Tunisian Activists on Climate Change, Environment, and Development

A group of mainly young Tunisians gather in front of the National Theater on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis as part of the the “Global Climate Strike” on September 20, 2019. Photo shared on the Facebook page of Youth for Climate Tunisia branch.

While Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg continues to make international headlines, her Tunisian peer, Raslen Jbeli, has received less attention.

This September, as millions of people took to the streets in what activists called a “Global Climate Strike,” Jbeli joined Thunberg and 14 other young people from around the world to deliver a legal complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in New York. The complaint accuses five countries—France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey—of failing to uphold their commitments to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“By recklessly causing and perpetuating life-threatening climate change, the respondents have failed to take necessary preventive and precautionary measures to respect, protect, and fulfill the petitioners’ rights to life (Article 6), health (Article 24), and culture (Article 30),” Jbeli’s petition claims.

Jbeli, a 17-year-old from Tabarka, and his co-petitioners want the countries do more to meet the commitments they made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

“We’re still in the beginning, which means that we still have a chance to avoid what’s happening in several countries like the Marshall Islands,” Jbeli said, referring to the Pacific island nation that is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Three of Jbeli’s co-petitioners are from the Marshall Islands.

Back at home in Tabarka, Jbeli works to build local awareness of environmental issues in general, including cleaning up local beaches and forests.

“Our leaders don’t really care or believe in climate change,” Rima Rahmani, a 16-year-old student from Kairouan told Meshkal.

In July, Rahmani, co-founded the Tunisia branch of Youth for Climate, an international movement started in Belgium earlier this year which she and her fellow activists contacted for advice on how to start a Tunisia chapter.

Rahmani helped organize a demonstration in March of this year in Tunis. She says it only attracted a handful of people. By September, when Youth for Climate organized another demonstration in the capital, it had grown, gathering about 80 people.

“They don’t care about it. They just think of their profits,” Rahmani said of Tunisian leaders’ attitude to climate change.

Tunisia isn’t a large emitter of the greenhouse gasses (GHG) that are causing climate change. According to World Resources Institute, Tunisia contributes only 0.08% of total global GHG emissions. Tunisia’s annual emissions per capita was 2.6 tons, according to 2014 data by the World Bank. For comparison, Turkey emitted 4.5 tons while the United States emitted 16.5 tons.

Rahmani knows that Tunisia doesn’t emit a lot of carbon dioxide—one of the primary greenhouse gasses causing climate change—but she says the government needs to be more active in finding ways to adapt to the effects of climate change. Meanwhile, she wants to find ways in which Tunisians can take better care of their environment, like banning single-use plastics.

“It’s actually funny because we want to get back to how we used to live, the simple life. We didn’t have plastic back in the 60s and 50s. We used to drink milk from glass bottles. We just want to go back there. It’s easy. It’s less expensive and more eco-friendly,” Rahmani told Meshkal.

Tunisia’s Vulnerability to Climate Change

“Adaptation” is a phrase frequently used in international discussions about climate change. According to the official website of the 23rd COP conference—the annual UN conference on climate change—“mitigation,” “adaptation,” and “resilience” are “the three pillars of the response to global warming.”

Mitigation refers to reducing global GHG emissions. Adaptation refers to finding ways to live with the effects of climate change, such as building better responses to floods, droughts, and other extreme weather trends exacerbated by climate change. The definition of “resilience” in the context of climate change—according to official rhetoric—does not appear to be significantly different to that of adaptation.

In climate change literature, the language of mitigation, adaptation and resilience are explicitly a “response” to global warming, not necessarily a response to the economic development model that is producing the GHG emissions that are causing climate change and global warming.

The major international mitigation and adapt­­­ation mechanism proposed to help so-called developing countries is the Green Climate Fund. The Fund was set up in 2010 as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and by 2014 it had received pledges of over $10 billion US. The fund became operational in 2015 in the lead up to the Paris Agreement.

Essia Guezzi, Project Officer at World Wildlife Fund North Africa, explains that Tunisia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“Climate change affects livelihoods, food, water security, infrastructure, and the main economic sectors in Tunisia,” Guezzi told Meshkal.

“Tunisia is very concerned with adaptation to climate change. We are vulnerable to sea level rise, to temperature rise. This threatens agriculture and sources of subsistence for the population,” Guezzi said.

