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Environmental crimes run rampant in Tunisia

Climate change, illicit dumping, and a two year drought are gravely affecting Tunisia's landscape.

Last updated: 27 Nov 2013 18:08
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The island of Djerba - an important tourist location - is now covered in garbage dumps [ST McNeil/Al Jazeera]

Tunis, Tunisia - Arifet Mohammed stands in the rolling dunes of the Jaffara Plains in southern Tunisia staring down at three shotgun shells in his hand. Closer to the Libyan capital Tripoli than Tunis, the bled a'tsh, or "thirstlands", is a lawless place in this post-revolution land.

"In our country, there's no control at all," says Mohammed, an environmental activist with Kulna Tunis, tossing the empty blue and red shell casings to the ochre sand. "The el-hbara birds and el-ghzel are being hunted wildly - it is a catastrophe." Companies are taking advantage of Tunisia's weak central authority and deteriorating economy by bringing in hunters to illegally poach gazelles and birds for profit.

Many lawless zones, also known as "black spots", exist in Tunisia. In Tunisia's arid south, poachers prey on endangered species nominally protected under Tunisian and international law, according to the Bonn Convention of Migratory Species. Poachers, for example, target the houbara bustard, which like the rhino horn in China, is used to treat male impotency.

Sparing no expense in powerful Toyota trucks with hi-tech gear and big guns, Saudi hunters come to Gaddafi-style hunting camps outside of Tataouine. Similar hunting tourism in Pakistan has sparked environmental outcry - and diplomatic rows. But in Tunisia, government agents charged with policing poachers are unarmed and underfunded.

"The authority can't afford to go 100 kilometres in the desert to see if people are hunting or not," Mohammed says.

Still reeling from the 2010 Jasmine Revolution, the North African nation is too weak to protect many of its natural resources, said Environmental Minister Mohamed Salmane at the 2013 International Environment Day conference. Stressing the difficulties with processing the country's 2.2 million-tonne annual waste stream, Salmane said quasi-anarchy has led to de facto deregulation with resulting environmental degradation.

"Since the construction of the Gypsum factory in Oued El Ghar, there has been massive pollution," Mohammed says. The 30-year old was fired from his job at waste treatment plant in 2012 when he secretly filmed two separate environmental crimes (he says others were rampant). The company had killed local trees after emitting non-filtered exhaust, and was dumping waste-treatment byproduct straight into pits. After the revolution, Mohammed says, the company simply stopped caring about where they dumped or what they dumped. "Industry here caused the extinction of local agriculture."

Infuriated, he leaked the films to the press, and lost his job soon after. Nothing changed at the plant, Mohammed says, his eyes smoldering, except him.

Besieged islands: Death by nets and salt

North of Tataouine, on the wide, shallow Gulf of Gabes on the Mediterranean Sea, others are taking advantage of the weakened central authority. With its highest point only 13 metres above sea level, the low-lying archipelago of Kerkennah is losing land to the Mediterranean - rising on average three millimetres a year - and yet construction continues unabated.

Pointing out project after project across the island's shorelines, marine biologist Morsi Fekhi says normal building codes forbidding construction near the rising sea are being flagrantly ignored.

"Kerkennah is very vulnerable to sea-level rise," Fekhi says. "The land and sea are on the same level. When storms come, the sea water penetrates these houses."

During the winter, Mediterranean lunar tides flood much of the island, flushing the land with salt, lethal for much of the ecosystem. With blackened husks of fallen palm trees behind him, Fekhi points to the Kerkennah's shoreline and describes a sea advancing on a shrinking island.

The two millimeters annual rise recorded during the 1990s has doubled, he says, and an even greater increase is projected for this coastal island, one of hundreds across the Mediterranean threatened by a rising sea. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projecting rise in sea-level will flood much of the island by 2050.

"According to the climate models, Kerkennah will be divided into islets," says Fekhi.

Azaiez Moenes, 45, a fisherman from Kerkannah, blames the decimation of fish stocks over the past decade on climate change and industrial fishing [ST McNeil/Al Jazeera]

While builders ignore environmental regulations on shore, fishing and shipping companies ignore maritime regulations.

"There are remarkable changes in the sea," says Azaiez Moenes, a 45-year old Kerkennan who has spent the last decade fishing in the Gulf of Gabes. He just finished packing up his boat at the port of Keraken after a day spent trawling in waters he says holds less and less to catch each year. "The sea is in crisis. It is suffering, and maybe in two years there will be no more fish, we will only see them on television."

Unlike the traditional Kerkennan charfiya, shallow-water fish cages made with palm fronds, the commercial bottom-trawling method used by multinational fishing companies across the Mediterranean has raised environmental concerns - and severed Tunisia's submarine connection to the World Wide Web on November 15, 2013. Moenes blames this industrial fishing practice for the 50 percent decrease he estimates in fish stocks off the coast of Kerkennah - but not all Kerkannans are against the practice.

When the national government passed legislation in January to halt bottom-trawling, infuriated fishermen blockaded the island for three days.

