In the early hours of the morning on a Sunday in November, the weather in Hammam Sousse – a town in the Tunisian Sahel – was decidedly misty. It had rained heavily the day before and the banks of the Oued El Hammam were shrouded in a dense fog. Despite pessimistic weather forecasts, municipal workers were busying themselves on the right bank of the Oued, shovels in hand, digging dozens of holes. Over the next few hours, trees were planted by local residents as part of the Clima-Med project “Acting for Climate in South Mediterranean”, funded by the European Union and rolled out across eight countries.
For a number of years, the negative – even dangerous – effects of climate change on the planet have been a central talking point and everyone is doing their best to protect themselves from the impacts. However, few people really understand what this actually entails. The concept of climate change is linked to global warming, which began several decades ago. This has manifested itself in an increase in average temperatures leading to melting glaciers and rising sea levels, declining water resources in dry areas and a greater number of extreme weather events (storms, droughts, etc.). These changes are the result of human activity and pressure on natural resources. One of the simplest solutions for tackling climate change is planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide – the most significant greenhouse gas.
Since finding out that she would be helping to plant trees at the weekend, Fatma Guebsi, 11 years old, had been unable to contain her excitement. That morning, she woke up at the crack of dawn and (im)patiently waited to meet up with her teachers and classmates and head for the banks of the Oued El Hammam. At school, they had been taught that planting trees was a citizens’ environmental initiative which would help protect the planet. Ever since, Fatma has been paying more attention and says that she wants to fight pollution so that the Earth doesn’t have to suffer any more. Once she got there, she left the group straight away and ran towards the first mound. “I’m going to get straight to it and plant lots of trees! ”, she announced.
But Chairman of the Committee of Cleanliness, Hygiene and the Environment for the Municipality of Hammam-Sousse, Abderrazak Mani, was quick to get hold of her. He brought her back to the group and started to explain to everyone the day’s agenda and why it is so important to plant trees. He grabbed their attention with his friendly manner, and piqued their curiosity by telling them that, for example, almost 600 trees and bushes were going to be planted that day in Hammam Sousse as part of the Clima-Med project in order to combat the negative effects of climate change. “Children”, he declared, “thanks to your help we are going to plant 300 myoporum plants, 150 ficus plants and 150 Aleppo pines”. Faced with a barrage of questions, he carefully explained all the details in simple terms. It is not enough just to organise one morning of tree planting to make a real difference. We need to make citizens, both young and old, aware of their responsibilities by teaching them about the importance of caring for the environment to protect the planet and the future of the next generations.
It’s all about oxygen
Many other children, just like Fatma, took part in the Sunday planting event with great enthusiasm, including members of Sousse karate club. Dotted around here and there, some wielded spades, shovels and hoes with childish enthusiasm, while others pushed wheel barrows back and forth and watered the freshly planted shrubs. Their teachers handed out water among the joyous commotion of children where squeals of delight mingled with celebratory singing. It was also an unmitigated selfie-fest. The success of this initiative was spread widely across social media. A green belt in karate, Yassine Laâtiri, 14, had just finished planting a ficus plant when he proudly announced: “Tunisia needs to be green for the future generations”. Anouar Ben Abdallah, also 14, momentarily stopped watering the plants to say: “Sport is my oxygen, but planting trees will give everyone oxygen and plenty of fresh air to breathe. ”
Bringing the environment into the classroom
Arabic teacher, Assala Selmi, was eager to accompany her pupils on the Sunday planting day. The environment is a topic which is particularly close to her heart. Indeed, she has been organising the school’s environment club for the last four years. She is a big hit with the children, patiently answering their questions about the name, age or origin of the plants. “At the club, I try to get children interested, but the theory side of things on its own is not enough. They are always asking to get involved in environmental action outside the classroom. So we are really grateful for this initiative. But on its own, it is nowhere near enough. To bring about real change, we need to make the environment a subject in its own right in the curriculum to encourage children to follow this route. But I’m under no illusions, the resources are sadly lacking. ”. Joining in the conversation, 11-year-old Iyed Gafsi said: “I want to make my country more beautiful.” And Raouen Ben Amor, also 11, continued: “By planting tress, I feel like I’m doing something useful”. Nour Sebaï, 12, and Sahar El Ghanzour, 11, were keen to give new names to the trees they planted. Full of fresh-faced innocence, their comments showed their level of interest in the issue. These budding gardeners have learnt a valuable lesson and will never forget the importance of planting trees to give nature a helping hand and protect the environment.
