Ten days before the end of 2020, Mustapha Laroui, then Minister of Environment and Local Affairs, was dismissed from his post on suspicion of corruption. Laroui served in Tunisia’s ninth post-revolution government, headed by Hishem Mechichi who also kicked him out of office. He was arrested the same day. The scandal that ended Laroui’s career in government concerns facilitating the transfer of 282 containers equivalent to 480 tons of Italian waste to Tunisia via the port of Sousse.[i] The full extent of the scandal was revealed after the investigative TV show “Al Haqa’eq al Arba‘a” (the four truths) ran an episode on 2 November 2020 uncovering the scale of the problem. Twenty-three additional suspects were arrested and questioned in relation to the scandal, including the director of the National Agency for Waste Management (ANGED), who was later released, and a Tunisian diplomat based in Naples. Though it made the news in November, the imported waste had been sitting in the port of Sousse since early 2020. Reports indicate that the deal that brought southern Italian waste to the Tunisian shore was signed between the export-oriented Tunisian firm Soreplast and the Naples-based Italian firm Sviluppo Risorse Ambientali Srl. Contrary to the media narrative – whereby Soreplast had allegedly imported post-industrial plastic waste to process, recycle, and export – the formal contract indicates that the objective was the permanent elimination of the waste in Tunisia, with a price tag of 48 euros/ton, not to exceed 120,000 tons per year, for a total value of 5 million euros.
Dirty scandals haunt Tunisia’s solid waste management sector. An investigative report published by Nawaat[ii] in May 2015 focused on the rampant corruption in the management of the country’s largest controlled landfill, the landfill of Borj Chakir in the municipality of Sidi Hassine, a southern suburb of Tunis with a number of working-class neighbourhoods (quartiers populaires).[iii] A pithy summary describes the situation: solid waste management is a highly lucrative sector where opacity and corruption are not only endemic but also institutionalized. The report exposes the rigged public tendering process which enabled the French company PIZZORNO Environnement headed by François Léotard to win the contract for the management of the Borj Chakir landfill because of Léotard’s friendship with ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The infractions were reported in a 350-page investigation prepared by Abdelfattah Amor, [iv] which addresses corruption and embezzlement affairs across sectors perpetrated by the authoritarian regime and its cronies. The creation of ANGED in 2005[v] as a public non-administrative agency responsible for solid waste management (henceforth SWM) seems to have facilitated institutionalized corruption in the sector.
Starting in the 1990s with the acceleration of neoliberal policies, a veneer of awareness-raising campaigns to create environmentally conscious citizens hid institutionalized corruption in SWM from public view. Labib (figure 1) was the emblem of these campaigns. The environment mascot whose statues filled roundabouts across Tunisia is associated with the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), the one-party-state of the authoritarian regime. After the revolution, most of these statues were vengefully destroyed in protest. Those still standing are a reminder of the powerful ideas the authoritarian regime ingrained in citizens’ minds about the environment, and which encompass two elements: aesthetics (decorating public spaces with statues) and moral uprightness, measured in terms of conforming to a specific behaviour, such as not littering. Framed like this, environmental protection was a personal moral responsibility rather than a societal political-economy question related to patterns of consumption, the inevitable waste these patterns create, and ways of disposing of the produced waste. Nonetheless, Labib did help raise awareness about environmental protection. Although the removal of most of these statues is a break from the authoritarian regime, no awareness-raising efforts have replaced the mascot.
Three factors distinguish the post-revolution period. First, a growing number of civil society organizations are campaigning for a cleaner and safer environment; their members are active at international meetings and support environmental causes from biodiversity to sustainable cities. Second, the rise of ad-hoc environmental activism campaigns, not all of which are institutionalized, born out of local environmental harms such as water pollution (Gabes) and toxic landfills (Agareb, Djerba), amongst others. Added to the latter are social movements based on environmental grievances with different organizational dynamics and popular appeal. Collectively, these efforts, modest as they are, are slowly shifting the understanding of environmental sustainability beyond cleanliness, aesthetics, and personal moral responsibility towards broader issues of institutional failure, systemic corruption, and the disposability of certain bodies at the expense of others. The increased participation of Tunisian activists and non-governmental organizations in international meetings on issues ranging from biodiversity to climate change, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and sustainable cities, as well as encounters between NGOs and Tunisian officials, has elevated environmental concerns to the national and international levels.
