Hundreds of people took to the streets and beaches this Sunday March 25th, to participate in a grass-roots environmental initiative called Let's Do It Tunisie! Teams of volunteers from Bizerte to Tatouine joined municipal council workers to remove rubbish, plant trees and regenerate public spaces.
In Greater Tunis, initiatives were organized in a number of locations including Belvedere, Hammam Lif, Rades and Ariana. One of the larger turnouts was in the northern beach suburb of La Marsa, where dozens of people formed two work groups to clean the beach of garbage and plant trees.
A number of different environmental associations collaborated with the local council of La Marsa in the organization of the event. A focus of the beach action was the recycling of some of the thousands of plastic bottles and bottle tops that litter the sand. An organization called Good Plastique, set up by parents at the French High School in La Marsa, sorted and recycled PET plastic while a council tractor was on hand to cart away hard trash.
Rafika Ennaifar, one of the volunteers in the beach crew and a member of the Association for the Development and Protection of the Environment, explained that aside from the removal of rubbish, one of the main purposes of the initiative was to raise environmental awareness amongst locals and visitors to La Marsa.
She said that it was important for locals to realize that a clean beach is everyone's responsibility. "The local council has to make an effort, but people are the ones who litter the beach." Ennaifar argued that such actions helped change the mentality of people and that it was particularly important to get children involved. "Kids are receptive," she said. "The problem isn't the kids, it's the adults."
Daniela Belben, an English resident of La Marsa, came with her daughter Ines to take part in the initiative. 10-year-old Ines was happy to be at the beach picking up rubbish on a sunny Sunday morning. "It's important so we can sit on the beach in summer and it won't be dirty," she said. Her mother agreed that direct action was needed. "Tunisia is a great country but there is so much litter." Belben argued that it was important to be involved even if their hard work was largely symbolic. "The beach will be in the same state tomorrow, but we are still going to do it."
Kaouther Soussou and Hajer Boujemaa had also come to the beach with gloves in hand not only to clean, but to educate. Both are members of an association called the 20th of March Manifesto, which aims to promote democracy and citizenship in Tunisia. Their strategy was to "do it ourselves and then talk to people who show interest and want to help." They said that Tunisia needed to be clean, "both literally and figuratively." They argued that the lack of engagement of citizens on both a political and environmental level was the result of decades of deliberate policy from undemocratic governments. For Soussou and Boujemma this needed to change. "Having a good environment is both our right and our responsibility" they said.
By the time the action in La Marsa had wound down in the early afternoon, several hundred meters of beach had been cleaned and many trees had been planted. While numbers in La Marsa were somewhat lower than organizers' expectations - they were hoping for hundreds, not dozens - those who did turn up appeared pleased with the results of their hard work. Many onlookers were also happy. More than once children and adults came up to volunteers to thank them for their initiative or to pitch in and lend a hand.
Cleaning up Tunisia may be a daunting task but organizers of today's event will take heart from the enthusiasm of locals who want to make a difference. While the hard work done today around the country represents a drop in the ocean in terms of the quantity of rubbish removed, it also represents an important success in the way individuals, associations and communities are able to organize to promote environmental awareness and social change.