship to nutrition.
« We have had moments of doubt. But we were encouraged by the ATP (Tunisian Association of Permaculture). We felt less alone. Being part of a network gives us strength », the couple acknowledges. Omar and Mariem evoke the ATP as being a major turning point in their journey. Founded in 2015, the association is composed of a core group of Tunisians who share the same environmental and ethical values.
Homrane Community keeps its doors open to anyone who wants to discover « another possibility » through participatory workshops on sustainable building, permaculture and even meditation. A second building can be rented for those who wish to spend the night or stay for several days. In the future, the group intends the space to be used for artistic residencies.
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