Tunisia: protests force government to negotiate over waste crisis
A dispute over a landfill waste site in Tunisia’s Sfax province might initially have seemed an environmental and public health issue. But it also became a question of governance and pointed to a bigger problem: of an aloof political system that gives people little say in decisions that affect their lives and does not listen to their concerns. The dispute came a time when the fragility of Tunisia’s democracy had been made clear by a presidential power grab, which included the dismissal of the government and suspension of parliament. That residents mobilised and won their battle offers some hope. Their actions should point the way forward for more democratic and inclusive governance in Tunisia.
Months of public pressure over a landfill crisis in Sfax province – whose capital, Sfax city, is Tunisia’s second-largest city and main industrial hub – finally paid off. On 8 December, Sfax city council resumed waste collection and started dealing with the thousands of tons of household waste piled up in streets across the region.
The waste built up following the temporary closure of Tunisia’s most toxic landfill site, Agareb, in September. The site was reopened in early November, but following meetings with civil society, the government agreed to develop a new regional plan for recycling and waste recovery.
The government changed course after thousands of people protested against the reopening of the Agareb landfill on public safety, environmental and health grounds.
Lots of waste but no plan
One of Tunisia’s largest dumps, Agareb landfill is located just three kilometres from the centre of Agareb, a small coastal town in Sfax province. Ironically, it stands in the middle of a nature reserve. It has long been a source of tension between locals and government officials. This is because the government extended its use several times, long after it reached full capacity.
According to locals, the site, which opened in 2008 with a lifespan of only five years, had become a public health hazard. Health practitioners started spotting new viral diseases among local patients. No wonder a court ordered the immediate closure of the dump in 2019.
Residents and activists demanded implementation of the closure order ever since. But only following public pressure did the authorities finally decide to shut down the dump, in September 2021.
However, in what seemed like punishment for the people who mobilised, the city council simply stopped collecting waste. Rubbish started to accumulate in streets and markets – and even outside hospitals. Sfax province experienced a dangerous build-up of domestic and toxic waste. When angry residents complained, the city council blamed the central government for providing no alternative dumps.
This local struggle points to a bigger problem: Tunisia’s lack of a national waste management strategy and recycling capacity. The North African country has only 11 landfill sites. The Agareb landfill alone serves around one million people and receives both industrial and medical waste. A good number of Tunisia’s municipal landfills do not meet sanitary standards. Although the lifecycle of around half of the official dump sites has already expired, the Ministry of the Environment insists on continuing to use them due to the lack of alternatives.
In response, over the past few years Tunisia has witnessed growing environmental awareness and activism. The Agareb site is one of several where threats to the environment and public health have led to protests.
In Greater Tunis, the capital’s metro area, delays in closing another of the country’s largest landfills, Borj Chakir, scheduled for June 2021, also sparked unrest. Tunis has seen extensive mobilisations by communities, scientists and concerned professionals, working with domestic and international civil society groups to resist continued expansion. They’ve run public campaigns, conducted and published research, shared knowledge and staged street protests.
Some groups have filed lawsuits against expired landfill sites in their areas. Ohers are using art as a form of resistance to government neglect, among them the Maneche Msabb (‘I am not a rubbish dump’) art collective.
Off-track governance fuels civil unrest
For the Tunisian government, the Agareb protests and other movements against landfill sites offer a test not only of its environmental management but also of the quality of the country’s democracy. Tunisia’s democratic experiment, which started with the 2011 revolution, hit trouble as it reached the 10-year milestone: in July 2021, President Kais Saied dismissed the government and suspended parliament, and in October he issued a decree granting himself extensive powers.
2011’s Jasmine Revolution was triggered by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in reaction to his repeated humiliations at the hands of arrogant public officials. As the years went on, many Tunisians felt that too little had changed. Agareb presented yet another test case for Tunisia’s democracy, which institutions clearly failed. Once again, people saw a government that was incapable of listening to them and understanding the day-to-day challenges they faced, and so could not address their problems or offer a sustainable solution.
When confronted with protests over Agareb, the government first decided to expand the site beyond its maximum capacity, even though the judiciary had mandated its closure. The Ministry of the Environment did not even bother to communicate with concerned residents before announcing the site’s reopening on Facebook in early November.
Naturally, the government’s refusal to acknowledge people’s concerns caused tensions to escalate. It intensified people’s anger at economic hardship, which deepened under the COVID-19 pandemic. Tunisia’s unemployment rate reached 18.4 per cent in 2021 and two years into the pandemic, 600,000 additional Tunisians had fallen below the poverty line.
As thousands took the streets of Agareb, they were met with force. On 9 November they clashed with security forces and Abdul Razzaq Lachhab, a 35-year-old protester, died, reportedly due to teargas inhalation. The authorities denied responsibility.
The fatality again sent a clear message to people: your lives do not matter. It suggested that for all of President Saied’s populist claims to represent poor and marginalised people, his first response wasn’t to listen, but to offer violence. This triggered mobilisations in which young protesters burned a police station, in the worst episode of violence since Saied suspended parliament in July.
The appointment in October of Tunisia’s first female Prime Minister, Najla Bouden, did not bring any change, as many suspected the new prime minister – a geologist with little political experience – would be a mere puppet in the hands of Saied. Such suspicions appeared confirmed when Bouden and Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine met with Saied over the landfill crisis: he blamed ‘hidden hands’ – a reference to the Ennahda party he has made his enemy – for the piled trash in Sfax.
Following that meeting, local authorities chose to treat the angry citizens of Agareb not as a group worthy of being listened to but as a security problem. This flew in the face of the idea of the national dialogue Saied promised in response to mounting criticism of his undemocratic takeover.
Reversal shows the need to listen
Resistance to the reopening of the Agareb dump was a collective effort. Following Lachhab’s death, the Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT), which has around a million members and is a major force in Tunisian politics, called for a general industrial strike across the Sfax region to demand a judicial investigation.
In a meeting with residents in early December, the government finally gave in and promised to immediately start developing a new dump in the region. More importantly, it vowed to come up with a regional plan for recycling and waste recovery within a period of three to five years. As a result of that meeting, the UGTT suspended its strike, scheduled to take place on 10 December, but warned it would call another if the government did not work to enhance the health conditions for people in the region.
The dispute over the Agareb landfill is just one of many, but it reveals a lot about current governance challenges and the government’s crisis management style. Unrest shouldn’t be treated as a security problem. Environmental challenges such as waste management should be tackled in consultation with affected communities and in collaboration with civil society. People must have a say in the making of the decisions that affect their lives: that is part of what democracy means.
The same is true when it comes to the bigger political picture. While Saied is seeking to strengthen his power by dismantling democratic checks and balances, the lessons of Agareb require him to move in the opposite direction: towards listening to people’s concerns, consulting widely to realise collective solutions and avoiding unilateral, top-down decisions.
It is not too late for Tunisia’s leaders to set an example for other countries in the region by strengthening democratic practices and institutions. Tunisia has the strongest and most resilient civil society in the region: it’s time to listen to it and involve it more.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The government should reinstate and deepen democracy, as a form of decision-making that is more open and inclusive of the plural voices of citizens and civil society.
Tunisian authorities must refrain from the use of excessive force against protesters and hold to account any members of security forces involved in violence against protesters.
The government should listen to the concerns of local communities and design a recycling and waste management system in line with their needs and expectations.
Cover photo by Walter Zerla/Getty Images