Flamingos and Humans: Tunis Suburb Debates Development

The Greater Flamingo species feeding in Sebkhat Sijoumi, October 7, 2020. Photo by Hichem Azafzaf.

The best spot to count the flamingos wading in Sebkhat Sijoumi is from a sloping piece of farmland off its south western shore, on the outskirts of Tunis. On the day that I visited the Sebkha [Arabic for salt marsh], there were around 10,000 of the pink birds standing perfectly still, but the area sometimes accommodates up to 33,000.

Flamingos may migrate from Europe, for example the French Camargue, in September and stay in Tunisia for the winter. They might then visit Turkey, like an elderly flamingo – in his/her 30s – who was recently spotted in Turkey’s Salt Lake in Central Anatolia after having sojourned in Tunisia and Italy. Faster flamingos can fly up to 600 km per night; at this speed, a trip from Tunis to Istanbul would take around 3 days including rests.

Migration is a choice for flamingos, explains Samar Kilani, project manager at Association des Amis des Oiseaux (AAO/BirdLife).

“Some of them are curious to go to explore other places and some want to find a place that they like and settle down,” Kilani said.

Flamingos love shallow waters and salt, which they excrete through salt glands in their nostrils. They can be found in Sijoumi – both shallow and salty – all year round but the winter months are the most crowded.

The Northern Shoveler, a species of duck, is the most abundant species in Sebkhat Sijoumi during the winter months. Photo taken January 14, 2020 by Hichem Azafzaf.

Over the past few years, Sijoumi has become increasingly popular among the pink-feathered flaneurs, who share the Sebkha with more than 60 other species of bird. In 2019, AAO/BirdLife counted nearly 100,000 birds on the site, around ten times as many as in 2003.

This is down to urban development forcing flamingos to crowd into the fewer natural habitats that remain. Sijoumi is one of three big wetlands, along with Lac de Tunis and Sebkhat Ariana, that surround the Tunisian capital. All three are recognized as wetlands of international importance under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which works to conserve natural sites of value in terms of their biodiversity and their role in the local ecosystem. But the sites are under immense pressure due to rapid urban expansion over the last 30 years, according to the Ramsar Convention website.

“Since the Lac was developed and there is less water and less space, more birds were found in Sebkhat Sijoumi. They find it is safest for them during the winter and they have started to come here to nest,” says Claudia Feltrup-Azafzaf, director of AAO/BirdLife.

Starting in the 90s, the Berges du Lac in Tunis were urbanized and developed into a luxurious residential and commercial area.  At the time the project was sold as a “green city” and a “sustainable town,” but despite such branding, the site now retains only a fraction of its “biological value”, according to Ramsar.

Now, a new development project for Sijoumi is again being advertised as “environmentally-friendly” by the government and as “The New Lac” by local politicians and media. Feltrup-Azafzaf warns that this project threatens to make Sebkhat Sijoumi uninhabitable for wildlife too.

“The most dangerous thing about this project is the [effect it will have on the] water depth,” she says. “Birds have particular preferences, whether deep or less deep. So for flamingos, it shouldn’t be below their knees. They need it to be shallow, but not too shallow because they won’t find food to eat.”

Where will they go if the water levels of Sijoumi rise? The birdwatchers don’t know, but they’re sure it will be a big problem.

Noureddine Dridi, 54, mans the bird observatory set up on Sebkhat Sejoumi by AAO to promote education around conservation and to monitor illegal hunting and dumping around the site. Photo by Layli Foroudi on June 17, 2020.

Flamingos for Sale

There is a flashy pink flamingo fresco painted on a wall in a market area of the Sidi Hassine neighborhood. My friend Amine Allagui, who is from the area and was showing me around, said he thought the artwork was to advertise that flamingo meat is sold there. I think he was joking. We heard the joke again in a nearby clothes shop.

“Do you want to eat flamingo?” said Arabi, 37, the shop owner, when I asked what he thought about flamingos. “They say it is delicious.” 

Watermelons on sale in Sidi Hassine market on June 20, 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi. 

