With Tunisia facing both climate and economic crises, a group of women have started cooperatives and small businesses to protect the environment and create a sustainable livelihood.
When Hayet Taboui was studying archaeology at university, her grandmother used to take her under the 2,500-year-old olive grove to receive a blessing before each exam. She did not believe in those odd and popular traditions, but that gesture would bind her forever to the ancient and wild trees of El Feija National Park, in northwest Tunisia, a few kilometres from the Algerian border.
In 2012, a year after the Tunisian uprising, Hayet and a group of other women decided to set up the Sidi Bou Zitoun association – which got its name from the wild-olive Olea oleaster – to protect the El Feija National Park ancient trees and to make a living out of nature-based tourism.
“We saw that the thousand-year-old trees were not being protected as they deserve and that our traditional seeds were being lost,” she recounts as she kneels and strokes the leaves of some olive tree cuttings. “We thought that by safeguarding local seeds we could create job opportunities for local communities”.
In the last nine years the women-led association has reimagined new ways of farming which contribute to preserving biodiversity and boosting resilience to climate change: agroecology, community seed gardens, medical plants and the recovery of local varieties.
As the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights, the effects of the climate crisis – droughts, wildfires, floods – will increase worldwide in the coming decades.
Temperatures are rising faster than expected: the Paris targets to limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius risks being breached if we do not act soon.
Like many countries in the Mediterranean region, Tunisia is also vulnerable to climate crises and weather shocks such as rising temperatures and varied precipitation levels coupled with potential increased frequencies of extreme events. This summer, the country recorded an average seasonal temperature increase of 8 to 15 degrees depending on the region, according to the National Institute of Meteorology. Dozens of fires broke out in the country.
The consequences of rising temperatures on agriculture are disastrous, but crop genetic resources can play a vital role in creating a more climate-resilient agriculture. Over centuries, resource-poor farmers have been using genetic diversity intelligently to develop varieties adapted to their own environmental stress conditions.
For women like Hayet Taboui, cultivating biodiversity is key to maintaining a resilient agricultural system, ensuring the production of healthy food and at the same time an income for families living in the park.
“We don’t buy hybrid seeds, we have made our community garden to plant and safeguard ancient local seeds that adapt to the climate conditions year by year,” says Hayet.
More than 150 inhabitants of the region, mainly women and youth, have been involved in this income generation project based on environment protection, ecotourism and the commercialisation of local products.
The region of Jendouba, one of the most marginalised in the country, has a poverty rate of 21.5 percent. In remote areas such as the Ghardimaou region, on the border with Algeria, the natural resources of the mountains are often the only sources of employment for the inhabitants.
Moving from Jendouba to the Sidi Bouzid, another woman is now struggling to reintroduce local varieties.
After several years of working for a seed imported factory, Fatiha Mosbati has decided to return to her home village in the countryside, Souk Jdid, to set up an organic greenhouse project. In her greenhouse, she tries to recover local seeds from olive trees, vines and other species and distribute them to farmers in the Sidi Bouzid region.
Every morning Fatiha walks among her seedlings and checks them carefully. “When you work for the market, the goal is quantity not quality. Now I am one of those who are trying to go back and invest in organic farming, even though it is difficult to get rid of chemicals,” explains Fatiha.
Habib Ayeb, associate Professor of Geography at the University Paris 8 and founder of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment, confirms the recovery of local seeds might be arduous “because soils have become adapted to hybrid seeds grown with pesticides and fertilisers”.
In the last forty years, a large number of farmers have abandoned traditional and local seeds to buy imported hybrid seeds, as a consequence of decades of policies that have oriented Tunisian development towards monoculture farming systems, export-oriented companies and rent extraction.
It is a development model which created “social, economic and environmental fractures,” according to Layla Riahi, activist, researcher and member of the working group for Food Sovereignty in Tunisia.
“These policies have impoverished local farmers and benefited agribusiness investors and foreign seed importers. The whole system has favoured export agriculture and put food sovereignty on the back burner.”
In addition to the rapidly advancing climate crisis, Tunisia also faces a ravaging economic crisis.
Youth unemployment stands at 40.8 percent according to the State Statistics Institute. These economic and sustainable initiatives might then offer a solution to youth unemployment and the mass exodus of thousands of young Tunisians.
This is exactly what Amyra Ben Abidi, 25, thought when she finished her design studies. “I live in a very culturally rich place. I decided to recover our ancient family knowledge and make a living out of it”.
Amyra works with her mother in a traditional house in Bekalta district, a residential area not far from the coastal town of Mahdia, only 140 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Every year hundreds of young Tunisians cross the Mediterranean, but Amyra has chosen to stay. In 2017, she launched her own small enterprise: she has transformed her backyard into an atelier where she produces items made from dried and handcrafted palm leaves, such as bags, baskets or home decorations and then sells them on internet, local markets and at Cit’Ess Kanawita, a collective and selling space for social entrepreneurs in Mahdia.
“This project is not simply ecological, but it can offer work to many young unemployed people and at the same time save a dying trade”.
According to Alessia Tibollo, regional representative of the NGO Cospe who has been committed for ten years in the field of social and solidarity economy of the country, “Theses kind of cooperatives and associations can represent an alternative for women and young people who have been marginalised by the neoliberal policies implemented in Tunisia.”
“They play a significant role in improving the livelihoods of rural communities and they also represent a response to the climate crisis.”
In June 2020, the Tunisian parliament adopted a bill on social and solidarity economy to promote economic and social inclusion of marginalised populations, including women and youth, by encouraging them to associate in cooperatives, mutual organisations or self-help groups. But the law alone is not enough to solve deep-rooted problems.
Social and environmental rights are still at the heart of the demands of Tunisian civil society ten years after the 2011 revolution. In 2021, several protests erupted in response to declining living conditions, poverty, political corruption and endemic unemployment, especially among the country’s youth.
“The state does not do enough for us young people. Those who stay are forced to reinvent their profession, but we are trying to take the future into our own hands,” says Amyra.