11 Aug 2017
After the Arab Spring: Learning to love nature again
From “protect by punishment” to “protect by involving people”: read about the peaceful revolution that is changing nature conservation in North Africa and the Middle East
Our relationship with nature is dependent on more than the way the wind blows and the flowers bloom. During a period of societal turmoil, for example, nature can become an unlikely political symbol.
In Tunisia, Awatef Abiadh saw it happen during the Arab Spring: “The Protected Area system was established by the government without any consultation with local communities”, she says. “Declared by law. Full-stop.”
As such, during the Tunisian revolution, people turned their resentment of an oppressive regime to collateral damage. “Locals ransacked Ichkeul, Bouhedma and Chaambi National Parks, taking threatened species like oryx and gazelle, and cutting many trees in anger against the government”, she recalls.
For Abiadh, this showed there was a lack of harmony between local people and nature across the region, and today inspires her work for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which has invested in bringing people together for conservation in the Mediterranean for the last five years.
“I grew up in the countryside in Kairouan where I learned my first lessons about nature,” says Abiadh. “We needed to use and exploit nature to earn our life, but we loved it and kept it close.”
Abiadh started a career as a teacher, but in 2007 whilst working as a lecturer, she became involved with a series of wildlife surveys on Tunisian islands, because her supervisor was seasick and suggested she go instead.
Volunteering and a passion for conservation followed, and today she works as the Programme Officer for North Africa for the CEPF Mediterranean Hotspot, granting projects and helping non-governmental organisations (NGOs), large and new, with their social and environmental challenges.
“Since we started in the hotspot, we have contributed to a 180-degree change in conservation, from ‘protect by punishment’, to ‘protect by involving more local peoplee’”, she says.
The project closest to her heart, and family home, is led by Notre Grand Bleu (NGB; “Our Big Blue”), a local group of nature enthusiasts and divers that emerged out of the Arab Spring into a fully-fledged NGO, and were granted by CEPF to protect the Kuriat Islands – and their Endangered turtles – from bad tourist management and fishing.
Kuriat is a positive story of hope, where NGB succeeded in forming the first ever co-managed committee for nature conservation in Tunisia. Jamel Jrijer, NGB, said: “Engaging locals in conservation activities gives them a sense of belonging and creates commitment to good environmental practice.”
Together with 18 stakeholders including government, research, tourism, and fishing, NGB are close to creating a Marine Protected Area that everyone is behind. Whilst the Arab Spring helped mobilise North African civil society, some organisations of course already existed.
AREA-ED, in neighbouring Algeria, was founded in 1998 and has worked to create the National Parks Babor and Tadabort, providing crucial high-altitude habitat for an endemic and Critically Endangered Algerian fir tree, resident fluffy monkeys, barbary macaque (Endangered), and bark-climbing Algerian Nuthatch Sitta ledanti (Endangered) – all threatened by fire, illegal logging and overgrazing.
A CEPF project in 2014 allowed AREA-ED to work in new ways. “Both of these projects are the first times a participatory approach has been used in creating protected areas in North Africa,” says Abiadh. One lesson that has emerged from all 106 CEPF grants in the Mediterranean is that nature conservation is a powerful way of bringing diverse people together, and even just time spent in nature can be transformational for some.
When you see the smiles on people’s faces at a turtle hatchling release on the Kuriat Islands, it’s easy to understand; but perhaps nowhere is it more important than in trying to rebuild a country in civil war: Libya. …
Despite a low level of species endemism (4% unique to the country) Libya certainly has some great natural assets. With nearly 200 km of Mediterranean coast and a vast semi-arid region leading to the Sahara Desert, there are coral reefs, ponds and mangroves; plus salt marshes and mud flats for migratory birds. “Ecotourism is a realistic opportunity for Libya once conditions allow,” says Abiadh.