Aguereb, Tunisia – Dozens of environment activists are appealing prison sentences handed down for protesting pollution at a massive landfill site in a national park that they say caused serious health problems among the population.
In Aguereb, a rural town of about 40,000 inhabitants, lies one of Tunisia’s biggest nature reserves, El Gonna.
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However, it was turned into an enormous refuse dump in 2008 that served about one million people in surrounding areas, as well as Tunisia’s main industrial hub in the nearby city of Sfax.
On June 10, 38 environmental activists from Aguereb, 300km (120 miles) south of the capital Tunis, were tried and given jail terms ranging from eight months to several years for protesting the refuse site, which was finally closed in 2021.
From theatre instructors to graffiti artists to graphic designers, Aguereb’s activists founded the movement Menich Msab, or “I am not a landfill”.
“It all started as an artistic movement back in 2016. We’re not politicians or environmentalists, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Sami Bahri, an activist from Menich Msab.
Early actions included making clothes out of rubbish, standing in the town’s square wearing plague masks, or painting graffiti denouncing the putrid dump.
“People used to laugh at us and think we’re crazy for organising these activities. Then we slowly started uncovering the truth,” Bahri said.
As the health consequences of the giant landfill in the El Gonna national park started affecting people nearby, the crazy artists of yesterday became today’s local leaders. One even won a seat in parliament last March.
The landfill was forced to close in 2021 following mass demonstrations.
A year and a half later, 38 Aguereb residents were sentenced to a combined total of 118 years in jail on various charges, including defamation on social media, disrupting work, or physical and verbal assault.
‘Lots of promises made’
Driving through the El Gonna reserve, sources of pollution are visible all around. To the west of the reserve lies the national water treatment facility ONAS, which activists have alleged regularly releases untreated wastewater into streams and rivers.
A little further in is a hill formed by tonnes of waste piled up over 15 years. Unfiltered and untreated, the waste sent an unbearable stench into Aguereb.
The situation first led to protests in November 2021, including a deadly altercation with police. Following a national outcry, the rubbish dump was closed – though the waste was left to rot.
“Lots of promises were made to rehabilitate the landfill and fix the environment surrounding it. But nothing was done,” said Ines Labiadh, an environment campaigner from the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).
An industrial zone employing most of Aguereb’s residents can be seen on the eastern flank of the nature reserve.
“El Gonna is only a reserve by name. Nothing in it is protected or controlled – not its biodiversity nor its animals or plants,” Labiadh said.
Thameur Ben Khaled, an activist from Menich Msab, blamed the influence of major companies for the national reserve’s pollution problem.
“The reserve is supposed to be one of Tunisia’s lungs. Instead, its water, soil and air are all polluted – all for the interests of lobbies and private companies,” he said.
Aguereb’s inhabitants started protesting after years of experiencing the menacing effects on their daily lives, from unbearable smells to growing health concerns.
Al Jazeera contacted Tunisia’s Ministry of the Environment but received no response.
The activists were tried for three different protests: against the landfill, the water treatment plant, and the olive oil facility they accuse of polluting the surroundings.
Most of the complaints against them were filed by the owner of the olive oil company or his associates, according to lawyer Hamida Chaieb.
The charges relate to several sit-ins and protests during which protesters allegedly prevented workers from going into the factory and “threatened” the owners, said Chaieb.
“We only closed the road for the trucks transporting waste. We never stopped anyone else,” said Sami Bahri.
Others were accused of defamation for criticising the “death factory” – as they called it in local radio interviews and on social media.
“It is our responsibility to say the truth and seek justice. They are using our resources, our soil, our water, polluting our lands, and instrumentalising justice against us,” said Chokri Bahri, also from Menich Msab and now an elected deputy for Aguereb in Tunisia’s parliament.
He said he spoke with the factory’s owners about the issue but they were unwilling to comply with health and environmental standards. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Chaieb described the charges as “fabricated” and aimed at silencing the activists from voicing their pollution concerns.
“A worker at the landfill accused me of physically assaulting him. I gave evidence that I was working the night of the incident, but none of it mattered. It truly feels like they are trying to silence us before we protest again,” said Thameur Ben Khaled.
Nomen Mzid, a lawyer representing some of the activists, said: “Protesting their right to life should not be punished. They took on the state’s responsibilities and they’re being thrown in jail for it.”
According to the lawyers, the judges’ decisions in these trials are unusual and can be linked to recent attacks on judicial independence in Tunisia.
“We were very surprised to see the sentences. Usually, the judges are more supportive of this kind of protest. It could have been resolved through a conversation with these companies. But their decision can be understood within this climate, where judges can be quickly eliminated for stepping out of line,” Chaieb added.
After a power grab in 2021, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied went on to subjugate the judiciary. In June 2022, Saied implemented two decrees, firing 57 judges and allowing him to dismiss any judge or magistrate.
The justice ministry was contacted for comment on the activists’ jail sentences but said in an email that “it is not possible to respond to your request”.
‘We lost a lot’
Aguereb’s residents said they could no longer live with the pollution, starting about five years ago as the landfill’s smell grew stronger. Walking through the town, they point to the numerous spots where they would not have been able to stay long before because of the stench, which wafted 15km (6.5 miles) beyond the rubbish site.
“I used to walk around wearing a mask. We couldn’t open any windows, especially in the summer,” said Sami Bahri.
Shortly after Aguereb’s landfill closed down, the government attempted to open a new dump in nearby communities but protests prevented the move. No information on the whereabouts of the new landfill for Sfax’s waste has ever been released.
Labiadh condemned the absence of a clear national policy for waste management in Tunisia. “The state never thought of a long-term solution for this issue. They’re just moving pollution from one place to the other.”
The Aguereb activists said despite the criminal proceedings and other moves against them, they will continue to fight the refuse disposal problem.
“We lost a lot in this fight. We’ve been violated, threatened, even with physical violence, humiliated, our reputation was tarnished. All sorts of rumours were started to discredit us. But it was worth it in the end. At least we managed to diminish pollution in Aguereb,” said Sami Bahri.