Following the birth of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria in 1962, after 130 years of French rule, the Government, led by President Houari Boumediene, set about transforming Algeria socially and economically. By the late 1960s attention was turned to agricultural development, particularly in the Algerian Steppe where the rapidly increasing population and social unrest had led to serious land degradation.
As a part of its policy of agrarian reform the Government aimed to stop nomadic migration and settle the entire population around new townships. This required attention to farming and irrigation.
These developments were stimulated in 1970 by the FAO which organised a tour of their team leaders from North Africa to study dryland farming technology across southern Australia. This resulted in the Algerian contingent establishing medic based dry land farming field research and demonstration sites across their country. Mr Ted Carter, a senior Lecturer at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute and Mr Glyn Webber, an internationally respected agronomist in the South Australian Department of Agriculture were employed as consultants.
Keen to gain exports of agricultural machinery, seeds, fencing and livestock, as well as contracting agronomic and livestock expertise, the Dunstan Government in South Australia commenced a political exchange with Algeria. Between 1970 and 1979, the Premier and three Ministers of Agriculture visited Algeria. In return, visits to South Australia by senior staff of the Algerian Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform and Governors of four Wilayas in the Steppe, occurred.
To fulfil both governments’ interests, negotiations commenced between members of Algerian and South Australian government agencies. During 1975, Peter Barrow, Assistant Director in the South Australian Department of Agriculture visited Algeria twice and offered the Ministry of Agriculture and Agarian Reform (MARA) a contract to develop a dryland farming demonstration farm along the lines of the successful Libyan project. The Algerians were interested in a South Australian presence but wanted technical help at three sites on the Steppe, with the physical implementation of their policies involving revegetation, irrigation and social adjustments.
Despite Barrow’s reservations regarding the resources and necessary engineering skills required (informed by a 1966 Russian report), negotiations continued. Political pressure for trade and the Algerian confidence in our agricultural expertise over road his concerns and negotiations continued. There were further visits to South Australia by senior MARA personnel.
The Department then offered to develop 1000 ha of grazing land in conjunction with co-operatives near a small town, Mahdia, located to the northwest of Ksar Challala. The Algerians did not accept this offer.
The Algerian Government, with World Bank promises of funds, called international tenders in 1976 for the development of 850000 ha for grazing, 5000 ha of irrigation, revegetation and diversification of economic activities for the Steppe region and the community. No applications were received.
MARA was then given permission to develop the best project possible with the South Australian Government. A consortium, Professional Consultants Australia Ltd (PCA) was created to manage the project. Nadir Donmandji, the Director of Animal Production was appointed by MARA to represent the Algerian interests.
After prolonged negotiations in 1977 and little real progress the private members of PCA pulled out leaving the Premier’s Department and the Department of Agriculture in South Australia to work towards some form of finality.
Negotiations recommenced in April 1978 when the South Australian Premier and the Director of Agriculture, Mr Jim McColl visited Algeria. Broad aims and programs for the project were set down.
The preparation and detailed planning of an integrated development program for the Ksar Chellala agro-pastoral area situated in the Wilaya of Medea, Djelfa and Tiaret commenced. The implementation of the scheme by the contractor was developed.
To carry out these agreed aims the following programs were proposed:
To attain these objectives MARA had agreed to supply a project manager with a team of counterpart staff to match the South Australian team, administrative support staff, access to all Algerian government agencies necessary to implement the project and many material resources including housing and office accommodation.
The South Australians for their part agreed to supply a team of sixteen experts and consultants for a total of three hundred and two man months, a fleet of vehicles and spare parts, all the necessary scientific equipment and tertiary training for five Algerian students.
It was estimated that the contract would make a profit of $490,672 over the three years with additional anticipated spin-offs including the development of a live-sheep trade with Algeria, the sale of 1,500 merino rams, contracts for four animal production specialists and a cooperative medic development project for $120,000.
The World Bank had agreed to the project and because of its size and complexity set up a special group to advise and assist the operations.