Climate change may have severe impacts on Tunisia’s access to food, given its current development model that is highly reliant on exporting cash crops while importing strategic foodstuffs.

According to a World Bank study published in 2013, as climate change pushes up global food prices, the basic foods which Tunisia currently imports, such as wheat and sugar, are going to be difficult to afford. Tunisia imports more than 60 percent of its wheat, according to a study by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES by its French Acronym). Tunisia also imports nearly all its sugar, according to Medagri, a platform of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which focuses on agricultural investment in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean region.

Guezzi points out that while overall annual rainfall in Tunisia does not seem to be changing, rains are becoming concentrated so that months of average rainfall will fall in a single day or two. This, alongside hotter average temperatures, is likely to have a major impact on Tunisia’s agricultural production.

Apart from affecting the yields of strategic foodstuffs—the World Bank report notes that “yields for wheat, barley, and irrigated potatoes are expected to fall”— climate change is also set to affect the production of Tunisia’s export-destined cash crops, such as dates, olives, and citrus.

For example, according to a report by Revolve Magazine and GIZ—the German development agency linked to the German state—climate change could halve Tunisia’s olive exports by 2050, since 42 percent of the land suitable for olive farming would be affected by desertification. The same report indicates that 94 percent of Tunisia’s land is already threatened with desertification.

Tunisia’s tourism sector, concentrated on the coasts, will also be impacted by climate change. Tunisia’s Minister of Local Affairs and Environment, in a speech last year, said that rising sea levels—in addition to destroying thousands of acres fertile land—will also result in the loss of billions of dollars over the next several decades.

To “adapt” to these changes, Tunisia is receiving assistance from foreign development agencies who are helping government ministries craft submissions to the Green Climate Fund, Guezzi explains.

Local Solutions to Global Challenges

Environmental activism is vibrant in Tunisia. On Jamaity, a database of Tunisian NGOs, 14 out of the 69 listed are focused on issues related to environmental activism. However, climate activism is less prominent. This may reflect the fact that Tunisia isn’t a large GHG emitter—the cause of climate change.

Tunisia also has less of what specialists call a historical responsibility and a capacity to act. These are crucial metrics for measuring the fair share each country is expected to contribute to stopping climate change.

According to the Climate Equity Reference Project, “the operationalization of equity and fair shares must focus on historical responsibility and capacity, which directly correspond with the core principles in the UN climate convention of ‘common but differentiated responsibility—with respective capabilities’ and the ‘right to sustainable development.’”

The same project produced a report in 2015 that measures each nation’s capacity to act based largely on per-capita income. The report has an additional, more comprehensive system for measuring a nation’s historical responsibility for GHG emissions, dividing between cumulative measurements of national emissions from 1950 and another measurement section beginning from1850.

The same report also argues that how countries move towards renewable energy sources will be important.

“Will it be increasingly people- and community-centered, environmentally appropriate, smart, distributed solutions that lead to just transitions, thriving local economies and new development pathways?” the report asks. “Or will it largely be a replication of centralized models that are dominated by a few large corporations?”

“My idea is that local people who live in regions affected by environmental and climate problems are the ones who can talk about their own issues,” Khayreddine Debaya an environmental activist in Gabes told Meshkal.

Debaya works with a group called “Stop Pollution, We Want to Live.” The organization was established in Gabes on June 5th—World Environment Day—2012 by a group of young activists. Their aim was to raise awareness at the local, national, and international levels, and apply pressure on decision makers to find radical solutions to the environmental problems in Gabes.

“We weren’t really eager to go to New York. We didn’t make a big deal of it. What are we going to do with such meetings and conferences?” Debaya asks, referring to the September UN climate meetings.

Debaya believes that international cooperation and building international networks is important, but that a bottom-up approach is more effective than a top-down one.

“Don’t start from above. We don’t want people who speak about us and who know nothing about the specificity of a certain region. We should start from the local then move to the international,” Debaya told Meshkal.

Gabes is on the frontlines of phosphogypsum toxification – the poisoning of the air and water caused by the chemical pollution emitted from the phosphate plant there. Phosphate is used to create synthetic fertilizer. This pollution is not accounted for as a factor of production, and thus is not included in the final price of the product—what some economists call externalities. The people of Gabes pay the environmental cost, however, especially the most vulnerable who lack the means to cope with the pollution.

The environmental effects of this are part of a developmental model that is internationally unequal according to developmental sociologist Max Ajl.

