In November, environmental issues hit news headlines when one man died after state security forces used massive amounts of tear gas on people protesting a toxic waste dump in Agareb. But that incident has only been one of many environmental issues fueling public anger over state policies in recent years.
In 2017, a new police force, the Environment Police, was set up to punish polluters as well as health code violators. Its mandate was broad, theoretically policing everything from industrial waste-water runoff and fumes to individuals abandoning furniture in the street or harming “urban and environmental aesthetics.” Four years later, Meshkal went to find out what the Environment Police are doing and found that most of their time is spent policing health violations at restaurants or fast-food stalls—something those businesses say they find oppressive.
On Tour with the Environment Police
On September 30, 2021, Meshkal accompanied 13 Environment Police officers on surprise visits to about 17 food stalls, restaurants, and cafes in the Tunis district of Sidi al-Bashir, Bab al-Jazira. The tour started at ten o’clock in the morning and continued for eight hours. Among the officers on duty was Tarek Bekir, head of the Environment Police for the Tunis Municipality, and the only one authorized to speak on the record to Meshkal. The officers checked on the cleanliness of these establishments, doing more detailed inspections for about a dozen of the 17 they visited.
At the beginning of the tour, Meshkal met Mahmoud S., a 39-year-old man originally from Sidi Bouzid. Mahmoud is the owner of a shop selling juices and sweet sandwiches [kasrout hlou] in Bab Al-Jazira in Tunis. He said he used to have five employees, enough to handle customers but also to keep the place in conformity with health regulations. However, after the Covid-19 crisis, his working conditions changed and he was no longer able to pay his debts or the wages of his workers. Today, he depends on himself and Youssef, the only employee he can afford, and he takes care of everything related to buying, selling and managing the store.
After examining Mahmoud’s shop, the police found he had juices stored without production and expiration date labels, and later, officer Tarek Bekir told Meshkal that Mahmoud was not in compliance with health codes given that he was selling expired fruit. Officers said they are enforcing law No. 25 of 2019 dated February 26, 2019 relating to the health safety of foodstuffs and animal food.
Having completed their inspection of Mahmoud’s shop after about half an hour, the police took Mahmoud’s tax ID [“patinda”] and national ID card and issued him “a receipt for a misdemeanor inspection, and a summons to the Environment Police Office in Belvedere.” He faces a fine of up to 60 dinars for the improper storage of foodstuffs and a fine from 300 to 1000 dinars for not complying with regulations on equipment, cleanliness, and staff clothing. The police told Meshkal that Mahmoud would need to face a hearing at the Environment Police headquarters, even though Mahmoud tried—unsuccessfully—to settle the matter on the spot to avoid the fines.
Mahmoud said this surprise inspection amounted to a form of exploitation and revenge on him by a competitor.
“This unit works according to its own conditions, which are mainly based on slander,” Mahmoud told Meshkal, although he did not name the competitor he believed had reported him.
Fighting Day-Old Fruit, not Pollution
The Environment Police’s mandate comes from Law 2016-30, which gives them the power to issue fines of between 300 and 1000 dinars. Most of the punishable actions covered in the law focus on activities carried out by individual people, like leaving out furniture or carcasses in the street, breeding animals in residential neighborhoods for commercial purposes, or various health regulations for businesses.
But the same law also lays out fines for polluting industrial activity, such as, according to the official English translation of the law on the iort.gov.tn website: “Soiling the pavements, roads or public places generated by the discharge of waste water coming from the premises intended for the exercise of commercial or artisanal activities;” “to cause releases [sic] of bad smells because of industrial or other activities,” and “Throw [sic] of garbage in the rivers and Oueds.”
Yet Meshkal found no evidence that the Environment Police are actively enforcing these latter terms for industries and other big polluters.
“In Gabes, the Environment Police do not conduct any field visits to factories. Rather, their services are limited to the city only. They do not monitor medical waste or chemical leaks,” Khayreddine Debaya, one of the coordinators of the “Stop Pollution” environmental movement in Gabes told Meshkal.
Debaya said that this lack of policing of factories comes despite the health effects their pollution has on ordinary people. This includes the State’s Tunisian Chemical Group (GCT), which has refined phosphate products for export, dumping radioactive phosphogypsum into the sea as a byproduct for decades as well as producing air pollution. This has had catastrophic effects on local health as well as agriculture, the water table, and the sea.
Article 108 of Tunisia’s 1975 Water Code forbids dumping “into sea waters any substance, especially household or industrial waste, that has the potential to harm public health or the health of marine flora and fauna.” However, even top government officials have admitted that this law has not been applied. Numerous civil society groups, activists, and citizens have continued to stage protests and demonstrations to stop the pollution.
“The Environment Police…does not carry any weight or authority to confront polluting factories or industries,” Debaya added. “Factories and chemical industries are [considered] sacred things that should not be touched.”