Reforestation: a mammoth task
The medium-term goal of the tree planting initiative is to transform the site along the banks of the Oued into a 1.5km fitness trail. According to Vice-President of the Municipality of Hammam-Sousse and President of the Tunisian Youth and Leisure Association for Cultural Activities, Chokri Jegham, “until now, this part of town has been polluted by garages and sheet metal factories. We want to turn it into a space for people to relax and transform it into a wonderful urban garden”. He added: “The role of civil society is to raise awareness among citizens and make a tangible contribution to improving the quality of life in our town. Thanks to the support of our partners, such as the European Union, we can do it! ”
According to Abderrazak Mani, the Chairman of the Committee of Cleanliness, Hygiene and the Environment for the Municipality of Hammam-Sousse, the local reforestation plan demanded by the local population, as part of the participatory democracy adopted by the town, involves the planting of 5,000 trees. He explained the reasons for this approach: “Unfortunately, the Mediterranean region is ranked among the regions which are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, even though it does not make a particularly significant contribution in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Planting trees is an effective and achievable way for us to combat climate change and its negative effects. ”
Clima-Med: Let’s go green!
Thanks to the Clima-Med project “Acting for Climate in South Mediterranean”, eight Tunisian municipalities have received support in organising regional tree-planting days under the slogan “Let’s go green” (“Passez au vert”). With €7m of funding from the European Union, this project will be rolled out over four years and covers eight Mediterranean countries: Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia. Amel Makhlouf, the leading expert in the Clima-Med programme for the Maghreb region, explained that these events help to raise awareness and involve citizens and local authorities in a practical way, enabling them to contribute to global efforts to protect the environment and tackle climate change. She added: “This initiative is in line with the activities of the COP 25. We have always sought to involve towns and local civil society in our initiatives so that they can carry on the work and become fully engaged in the implementation of effective action plans for sustainable energy, the environment and the fight against climate change.” “Clima-Med focuses on supporting sustainable energy policies and strategies at both a local and a national level. It also provides technical assistance to support the creation and implementation of Sustainable Energy Access and Climate Action Plans (SEACAPs), which will comply with the principles of the Global Covenant of Mayors and will help to define practical measures to be implemented by local authorities in the Southern Neighbourhood”, she argued.
Words of wisdom
By around 2pm, all the trees had been planted. The children, full of wonderment, had already gone home. Local workers took over to pat down the soil and train the trees and shrubs to protect them from high winds. The tree planting day was a real success, but it would not have happened without the help of Habib Bettaieb, a retired university lecturer in mechanical engineering. Despite his illness, he was very keen to come to the event.
With his croaky voice and tired eyes, he spoke of the very real threat facing our environment. “We are all affected by this problem, but fortunately there are simple and effective solutions available. However, just planting five thousand trees is not enough. We need to plant five million!”, he said enthusiastically. Despite his worries for the future, he remains confident.
“Seeing the children taking part in this tree planting day fills me with hope. Many people pay no mind to what will happen in 50 years, but involving children by getting them to take part in this kind of initiative is the best way to ensure a better future for the planet and the next generations!”, he concluded.
* The original article was featured in the Story Section of the EU Neighbours South website, on January 2 2019;Title: Clima-Med: Budding eco-warriors fighting climate change, available also in Arabic and French