Gabes’s phosphate plant is, according to Ajl, “the emblem and distillation of the global and local regimes that control the Global South: toxic, entropic, carcinogenic, a technology which has concentrated wealth into very few hands, and is articulated into international monopoly production chains, while doling out liberally and locally the externalities of environmentally unequal exchange.”

Debaya explains that “Stop Pollution” was created by people coming from backgrounds in human rights activism.

“We felt like Gabes needs a generation of people who know the true meaning of human rights,” Debaya told Meshkal.

Environmental rights activists have faced repression in Tunisia before, especially during the Ben Ali era.

The language of rights echoes that of climate activists Raslen Jbeli and Greta Thunberg, who in their case have accused some countries of violating their rights. In the case of people in Gabes, which has the highest rates of cancer in Tunisia, the right to health appears to be violated not by climate emitters but by a state company largely exporting to international markets.

“All the international climate movements, they talk about generalities and very broad issues. You just cannot fight big companies with hot talk,” Debaya says.

Pollution and the Economic Development Model

Looking at the companies that are producing the pollution and the markets they serve is one way of approaching environmental and climate change issues.

Debaya is not alone in talking about companies or the economic causes for pollution. In Tunisia, many activists see social and economic issues as intricately linked to environmental discussions. During a debate entitled “How to Save The Planet in Tunisia,” held at the Dream City festival in Tunis on October 7, Mounir Hassine the head of the Monastir branch of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), described the social impacts of environmental issues in Monastir.

“In around 10 years, the ecosystem has been completely changed in the bay of Monastir,” he said, explaining how excess industrial waste water from textile factories producing jeans is dumped into the sea, causing untold damage to marine life.

According to Hassine, as a result of a development model that stresses exporting textiles made with cheap labor to Europe, the livelihoods of fishermen have been decimated, forcing some to emigrate to Italy for better economic opportunities.

Mounir Hassine, the head of the Monastir branch of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) speaks at a panel event held at the Khaldouniya library in the medina of Tunis on the sideline of the Dream City festival on October 7, 2019. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

Hassine says existing water treatment plants haven’t been properly maintained by successive previous governments, and even if they were, the cost to the textile sector would be so great as to put them out of business.

“It [the treatment plant] is completely over capacity. So what do they do? They open the gates, to allow the cleaning waste water [from the jeans], mixed with industrial waste water into the bay of Monastir. This situation is an ecological catastrophe,” Hassine explained.

Apart from the destruction this practice wreaks on local ecology and subsequently on fishermen, Hassine also notes that this water-intensive industry is happening in a region that is already water scarce.

“Where does this water come from, in a semi-arid region?”, Hassine decried, “Each factory…they escape all regulation from the ministry of agriculture, which is supposed to regulate groundwater.”

Hassine believes that piecemeal solutions that improve water regulation or reduce pollution won’t adequately solve the problems. Instead, he says it’s the current export-oriented developmental model that’s hurting Tunisia, directing water to exports, whether as an input in textile manufacturing, to large agricultural producers who grow cash crops for export markets, or to tourist areas with swimming pools and lush golf courses.

Meanwhile, water available to smaller farmers, to farmers in more inland regions, and to farmers growing food for domestic consumption is reduced.

At the event, researcher in anthropology Jamie Furniss asked how it is possible that environmental issues aren’t “present in political consciousness” despite the fact that nearly every city in Tunisia has a main street named “Environment Boulevard” and roundabouts adorned with statues relating to environmental issues.

“It’s the country where the environment is the most present I’ve ever seen in public space,” Furniss noted, asking how this paradox might be understood.

“It’s true that there’s an ‘Environment Boulevard’ in every town in Tunisia, named after the Earth summit in 1992,” Hassine responded. “At this time, the politics was far from making an ecological transition, from a system that until now political powers don’t want to change. There isn’t a political will.”

“Ben Ali’s eco-friendly gestures were no doubt aimed in part to please the European Union, a major source of funding for projects to clean up the Mediterranean and reduce emissions and waste,” noted Eric Goldstein, the Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch in an article for OpenDemocracy in May 2014.  But, Goldstein argues that these gestures were “mostly for show: Tunisia’s heavy industries belonged to the state and were powerful revenue-producers that polluted with near-impunity.”

Those same heavy industries are continuing their pollution today in their quest to “produce” revenue.