The final and most important factor is political decentralization which, according to the principle of subsidiarity, places municipalities at the centre of SWM. Due to their proximity to citizens, local governments are considered the first institutions responsible for SWM and are assumed to be the most efficient providers of this service. According to a survey conducted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (hbs) in 2016, citizens also expect municipalities to place solid waste collection at the top of their priorities. The same HBS survey revealed a very negative assessment by Tunisians of the environmental situation, pointing not only to the responsibility of the municipalities but also to their responsibility as citizens. According to the respondents, solutions to environmental problems necessitate a coordinated response between the municipality, the central government, and citizens. Although litter-filled streets are a source of grievance for many citizens who perceive this as an indicator of failed local governance, their perspective does not consider the whole SWM chain,[i] nor the fact that the first democratically elected local governments have only been operating since May 2018 and face severe budgetary and human capital constraints. Furthermore, municipal councils and administrations are still waiting for most of the laws, decrees, and decisions operationalizing the various articles of the Organic Law.[ii] This perspective about “failed local governance” does not fully acknowledge the complex political and institutional environments municipalities operate in. It does not consider that elected local councils, who started implementing decentralization reforms in 2018, inherited structurally weak institutions which they have been trying hard to redress. At the same time, the politicization of municipal councils has created partisan disagreements rendering municipal decision-making even more laborious.
The present study is situated within this shifting landscape. It adopts a transversal environmental justice-driven understanding of SWM which connects ecologies, lives, livelihoods, and institutions. Applying Rob Nixon’s theoretical framework of “slow violence” to the Tunisian context, it examines three case studies of municipal solid waste management and the role of environmental activism across these cases.[iii] The study argues that despite the broad mandates for environmental protection granted to municipalities in the context of decentralization reforms, SWM requires multi-scalar and multi-institutional coordination. Operating with financial and human resource constraints, municipalities are weak links, squeezed between citizens’ grievances and governmental priorities. Despite modest achievements, they are currently unable to fend off the “slow violence” resulting from failed SWM practices.
Against an understanding of environmental degradation as structural violence, Nixon advances the concept of slow violence as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”[iv] Nixon opens his book with a quote by former World Bank president Larry Summers from a leaked memo where he justifies the dumping of toxic waste in poor “under-polluted” low-income countries. According to this economic rationale, under-pollution is a “comparative advantage” that low-income countries have over their richer industrialized counterparts. Given loud environmental movements in the global North, shipping garbage for final disposal in the global South is both economically justifiable for recipient nations and politically expedient for rich governments seeking to placate environmental dissent. One could see how the Italian waste scandal becomes immediately appealing when seen through the lens of slow violence.
At the moment, the Italian waste scandal is anything but quiet or “out of sight”. Once the allure of scandal subsides, however, it is unlikely that the public will remember the millions of tons of already buried garbage polluting the earth, air, and water-table in countless controlled and informal landfills around the country. Even when dirty scandals come to pass, the invisible consequences of solid waste management endure. As such, beyond this recent scandal, the framework of slow violence is necessary to shine a light on this toxicity that is otherwise forgotten because it affects populations perceived to be disposable. Tunisia’s two largest landfills, Borj Chekir and El Gonna, are located in poor localities replete with working-class neighbourhoods (quartiers populaires), their dwellers considered the refuse of the country’s modernity. Toxicity affects their bodies disproportionally. When it does not slowly kill them, it maims their children. This is slow violence. As this study shows, municipalities are unable to defend their constituents against such assaults for three reasons: (i) their definition of the environment is too narrow; (ii) they do not make full use of their jurisdictional authority to tax polluters, for example, and (iii) their powers are overridden by both deconcentrated and centralized institutions such as governors or the ANGED.