Whether Sijoumi’s flamingos are actually hunted for consumption or forced into exile by the proposed development, Arabi says he can live without them.

“The priority is not the birds. The important thing is to build something in [the Sebkha],” he said.

Folding t-shirts and putting them on shelves, Achref Akrmi, 26, agrees.

“They are worried about the birds. I’m worried about my sister who has a baby that cries all night because of the smell [of the Sebkha] and the mosquitos,” he said.

Those that live nearby generally have a dim view of the Sebkha, which is understandable since it has effectively become a dumping ground. The municipality of Sidi Hassine, a working class neighborhood near the Sebkha, uses it to dispose of sewage and residents chuck their rubbish on its shores. Unmarked vehicles transport waste construction material, which builds up to become a landmass that encroaches on the surface area of the Sebkha.

Oussema Hammami, an elected member of the municipal council for Sidi Hassine, says that this is happening without authorization from the municipality but that unofficially, “people from the municipality are giving these construction companies the green light because they are doing business with them.”

The government, he says, are happy to let this continue since it coincides with the proposition to backfill 700 hectares of the Sebkha.

“They ignore these actions. Maybe they appreciate these actions because it is in line with their vision: if it is already filled, it is already executed; we cannot go back,” he said, adding that they are still awaiting the completion of a government study to determine the ecological viability. “For environmental issues, Sidi Hassine has always been the last concern [of the government]. As you can smell.”

The neighborhood of Sidi Hassine, too, became a fact after a period of ad hoc building. Houses started to appear on the land previously used for farming in the 1980s, when the new area provided land at low prices for those working in Tunis. Other neighborhoods were also built nearby during this period to cope with the city’s increasing population, including Cité 20 Mars, a social housing project to re-house families from the medina—the old city of Tunis. The city plan was not updated to account for the change to the landscape from farmland to a city suburb until 2010, according to Hammami, and data on the land is still patchy. For example, out of Sidi Hassine’s 4000 hectares of agricultural land, Hammami from the municipal council estimates that 1500 hectares is now built on, without authorization.

A view of Sebkhat Sejoumi from a farm to the south west of the salt lake on June 17, 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi.

In August 2004, Sidi Hassine was officially designated as a municipality. But residents say they might as well have been left without one.

“They have done nothing for us,” says Bashir Rabhi, 35, a furniture seller. “I went to a rich neighborhood. I saw how they collect the trash. They have places to sort the trash, they clean the roads. Why don’t they do that in my community?”

In June, three teenagers drowned in the canal that passes through Sidi Hassine and continues to Cap Bon. There are no safety barriers, but on this occasion the kids didn’t fall in. It was a hot day so they jumped in to cool off and were carried away by the undercurrent, according to Hammami from the municipal counsel and others in the area. The tragedy sparked anger.

“The canal is dangerous. People swim there because they have nothing else to do,” says Rabhi, who hopes that the development of the Sebkha will mean more community leisure facilities. “I want an amusement park, a place for people to play football and to swim. People here don’t have a swimming pool.”

Stepping in to fill the void, a group of young people built a make-shift football stadium in May and held tournaments, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

“We built it ourselves; the government doesn’t want to help,” said Seif Sliti, 23, a civil engineer from Sidi Hassine. “There is an archeological site in Borj Chekir – it is so good and they have made it a dump. The next virus will be from that dump.”

Sliti says he discovered the beauty of birds and nature while camping. I ask whether he goes camping by the Sebkha and he laughs, horrified. “No! The weirdest thing is that I see the flamingo there and I think how does it live there with that smell?”

The Sebkha as Society

Birds and humans have been pitted against each other in the conversation about the development of Sebkhat Sijoumi. However, the caricaturist and satirist known only by the pseudonym “Z”, sees an affinity between flamingos and Tunisians.

“In reality, it is not different to the way we treat the citizen: we treat it like an animal that we disdain,” Z, who is the resident of another Sebkha, Lac Sud, told Meshkal.

He started drawing the flamingo and became a caricaturist when the government proposed to transform his neighborhood into a luxury development with Emirati investment.

