The Arab Spring sparked a series of protests across the Mideast not just for political change but also for more environment protection. In countries like Tunisia, citizens are taking action to conserve biodiversity.
Bou Hedma National Park in central Tunisia slowly opened up to tourists and locals after the revolution, after years of inaccessibility. It’s home to wild cats, oryx antelopes and a variety of birds
Ichkeul is the last remaining lake in a chain formerly extending across North Africa. Civil society groups are working with government and international organizations to conserve the rich biodiversity at this heritage site
The parks weren’t just hard to access for visitors. Local residents too felt shut out of the negotiations that lay the foundation of the national parks some 20 years ago. As a result, many found themselves grappling with radically altered lives and livelihoods without having been consulted.
"This protected area took a large part of the grazing ground that used to be for the local community," Mahjoub says. "After the revolution, some entered protected areas to say the land had previously belonged to them.”
He adds that the revolution taught people to demand change and involvement, not just in political and social issues but also on the environment front. And, the demands have translated to actual involvement - after January 2011, over 370 non-governmental organizations were created in the field of environment protection alone.
"We are seeing this new era where it is not the public administration spearheading the projects, but civil societies as entities with more flexibility of movement, and physical presence in the ground," Majoub points out.
Activism translating into conservation efforts
It’s still too early to tell whether increased civil society participation has resulted in better protection for the country’s biodiversity.
But there are definitely gains, Mahjoub says, that are not specifically confined to Tunisia. For instance, there is a coordination of efforts into data collection, such as on migratory birds coming to Algeria or Morocco that previously didn't use to, or research into wetlands.
"I think now we have an idea, more precise and more updated about the current environment in our countries,” he said. “What they (civil society) are doing is very useful, because there is a lot of data that would not be available without them.”
Policymakers have also caught up, as evidenced by the newly-adopted Tunisian National Strategy for the Development and Sustainable Management of Forests and Rangelands.
Political instability is bad news for environment
Tunisia may have made some progress on green issues. But anyone who has been following the events of the Arab Spring knows the country is something of an outlier. Elsewhere, such as in Egypt, the revolution outcome has not been as peaceful. As recently as last month, more than 1,000 protestors took to the streets again to protest #link:http://www.dw.de/protests-break-out-in-cairo-following-mubarak-acquittal/a-18102035:charges being dropped against former President Hosni Mubarak# for 239 deaths during Egypt's Arab Spring.
The Nile River is perhaps the best known biodiversity hotspot in North Africa. It includes highly productive wetland ecosystems, as well as a rich variety of fish, mammal and bird species
In the fight for a better future, many in Tunisia included environmental issues in the push for societal change. In other countries, the revolutions turned into a drawn-out, bloody affair, that put the environmental agenda on the back burner, as the countries battled with internal strife.
In Libya for example, "absolutely nothing" is happening by way of biodiversity conservation at all, Klaimi says.
Cross-border efforts have also been difficult to coordinate, as alliances and divisions prove a hurdle. "Going to, say, Dubai is now more difficult for Syrians, Egyptians and Libyans, even as development staff and government officials," she says. "Their participation in workshops, meetings and conferences has also declined."