Green hope

Can planting trees bring social change to marginalized regions in Tunisia?
Can planting trees bring social change to Tunisia
Photo by: Acacias For All

Tunisia is, after Jordan, the second country in the Mediterranean area to be most affected by drought and dryness. Not only is it the smallest country in the Maghreb, it is also the one with the least reliable water resources. Aware of this problem and with the intention of bringing about social change, Acacias for All, a social and ecological enterprise founded in 2012 by Sarah Toumi, works against desertification and lack of water with a simple, yet significant, measure: planting trees.

It’s not easy to find drinkable water

The Saharan desert occupies 40% of the surface area of the territory. 75% of the country’s surface is either in the process of desertification, or has already turned into desert. The lack of renewable water resources is an especially sensitive subject. In Morocco, which is in a similar situation of desertification, there are more water resources, especially renewable ones. In Tunisia, however, the water resources are scarce and not renewable. That results in the salinization of water and soil.

In Sfax, for example, a coastal and industrial city about an hour from Tunis away, the tap water contains five grams of salt per liter, which is rather high considering that salt water usually contains about 16 grams of salt, while drinkable water should have less than 2 grams. This means that the water has to be filtered before it can be used for cooking or agriculture. Systems of filtering, however, are anything but cheap and, therefore, inaccessible for the average household, or farmer.

The consumption of water is the highest in the agricultural sector and second in tourism. The agricultural practices figure among the four main causes of desertification in Tunisia, accompanied by overgrazing, deforestation and soil salinization.

Finding a solution for water supply and filtration for the small farmers is one of the goals of Sarah Toumi, a well-known social and ecological entrepreneur in Tunisia, who I met in historical port district La Goulette in Tunis to talk about desertification in Tunisia and social implications for the marginalized areas. What makes this project exceptional is its new holistic approach to farming that incorporates social change and the creation of opportunities in marginalized Tunisian regions in danger, or in the process of desertification.

Dealing with desertification while promoting social inclusion

In 2012, Toumi started the social enterprise Acacias for All in Sfax, her hometown. This creative ecological and social initiative mainly works with small farmers in marginalized areas in danger or in process of desertification. The idea is to effectively work against desertification in these areas, especially by planting trees that can survive without much water, such as acacias. In total, they use about thirty different species. Their program also includes supporting local farmers in much more than just planting trees. They also provide them with platforms to sell a range of five secondary products, such as honey, dried fruits and olive oil, at fair prices.

They have also concentrated on supporting working women in marginalized areas, since these women generally get paid about a third of a male worker’s wage, if they get paid at all.

According to Sarah Toumi they focus on three main points: working against desertification by planting trees, against poverty by creating jobs, and against social inequality by supporting marginalized populations, especially working women in these areas.

In 2016, the project had gained enough international and national recognition to be able to recruit “ambassadors” in regions other than the Sfaxian region, where the initiative is based. The initiative provides trainings for the ambassadors in agricultural techniques that can be used against desertification, such as permaculture. The trained ambassadors currently work in 14 different regions with the local farmers, women, and youth.

The locals in these marginalized areas affected by desertification, such as the South, are especially affected by a lack of jobs and opportunities, low incomes, lack of water, and loss of usable agricultural territory. These regions were the place where the Yasmine revolution of 2011 started. Still today, demonstrations and political uprisings are regularly happening in these areas – Tataouine being a current example.

Tunisian oil: foreign companies vs. local jobs

In Tataouine, which is the main region to produce and export oil, several foreign oil companies have recently stopped production due to major demonstrations of the local population against them. The reason for these tensions is the fact that those foreign companies, especially French ones, still work under agreements made with the government of Tunisia in the time of colonization. These agreements sell Tunisian oil for a lot less than the usual price and do not prescribe a percentage of local Tunisian workers employed in the companies. That results in what locals refer to as the foreigners making profit from Tunisian resources while the Tunisians themselves live in poverty. The locals feel left out and disrespected, while foreign companies profit of the resources of their lands.

As they have blocked off the entrance to the working place, the president of the nation announced last week that he’d send the military down to take care of the situation in a speech that, as many have pointed out, reflected the speeches of Ben Ali. On May 22, the protests escalated, and one protester reportedly died in a hospital after being beaten up by police forces. This conflict clearly illustrates the social situation of the population in the South, where jobs are scarce and even more so for young graduates. This is exactly the group of people Sarah Toumi’s social enterprise wants to integrate in her ecological and social program.

As Toumi points out, there are large abandoned lands owned by the government in these areas. Those abandoned governmental lands could bring a whole new range of new possibilities to young graduates of the South – a new project Toumi is working on with her initiative. The goal is to make these lands usable for projects which could guarantee new jobs with good living and working conditions for the young, while combatting desertification in these marginalized Saharan regions.

Initiatives that invest in the potential of young people in marginalized areas, and work for more ecological awareness in Tunisia are extremely important for the country’s future. Regardless, they remain scarce. Thus, drawing attention to this potential solution to the problem of youth unemployment in Southern Tunisia is essential. Additionally, the concept of Acacias for all could serve as an example for similar projects in marginalized areas in danger of desertification all over the world.

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Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a Middle East Studies and Philosophy graduate from Austria currently based in Tunis. Fluent in German, English and French, she has spent significant time traveling and studying in Australia, France, and North Africa. For the past 2 years, she has been going back and forth between Tunis and Vienna studying Arabic and volunteering for a NGO project focused on racism and discrimination in the MENA region. She is a passionate advocate for human rights and gender equality. She is also interested in photography, art, and loves music.
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