By October of that year real progress towards an agreed contract was possible. In the Department a new Overseas Project Unit had been established with Arthur Tideman, Chief Agronomist, appointed as director. He, together with a Senior Project Officer from the Premier’s Department, Terry O’Connell and an assistant, Chris Heysen, travelled to Algeria and obtained a final agreed contract after days of negotiation. This enabled applicants to be called Australia wide, for the project, during November. Six positions were filled, viz, a Team Leader/Rangeland Management Specialist, Agrostologist/Rangland Agronomist, Irrigation Engineer, Soil Scientist, Agricultural Economist and Hydrologist.
In January 1979 the contract was signed in Adelaide by Deputy Premier Des Corcoran and the Minister of Agriculture Brian Chatterton. Nadir Doumandji represented the Algerian Government.
Work on the ground was due to commence at Ksar Chellala in 1979, however an assessment by Tideman’s team and the Australian Trade Commission to Algeria, Hugh McClelland, found that MARA was not adequately prepared. As late as October of that year electricity and water had not been connected to the site, housing for counterpart staff was only half completed and the Italian prefabricated houses for the Australians were erected but of very poor construction.
The South Australians had major problems too. The initial Team Leader never took up his role and the second resigned after 6 months. It was found that much of the expertise for the project (it was essentially a rangeland project) was not available from South Australia and had to be recruited from other parts of Australia. The Irrigation Engineer was declared unsuitable by the Algerians. None of the team from South Australia had international project expertise. There was a major language problem. The Algerians did not speak English and the French language training at Villefranche, France for the Australian team was inadequate for the day to day and also for the necessary World Bank mandated periodic reports.
The laws and regulations of the socialist economy of Algeria and the inflexibility in the bureaucracy inhibited communication. Time and resources were wasted on registering motor vehicles, opening bank accounts, obtaining exit permits and other authorisations, recruiting translators, etc. MARA saw these frustrations as a reflection on the competence of the experts and created an atmosphere of failure and mistrust. Nevertheless, good friendships were formed between the South Australians and their Algerian counterparts and morale was surprisingly high (solidarity through adversity?)
The ambiguous wording of the main contract caused frustration. The obligations of both sides were unclear and contradictory in relation to the technical objectives and administration. The contract was heavily biased towards MARA which in any case, as pointed out above was operating in a highly bureaucratic and inflexible form of government. MARA did not provide all of its counterpart experts and many of the positions (economist, sociologist, project manager administration) were vacant throughout the duration of the project. Most of the other Algerian experts were underqualified and some resented having to live at Ksar Chellala. The project was always short of money with the South Australian team having to pay for items which were the responsibility of MARA, eg fuel, spare parts, telex services and stationary.
Notwithstanding the problems on both sides, a major socio-economic survey was undertaken in the project area in 1981-82 by the South Australian livestock expert and an Algerian team. This involved a survey of 10% of the household population and the information analysed by the Australian National University. A broad-scale soil survey was carried over the whole of the project zone in 1981-82 and close-grid soil surveys on irrigation areas. About 100 soil samples were tested at the Northfield Laboratories of the Department of Agriculture, Adelaide.
In 1980-81 a vegetation survey was conducted over the project zone and in 1982 there was a land classification survey to produce land capability class maps of each commune in the geographical area. Topographical surveys were undertaken on over 2,000 ha of the irrigation perimeters, a detailed survey of all existing water resources and some field trials of medic and other forage crops but these largely failed due to lack of adequate water supply. A development plan was supplied to MARA for the establishment of an “Experimental Station”.
Earlier mention was made about the conflicting expectations contained in the contract. If the project was a failure it was because MARA did not understand that the South Australian team was there to undertake surveys and plans for the future development of the Ksar Chellala region. Implementation was the responsibility of the Algerians and not the South Australians. As far as is known the recommendations for the development of the Ksar Chellala agro-pastoral zone were never implemented.
After Salger Pty Ltd became SAGRIC International, it continued to operate for some years under state equity ownership of the South Australian Government but was eventually sold to Coffey International.
About the Author
This article was prepared by Arthur Tideman, former Director of the Overseas Projects Unit within the South Australian Department of Agriculture. Contributions were made by:
Hugh McCelland, Australian Trade Commissioner, Algeria 1979-82.
Jim McColl, Glyn Webber, Iain Grierson, Chris Heysen.