“This was privileging luxury, a well-off clientele, and it was linked to the desire [of the regime] to strengthen relations with other autocrats,” said Z, who is an architect by profession. “[For this], they wanted to destroy a natural heritage.”

He saw the project as a double attack on nature and on the Tunisian citizenry, and he has continued to draw flamingos since.

“The Lac became the metaphor for the city… we intervene without consulting people, we chase people from their territory for the interests of the privileged…the Sebkha became the metaphor for Tunisian society.”

Yet at the time in 2007, “Z” was alone in his defense of the flamingo: his neighbors attacked him and said that Tunisia needed the development and didn’t have the luxury of thinking of the environment.

“The northern suburb, Marsa, Sidi Bou, is the chic suburb, and the southern suburb is neglected,” said Z. “So many thought this was a chance to give it value… what my neighbors didn’t understand was that they wouldn’t necessarily benefit.”

The showroom for the Lac Sud project, built out of marble, still exists, but the investors withdrew a few years before the 2011 uprising and it came to nothing. But some in civil society have the same fears today for Sebkhat Sijoumi as Z did for Lac Sud years ago.

The proposed development project for Sebkhat Sijoumi—a 330 million dinar Public Private Partnership detailed in an English-language fact-sheet shared on an official state body’s website—“will bring change, but it will create inequality. The apartments that will be built are not for the citizens of Sidi Hassine,” said Imen Labidi from Enfants de la Terre, a Tunisian association that works on the environment and community development.

Labidi has noticed that there has been great pressure on farmers in the area to sell their land in recent years. “As for jobs, they have never said ‘we are going to take this number of the local population to work.’ There is no guarantee.”

Sijoumi, which has been in the works since 2015, is on a delayed schedule. Finnish investors have expressed interest in the project, however, when contacted by Meshkal, they said there is nothing to report for now. The Ministry of Equipment has been asked by their Finnish counterparts to “modify the present plan to be more environmentally friendly and lower in cost,” said Kari Kalliala, the project lead from Business Finland, a Finnish government organization. He added that everything had slowed due to covid-19. 

In preparation for the development, the Ministry of Equipment produced an unpublished study that underestimated the biodiversity of the Sebkha, according to Enfants de la Terre, who carried out their own study after viewing the report.

“They do this so they can say: ‘There is nothing in this zone, and we can do what we want. It is empty, there is no flora, no fauna, there is nothing,’” says Labidi, whose association inventoried more than 100 plant species and more than 300 different animals and insects, including rare species like the white headed duck and the grey plover.

Feltrup-Azafzaf of AAO/BirdLife says that during the time of Youssef Chahed’s government “there was a lot of pressure on the ministry of agriculture and the environment to let things slide.”

Meskhal contacted the Ministry of Equipment and the Agency for the Protection of the Environment to discuss the project, but neither were available.

Some people in Sidi Hassine now think the whole project is a ruse, an electioneering ploy used and discarded.

“Politicians use the Sebkhat Sijoumi project when they have nothing to say,” says Yassine Fathali, 26, founder of the Coalition for Youth in Sidi Hassine, a local association that offers training for young people.

Working at a barbecue stall on a roundabout at the entrance to Sidi Hassine, Karim Sessi, 40, believes nothing. He wants to follow the flamingo’s route out of the country.

“If I can, I will leave. It’s lies. They [politicians] keep money in their pockets and it is the citizen that is suffering,” he said, adding that the birds in the Sebkha are “not even real birds. They’re dirt birds. They eat from the dirt.”

Karim Sessi working at his barbecue stall at the entrance to Sidi Hassine, one of the neighborhood that borders Sebkhat Sejoumi, on June 20, 2020. Photo by Layli Foroudi. 

Some things have changed, however, since 2007 when Z started drawing. He is no longer the only Sebkha resident appropriating the pink flamingo. Fathali made the flamingo the logo for his association and he doesn’t accept “this contradiction between nature and progress.” Maybe they could promote flamingo tourism, he suggests.

“This Sebkha is part of our heritage. The flamingo is something special that we have.”