Taoufik Ben Abdallah, a founding member and official spokesperson for the Association for Development and Environment in Kram (ADEK), told Meshkal that he wasn’t sure whether “the Environment Police also care about factories and monitor industries that pollute the environment as much as they care about restaurants, cafes and shops,” but added that regardless of the offender, the judiciary “does not take matters seriously” once environmental cases are referred to the courts.
To address this problem, a 2020 report by the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Tunisia (HBS) entitled “Environment Police: Reality, Challenges and Prospects,” recommended that a special judicial bureau be set up to deal specifically with issues referred by the Environment Police.
The Environment Police “did not take seriously…polluting institutions and even pollution from citizens, and this is particularly evident in the growing abuses,” said Ines Labiadh, from the environmental justice department at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).
What is “The Environment”?
With “decentralization” a key theme in Tunisian politics in recent years, many have looked to the creation of the Environment Police—operating at the local level within municipalities—as part of the decentralization effort.
“The Environment Police represent a new development in Tunisia’s decentralization laws,” noted the HBS report.
But one challenge is that the definition of “environment” is quite broad, according to Lana Salman, a researcher in urban Governance and International Development.
“None of the articles define what ‘the environment’ consists of; as a result, the articles lump together environment, cleanliness, and public health. This is not only a matter of definitions since the same committee who manages ‘the environment’ is also assigned the responsibilities for SWM [Solid Waste Management] and public health,” Salman noted in a recent study entitled “Environmentalism After Decentralization: The Local Politics of Solid Waste Management in Tunisia.”
Salman also noted that “it is unclear whether municipalities use their powers to punish polluters. Because most municipalities are underfunded, some do not have an Environment Police force, while others have a small number of police agents to cover large territories; enforcement is selective.”
Environment Police Defend Their Role
The Environment Police was created only recently, on June 13, 2017. At its launch, it employed 300 agents working in 70 municipalities across the country. It was initially under the Ministry of Interior but was quickly shifted over to the Ministry of Environment and Local Affairs with powers directly linked to elected municipal councils. Since then, the force has continued to expand, and today, there are 800 Environment Police agents operating in more than 140 municipalities, technically under the authority of elected mayors, according to Tarek Bekir, head of the Environment Police in Tunis.
Bekir said their teams of four cars covering 15 districts in the Greater Tunis Governorate issue fines for about 15 violations per day, most of them relating to health code violations, sidewalk obstructions, or construction materials left out in the street.
“We seek to promote an environmental culture through the Environment Police that goes far beyond the limits of awareness and makes the citizen an active participant in the environment conservation system,” Bekir said. “I assure you that the Environment Police are working on a continuous and daily basis to reduce the phenomenon of fraud and to preserve the interest and safety of the citizen above all.”
As for why they have not been able to do more to control pollution, Bekir said the police force has had limited capabilities and resources at their disposal—cars, electronics, security cameras—not enough to match the massive scale of the abuses that occur.
Despite what they say is their limited resources, Bekir and Environment Police agents told Meshkal that their work is important for public health, particularly when they find big, popular restaurants using rotten cheese, meat, fish, often stored in broken refrigerators.
But Tunisians—like the sandwich seller Mahmoud S. who was issued a fine—see the Environment Police as oppressive and a waste of public money.
Meshkal also spoke with other small business owners affected by the Environment Police: “Manjieh and Fathi,” a couple who own a shop selling traditional sweets in Bab El Fella. The Environment Police had visited their shop earlier in the year, seized their equipment, and obliged the couple to pay fines for various violations relating to food storage.
The couple told Meshkal they could not afford to pay the fines, and the Environment Police imposed onerous conditions on them before they could restart the shop, which forced them to close the business in June.
In Meshkal’s morning tour with the Environment Police through the markets of Tunis in late September, only one person out of five polled expressed support for the Environment Police: “Hajj Fathi”, owner of a spice shop, who said he thought they are effectively fighting corruption and commercial fraud.
Police unions are also upset about the new force, which they see as overstepping their powers and acting like ordinary police. He thinks they shouldn’t be called a “police” force.
“The security unions have…demanded that the concerned authorities take measures against naming this group as the ‘police,’” said Wassim Mahmoudi, a spokesperson for the Tunisian National Security District Union, noting that the overlap of the name “police” with national security forces as well as the overlap of tasks was a problem for him.
Mahmoudi added that he sees the Environment Police force as having a bad public reputation, and that authorities need to reform the force to take “into account the interests of the citizen and the credibility and prestige of the administration.” (Many others have criticized all police forces as repressive and called for the dissolution of police unions in general)
Bekir, the head of the Tunis Environment Police, said he was sympathetic to such criticism.
“We, as Environment Police, understand this criticism, the questions and the rumors that are circulating in the first place regarding the designation of the police. We have sworn to serve Tunisia as municipal agents above all, and the term police has been used to deter anyone who violates the law only,” Bekir said.