Bottom-trawling demolishes marine ecosystems by dragging huge nets across the sea floor, according to a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report. This not only razes fish stocks but also causes more coastal erosion by uprooting the plants that stabilise the seafloor, according to a 2012 study by the scientific journal Nature.

Erosion threatens more and more of Kerkennah's beaches, aided and abetted by climate change, illegal industrial fishing and construction, Fekhi said. Rising sea temperatures also introduce new fish species to the coastal aquatic ecosystem. These climate invasions have demolished the sea grass that moderate the ebb and flow of the Mediterranean.

"For me the sea is a world, but for those living in Kerkennah it has become like a phantom – it is no longer simply sustenance," Fekhi said, standing atop the Borj La'hsayer, a Roman fort gradually crumbling into a rising sea eating away at the coastal cliffs at its feet. "It can give you a good catch today, but tomorrow it could attack your house."

The once and future island: Apples, dumps and marabouts

Bottom-trawling is a global phenomenon that threatens fish populations from Chile to Iceland. Industrial overfishing has spawned a black market adept at exploiting loopholes in environmental regulations to feed markets around the world, according to Looting the Seas, a report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In Tunisia, Kerkennan anglers' empty nets are just one sign of an increasingly decimated ecosystem.

Heavily dependent on the mainland for food, water and electricity, both Kerkenna and its sister island across the Gulf of Gabes, Djerba, are precariously afloat in a polluted, transforming sea. Drought has elevated water, animal feed, and food costs and exacerbated desertification, soil loss, aquifer depletion, and erosion.

The island of Djerba was once a bountiful agriculture center. Now, it's one of the country's prime tourism destinations. What it is and what it was, however, will both soon be gone. The once-verdant island is now caught in a crush of capital and climate - thirsty from lack of rain, paved over for hotels, shrinking for rising seas, and putrefying from untreated sewage and illicit garbage dumps.

Djerba is connected to the mainland via an old Roman road and a commuter ferry. Transportation costs inflate the price of everything on the island - trash included. Looking for a cheap dump, waste management companies are buying land from Djerban farmers desperate and impoverished by the sluggish post-revolution economy. These farms are turned into unregulated and illegal dumps sites.

Rabiaa Ouerimi, a Djerban high school teacher, says ecological transfigurations tied to climate change, tourism and illegal dumping have damaged the island's natural environment [ST McNeil/Al Jazeera]

Famous for its intoxicating beauty as the Island of the Lotus Eaters in the Greek legend of Odysseus, Djerba is now pockmarked with haphazard disposal sites.

"The Djerba of my memory and what is now is completely different. It is no longer the same spirit," says Rabiaa Ouerimi, a local high school teacher. "In my memories, I remember the greenest Djerba. There was a well in every home. Today, wells are no longer for water. They are for rubbish."

Ouerimi holds in her hand a small yellow and red apple native to the northern shore of Djerba. Very few of the apple's trees remain, she said, as orchards lost ground and water to dumps and hotel complexes.

Many islanders feel directly threatened by this rapid expansion of environmental destruction. For decades, the former dictatorship favoured economic development over environmental stewardship and Djerbans are now caught between an established and energy-intensive tourism industry, rising seas, and increased heat and drought.

Climate change has come to Djerba: The rain hasn't fallen for two years and the rising sea is eating away at the coastline.

"In Djerba, we no longer have seasons. We only have summer and it lingers," Ouerimi said, describing a climatic shift most evident in the current two-year drought in Tunisia's southern belt - stretching roughly from the sandy Algerian border in the west to the Gulf of Gabes. With parched gold leaves and shriveled fruit, thousands of dead olive trees stand as testament to the lack of rain across the region.

"Three meters in the past three years - these palms are almost uprooted," says Mohamed Bougeurba, 66, pointing to a knot of palm tree roots exposed from coastal erosion in Djerba's last remaining lagoon, Lalla Hadhria. Recounting history as 17 motorized quads bearing tourists grumbled past, Bougeurba said the sea had not only washed away coastline but also buildings.

Adel Ben Dali visits a former hotel that was washed into the sea off the coast of Djerba [ST McNeil/Al Jazeera]

"The sea here destroyed the marabout shrines," Bougeurba says. Old bricks of these tombs of Sufi saints dating from the medieval period lie beneath the surf, with one dilapidated marabout remains shrouded in the lagoon's foliage.

Adel Ben Dali has seen most of Djerba's coastal shrines destroyed since moving to Djerba thirty years ago. The sea has moved inland 20-30 meters in some places. What the Mediterranean didn't destroy, new tourist resorts leveled.

"We created from the richness of our culture a weakness of our country," Dali says, looking out at the broken rocks spilling into the sea. "The shrines were built to protect the island from invaders. Someone would watch and then warn the people when ships were approaching."

Standing atop the beachfront ruins of a former hotel, Dali wonders about the future of the island, pressed between climate change and unregulated environmental degradation.

"Who is protecting the island now?" Dali says.

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Al Jazeera
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