Djerba is an island in the south of Tunisia, often referred to as “the island of dreams.” In Homer’s Odyssey, Djerba is the enchanting land of the lotus-eaters; the land whose flowers charmed the companions of Odysseus and made them forget all thoughts of return. Today Djerba is one of Tunisia’s top tourist destinations. Home to al-Ghriba, Africa’s oldest synagogue, the island annually attracts hundreds of Jewish pilgrims from all over the world. Djerba also boasts fifteen centers of thalassotherapy and is branding itself more and more as a bio-friendly destination. For the past few weeks, however, tension has been mounting in the island over what seems to be the worst environmental crisis in Djerba’s history. The inhabitants of the island, as well as foreign investors, have been multiplying their protests against what they consider to be the Tunisian government’s nonchalance vis-à-vis the problem of garbage disposal in the island. On 30 July 2014, an Italian restaurant-owner chained herself to a traffic sign to protest the burning of trash in front of her property in Djerba. Pictures of locals surrounding her went viral on several social media outlets. The Italian lady’s act of indignation was her way of publicly shaming the Tunisian administration and exposing its failure to keep Djerba clean. This incident marks one of the latest manifestations of what could be considered an awakening of eco-consciousness in Tunisia. So how did all of this start and who is behind this awakening?
On 11 July 2014, locals clashed with the police when some individuals tried to block trucks carrying large amounts of trash from entering the Guellala landfill. The landfill is believed to be extremely underequipped and very dangerous for the environment. The locals lobbied very hard to close it and succeeded in doing so for a period of time. To their surprise, however, the central government in Tunis ordered its re-opening after realizing that it could not afford the cost of transporting the island’s waste to a mainland landfill. The central authorities made this decision after letting the island sink in its own trash for weeks on end. The police fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. Soon afterwards, demonstrations broke out to express the locals’ anger at police violence and at the government’s unilateral decision to reopen the dumping ground in Guellala. A few days later, the regional worker’s union as well as the regional federations of hotels and travel agencies called for a general strike. To appease the tension, the government promised to send a ministerial delegation to Djerba. The strike was postponed, but the government never sent anyone to discuss the problem with the locals. On 24 July 2014, the island went on a four-hour general strike from 8:00 AM to midday. The airport, all public administrations, and the majority of private enterprises were shut down. Never has any region in Tunisia known such a well-organized form of outrage over an environmental issue, despite the increasing number of pollution hotspots in the country.
The strike, which united unionists and business owners, comes as a welcome surprise in a country torn by leftwing and rightwing polarizations. The materiality of the problem seems to be the force that created such an unlikely union. Heaps of garbage and dark carcinogenic smoke wafting in tourist-packed streets are too visible and too concrete to be ignored in an island concerned with maintaining its postcard image. Through their joint action, the locals succeeded in making their voices heard in several national and international media outlets, thus increasing the pressure on the “technocrats” up north in Tunis. Civil society proved to be very active in the campaign to mediatize the island’s environmental dilemma. They also proved to be at the heart of all the efforts that have so far been launched to redress the evils of pollution and mend to Djerba’s image. The regional Red Cross teamed up with the local committees of Houmt Souk, Midoun, and Ajim to organize an event named: "Soyons positifs...preservons notre environnement" (Let’s be positive! Let’s protect our environment). The event consists of three main actions: raising awareness about the theoretical and practical measures that can be used to protect the environment through eco-friendly garbage disposal, distributing containers for recyclable waste to facilitate source separation, and awarding the cleanest neighborhoods and avenues.
Djerba’s promising fight against irresponsible garbage disposal brings to the table several environmental issues that the Tunisian government has been ignoring for years. You simply cannot dispose of a whole region’s trash by burning it on the outskirts of town. You also cannot expect garbage collectors to continue working in the same hazardous environment without providing them with the right equipment and offering them the right health benefits. All of Tunisia is suffering from the same problem that Djerba is suffering from. Every now and then, garbage collectors go on strike because the government reneges on its promises. Piles of trash start appearing in every corner and some fingers start pointing at “greedy” municipality workers who have become “spoiled” after they managed to win the post-uprising benefit of a long-term contract. What Djerba is teaching us, however, is that instead of blaming these workers for the failure of the system, the citizens need to acknowledge their responsibility in this failure and to lobby hard for their cause. Djerba’s awakening also serves as a reminder of the necessity to involve the local citizens in any waste management policy the government will draft and to place the protection of the environment at the top of the government’s priority.
Why did this awakening happen in Djerba and not anywhere else? The size of the island definitely plays a role in this. Land is finite and smells travel fast. The island’s reliance on tourism is also a major factor. Djerba is indeed much luckier than Gafsa and Gabes, for example. These two southern cities continue to writhe under the toxic wastes of the mining and chemical-oriented industries. The pollution there, however, is taken for granted. You seldom here about it on national television, or see it approached in any serious manner outside the closed rooms of regional roundtables. The industrial zones mean jobs, however menial these jobs are. They are also an integral part of Tunisia`s diplomatic relations. Any attempts to expose the heavy environmental toll of these foreign-owned factories can harm the region`s economic status, increase unemployment, and undermine Tunisia`s relationship with its European counterparts.