Methodologically, this study adopts a municipal politics lens. It consists of three case studies: Nabeul and Maamoura (governorate of Nabeul) and Agareb (governorate of Sfax), documenting practices of SWM, municipal staff’s atonement to questions of environmental sustainability, and the role of environmental civil society organizations in these localities. The three case studies, summarized respectively as the good governance case, the feel-good case, and the toxic case, illustrate the constraints under which municipalities manage environmental concerns in the SWM sector on a daily basis. They show how differing understandings of what constitutes “the environment” influence municipal decision-making and sets activists apart from municipalities. While municipalities see environmental problems as either technical and purely related to cleanliness or a matter of jurisdictional responsibilities, for activists, environmental harm is embodied – it affects their health and bodily integrity.
The purposive case selection builds on desk research about experiences of environmental activism across Tunisian localities with specific attention to their geographic location. All three municipalities are located on the coast. As a result, they are better endowed with financial and human resources than municipalities in the inner regions. Of the three, the municipality of Maamoura makes headlines for its collaboration with civil society organizations. The civil society campaign Manish Msab (I am not a landfill) earned the municipality of Agareb its fame as the home of the country’s most toxic landfill. Nabeul is the neutral case of a rich coastal municipality which serves as a comparative case in relation to poorer and smaller Maamoura and Agareb. The study builds on desk research, including grey and academic literature, as well as four interviews conducted by Lana Salman and Zied Boussen on 23 and 24 December 2020, with one staff member at the municipality of Nabeul, two staff members at the municipality of Maamoura, two staff members at the municipality of Agareb, and one environmental activist in the same locality.[v]
The following section of the study presents an overview of the legal and institutional framework for solid waste management. The three case studies are then presented, accompanied by a succinct summary of indicators about each of the municipalities. Each case study explores the prevalent understanding of “the environment”, the municipality’s challenges and successes in SWM, and the role of environmental activists if applicable. The conclusion suggests avenues for future research.
[i] Mapping the entirety of the chain shows that addressing SWM issues cannot be dissociated from the producers of packaging and other waste. Any SWM policy must be conceptually enlarged to include the latter since such a blind spot hides the SW avoidance of such actors.
[ii] The Organic Law is the main regulatory framework with general stipulations, but these stipulations need to be operationalized in decrees and decisions; no municipalities cannot operationalize the law without central level decisions and decrees.
[iii] Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.
[iv] See Nixon, 2011, p.2.
[v] The interview at the municipality of Maamoura was audio-recorded. For the rest, Lana and Zied took extensive and complimentary notes. Except for the civil society activist in the Manish Msab campaign, the author uses pseudonyms to protect the identity of our municipal interlocutors. The interview guide is included in Appendix I.
[i] The waste was mixed. It included household waste and could be potentially dangerous.
[ii] Nawaat is an independent collective blog founded in 2004 which features high-quality journalistic essays about Tunisian politics.
[iii] Borj Chakir is supposed to close in June 2021, according to the former Minister of Local Affairs and Environment, Mokhtar Hammami
[iv] Abdelfattah Amor is jurist, academic, and public law specialist. In 2011, he was appointed president of the National Commission of Investigation of Cases of Corruption and Embezzlement.
[v] Decree No. 2005-2317 of 22 August 2005, JORT.
Table of contents
The legal and institutional framework for waste management
The good, the feel-good, the toxic: three cases of municipal SWM and environmental activism
Good governance in Nabeul
Political disagreements, technical solutions
Ambivalence about participation
Feel-good in Maamoura
Good practices with challenging consequences
Collaboration with civil society organizations
Toxicity in Agareb
Non-institutionalized, non-disruptive contestation
Extortive capitalism and perverse incentives
A disembodied problem
Diffused institutional responsibility
Good governance amidst toxicity
Annexe: Interview questionnaire