Image from the National Assembly of Environmental Dynamics, December 21, 2021. Drawing by Kadar Nefla.

Every weekend since 2019, the association Soli & Green has organized reforestation campaigns. Most recently, they planted 7,000 trees in Sejnane. In order to promote small-scale agriculture, the Tunisian Permaculture Association has set up a buy-direct system connecting producers and consumers. Tunisie Recyclage regularly organizes clean-up and waste sorting campaigns. Since 2017, the association Reverdir la Tunisie has created edible « oasis forests » in school establishments. In 2016, the Tunisian Water Observatory (OTE) launched a platform to report water cuts, poor water access and social movements demanding access to water. In September, a human chain along the coast of Tunis’ southern suburb was organized to denounce marine pollution and incite the National Office of Sanitation (ONAS) to stop evacuating polluted water and industrial plant waste water into the sea. Beginning in 2020, the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum (FTDES) became involved in environmental litigation « in order to require large polluters and environmental rights violators to change the way they operate and to put a stop to their transgressions ». The organization recently sued the Company of Phosphate Gafsa (CPG) for over-exploiting groundwater resources and for the company’s involvement in recurrent water cuts and disruptions in the town of Redeyef.

Water cuts are increasingly frequent in the mining basin region. Mdhilla. Nawaat, 2018.

Carried out at different levels and with different approaches, all of these actions are designed in response to pressing environmental issues: the collapse of biodiversity, deforestation, water scarcity, desertification and pollution. In Tunisia, various forms of desertification affect the soil across more than 75% of the country’s surface area, resulting in the loss of some 25,000 hectares of arable land. The average threshold level of water stress in Tunisia is 400 m3 of water/year/person, a quantity considerably below the international threshold level of 500 m3. In spite of these threats, environmental concerns do not seem to galvanize any action beyond the scope of civil society. Indeed, if there is one area where the government excels in being absent, it is in matters relating to the environment.

Absence of local authorities

« The government has an environmental policy, but it is totally defective », remarks Ines Labiadh, head of the FTDES’ « Environmental Justice » department. There are several reasons for this, Labiadh explains: « Laxity, corruption, lack of human and financial resources, lack of transparency ». Historically (and officially), however, Tunisia has always had a policy of protecting and promoting the environment and natural resources. This policy has materialized through an entire legal framework and the creation of environmental institutions. Tunisia is even among the first of the MENA region countries to have prepared a national plan of action for the environment (PANE) in the 1990s. In 1995, it formalized its sustainable development program in a national Agenda 21.

Since then, a plethora of programs, strategic documents and plans of action have been elaborated, accords and international conventions signed—without any measurable results. According to a report by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, « the environmental approach developed over the past thirty years has not supported integrated approaches and systemic visions in which different elements are interrelated and interconnected. Policies relating to the environment lack a clear, coherent and transversal global vision. They are often fragmented, isolated from development processes and above all planned without involvement by concerned actors, barely taking into account regional and local specificities ». A stark evaluation that is echoed by Ines Labiadh: « The institutionalization of environmental issues has not translated into an improved situation in this country ». And it is precisely the government’s inaction that has prompted so many associations to mobilize, sometimes stepping in to do the work that public authorities have failed to undertake.

Civil society’s impact?

« In the beginning, our primary role was that of whistleblower and intermediary between citizens and public institutions », recalls Alaa Marzougui, general coordinator for the Tunisian Water Observatory (OTE). « We have since established our legitimacy as an organization, and ministers who once ignored us now regularly solicit our help ». On the ground, intervention by the OTE facilitates procedures for access to water. « On the one hand, we are happy to be able to help people, but on the other we regret having to intervene in what comprises a public service » notes Marzougui. The OTE has also proposed a number of amendments to a new draft of Tunisia’s water code and blocked several Public-Private Partnership (PPP) projects.

Another example: Tunisie Verte, a network comprising over 100 environmental associations which ensures daily monitoring of the 212 Italian waste containers sitting in the port of Sousse. The network compiles documents necessary for an investigation into the waste that was illegally exported to Tunisia. « There would not have been such mobilization around this question without the Tunisie Verte network », observes activist Houssem Hamdi. Tunisie Verte recently organized a gathering to denounce « the inertia of environmental policies » and to call upon the government to change its paradigm in managing environmental issues, as Hamdi expressed in a statement.

Such initiatives show that associations maintain different attitudes with regards to government; either simply ignoring public authorities that have failed to assume their duties, stepping in to replace them and work in their stead, compensating for shortcomings, or still yet pushing them to fulfill their responsibilities. For Hamdi, cooperation is necessary to strengthen the impact of civil society’s actions. « For reforestation projects, for instance, we work with the CRDAs in complex matters like waste management, we alert the public and concerned institutions, we never exculpate the government’s part in these actions ». Indeed, without political will, showing any real commitment to the environment becomes a Sysiphean endeavor. The FTDES is aware of this reality: « The State must realize its functions, and we, civil society, must denounce and signal its shortcomings by supporting threatened populations ». In this context, the association recently extended support to Borj Salhi residents who denounce land grabbing that was carried out at the end of the 1990’s in order to install windmills in the area. The windmills constitute a source of noise and visual pollution that Borj Salhi residents endure still today.

But collaboration between public institutions and civil society does not always work. « Since we accused the ANGED of certain practices, notably in the Agareb and Borj Chakir waste dumps, they decided to break the convention we had signed with them », laments Ines Labiadh. In this regard, she highlights a crucial point: by becoming « the go-to interlocutors of States and aid agencies », there is a real risk of institutionalizing associations and social movements in order to appease relations with government representatives.

Police repression during the protest movement against the reopening of a waste dump. Ghaya Ben Mbarek, Agareb. November 21, 2021.

The activists we interviewed are also aware of this bias. « Collaborating with public authorities does not mean being conciliatory » says Alaa Marzougui, who adds ruefully that ties between civil society and different administrations are often of a personal nature. « We have developed a network within public administrations that enables us to carry out our work », Marzougui explains. That network, formed of fragile alliances in which officials regularly change positions, must be continually renewed. « Were there a real national strategy and strong political will, we would not need to use personal relations », notes Houssem Hamdi.

Confronted with the environmental crises that threaten our planet, civil society actors in Tunisia are working at every level to save whatever might still be saved. Their credo: push government to assume its environmental responsibilities while continuing to develop initiatives on the ground.