Tunisia becomes violent over landfills

IIT WAS HARD to distinguish smells. For months, the town of Agareb, near the Tunisian coast, reeked of garbage from an overflowing landfill. In September, authorities closed the site, which residents considered a danger to public health. But this month, after garbage piled up on the streets, it was reopened. Protesters cried foul and clashed with security forces on November 10. In addition to the stench of tear gas and garbage, a new smell filled the air: burnt tires.

One person was killed and a police station was ransacked. It is the worst violence in Tunisia since President Kais Saied suspended parliament and seized power in July. Critics have called his actions a coup. But many in Agareb applauded him. The city of 40,000 inhabitants has long been neglected. Its poor people have lost their illusions about the country’s ten-year-old democracy. They say they voted overwhelmingly for Mr Saied in 2019, hoping he would eliminate corruption. If he had to act like an authoritarian to do it, so be it.

This is how most of them felt in July. Now they have changed their minds. The people of Agareb call Mr. Saied a dictator. Because it was he who canceled the local authorities and reopened the landfill, in part to relieve the neighboring town of Sfax. Tunisia’s second largest city and industrial powerhouse was suffering under even larger mountains of uncleaned waste.

Residents of Agareb say the landfill, opened in 2008, was only to be used for five years. A judge ordered its closure in 2019, to no avail. Now it is not only overflowing, but full of hazardous industrial and medical waste, including parts of the body and amputated fetuses, activists say. They claim that the discharge has spread disease, including respiratory disease and cancer.

Tunisia collects around 2.5 million tonnes of waste each year. A small part is recycled. Much of it ends up in one of the 13 official landfills without being properly treated. Many of them crowd the streets. Even in Tunis, the capital, less than two-thirds of waste is collected, says the World Bank. In the province of Sfax, the local government refused to collect garbage after the Agareb landfill was closed.

Waste collection can be profitable. But the big contracts offered to waste management companies have been controversial. Elyes Fakhfakh resigned his post as prime minister last year after being accused of concealing a conflict of interest in awarding such contracts (he denies committing any wrongdoing). His opponents also have ties to businessmen with their fingers in the waste management pie.

Last summer, an Italian company sent nearly 300 containers of “plastic waste” to Tunisia. A Tunisian company had agreed to recycle it for a fee. But the garbage was mainly household garbage, the kind that piles up in Tunisian streets today. The agreement violated international treaties, as well as Tunisian law. Twenty-six people, including a former Minister of the Environment, were arrested.

The waste management scandal is typical of corruption and mismanagement in Tunisia, with the burden falling mainly on the poor. We hoped that Mr. Saied’s government would do better. But cleaning up Tunisia is proving more difficult than ever. Many of the country’s landfills are in poorer areas like Agareb. Any of these places could be the next to erupt.

This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Bad smells everywhere”

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