An incident that occurred earlier in July 2014 proves that there is a gag order placed on discussions of the hazardous industrial activities taking place in the south of the country. More than a month ago, a lake magically appeared in Gafsa. People were very eager to jump in its waters. Days later the water became stagnant and the media started reporting on the possibility of it being toxic or even radioactive. These speculations are based on recent information about the government’s decision to authorize fracking in the region. The fact that Gafsa is home to one of the world’s largest phosphate mines is also a reason behind these concerns. Instead of adressing these accusations in a serious and scientific manner, the Tunisian Ministry of Public Health issued a statement that completely avoids any discussion of toxicity. The statement warns against swimming in the lake, not because it might be contaminated by the chemicals used in shale-extraction or phosphate-mining, but because the lake’s water is “infected with microbes” and is “a favorable site for insect-breeding.” This response, especially when measured against the dangerous accusations international and local media made, proves that the Tunisian government is refusing to disclose any reliable information on the status of the water in the south.
Evidently, the strategies needed to fight industrial pollution must be much more focused than the ones in Djerba. They require patient and extensive training in environmental policy and the building of a solid coalition politics with the green movements in the world at large, but more particularly with the movements in Europe and Asia (respectively, Tunisia`s oldest and newest economic partners). These are long term projects that need to begin very soon to ensure a safer working and living environment for the people in the south of the country. The Djerba lesson of joint local effort and agressive media lobbiying can be used as a first step in the fight against these polluting industries. The events in Djerba have demonstrated that Tunisians need to recover their faith in two very valuable resources whose utility they may have forgotten in the crippling disillusionment that followed the 2011 uprising. These two resources are trade unions and alternative media outlets.
Tunisia`s largest trade union, the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT), has been strongly involved in all the historical struggles that accompanied the country`s fight for political independence from France in the 1950s, as well as in the toppling of the Ben Ali regime in 2011. It is commonly known that the majority of the demonstrations leading to Ben Ali`s fall originated from the local offices of the UGTT, and that to this day, the UGTT remains one of the strongest unions in the Arab world and a significant balancing power in Tunisia. The systematic attacks against the union, which were jointly led by Islamist groups and liberal groups, succeeded in tarnishing the image of the organization in the eyes of many Tunisians. The events in Djerba, however, have shown that the union’s local bureaus possess enough resilience to work with the different components of civil society and enough mobilizing power to organize an unprecedented large-scale strike over an environmental issue.
It is vital that the scattered voices coming from the pollution-ridden areas in the country be channeled through a unifying structure like that of the UGTT, at least in the beginning of the fight for environmental equity. Tunisian environmental activists should consider solidifying their ties with the union in order to benefit from the organization’s large local and global network. It is needful to mention, however, that for any long-term project to succeed in the very hostile right-wing environment that dominates the country, all parties involved in the struggle should avoid the trap of union bureaucracy. Action should remain local. History has shown us time and again that one of the biggest hurdles in the path of organized left-wing efforts has been the hierarchization of decision-making. The recent camaraderie that has been developing between the heads of the UGTT in Tunis and the government of “technocrats” does not bode well for the future of the trade union. Activists need to remain as vigilant as possible.
As to the new media outlets (Facebook, Twitter, e-zines), it is my belief that environmental activists have not explored them in a satisfactory manner yet. These online platforms proved to have a very wide audience in the country. Politicians were among the first to notice and act upon it. For the past three years, these outlets have been the site of an aggressive political polarization, and they have definitely contributed to the general pessimism that has taken over the country. It is the duty of Tunisian environmental activists to reclaim the communicative power of these resources. The struggle should not be confined to closed rooms. It needs to be carried out in the virtual world as well. The seeds of dissent that were planted in Djerba were disseminated through Facebook pages. The result was the successful mobilization of an entire island. The implementation of an efficient strategy of communicating with the younger generations is an essential part of the struggle. It is regrettable to not be able to find any online updates on the Tunisian Green Peace Movement for example. Political and cultural NGO’s are no longer lagging behind. Many of them built their network of volunteers through Facebook. It is true that we all love to hate this platform, but we should always keep in mind that it is a means to an end, and that it actually works.
Djerba’s struggle for cleaner air is the most remarkable environmental action in Tunisia to this day. The magnitude of the strike, the coming together of trade unions and business owners, and the joint effort of several civil society associations all contributed to this success. Evidently, there remains a lot to be done in Djerba to pressure the government to keep its promises. The cities of Gafsa and Gabes, also, need to double their efforts to make their voices heard. Their situation is much more delicate than Djerba’s. Finally, we should always keep in mind that the struggle is not against the decision to open or close a certain landfill. The struggle should be framed within its larger context; that of a government that is increasingly dissociating itself from its social obligations, including the most basic one: safeguarding the environment.