In the Breram region of Tabarka, fire broke out on the 17 of august 2022.

Fire in the Breram region of Tabarka

This summer was particularly fiery in Mediterranean countries. Along the Algerian Tunisian border fires have taken a greater reach. Rabeh Marai has been a forest guard for 30 years. For the experienced forester, no doubt climate change has made fires harsher and more recurrent:

“Climate change has a great influence on what happens, the areas that took fire are multiplied, the number of fires has increased, and the average per fire multiplied by at least 10.”

After 20 years at Sajanan, Rabeh moved to the forest district of Bizerte. Both delegations joined in stopping the flames in Tabarka.

"In Tabarka, there was damage in the houses which are in the middle of the forest, material damage. Some families have lost their lambs, their poultry, their housing" explains Rabeh Marai.

On the left, the forest before the fire/on the right, the extent of land burned (black stripe between Maloula and Tabarka).

From his house on Ain Mazouz, Mourad Triki witnessed the fire while some of his family members where trapped by the flames. He tells us.

"It was the hottest day of our stay with strong winds I think they advertised near above 40 degrees. In addition, they had cut off the water in the neighborhood to ration it.

Two versions were given concerning the start of the fire: One, a man was burning his waste and a spark jumped on the zribe(intertwined dry wood used by locals to create fences). Two, a woman was doing kesra (bread) in a traditional outdoor oven. The wind blew out the spark that ignited the grass. One way or the other, fire broke out.

Only certain places could be treated by the firefighters because they were accessible by a road. For others, it was the children and several people who went to the burning houses to save people. They extinguished the fire with olive branches.

Our cousin Mounira sat with her disabled daughter in the middle of her terrace under her vine with pans and pots as the fire surrounded them. It was the children of the plain who came up to help them."

The family's damaged house on Ain Mazouz

The water service has been told to put the water back on by the governor of Béja so that the inhabitants could put out the embers and above all protect themselves in case of another fire.

Cutting water off is a habit for Tunisians leaving in and around the massifs. With a drinking water supply rate of only 15%, rationing is customary in the forest. Such a low rate exemplifies the harsher living conditions experienced by forest populations. With an unemployment rate of no less than 30% and 34% of illiterates, most households rely on livestock for their living. Those populations are not only poorer but also more isolated than other Tunisians. Since the independence, the state and NGOs have sought to get those marginalized groups out of poverty and to offer them decent living conditions, access to education and healthcare. Considering the socio-economic situation of the forest population is crucial in protecting and in including them in the development of viable forest management.

Burned tree and land in Ain Mazouz, Tabarka

The forest administration (DGF) counts 26 forest districts. The DGF has a 2015-2024 strategic plan for the sustainable development and management of forests.

At the forest districts’ level, the regional fire-fighting program starts in May. Guards open and do the maintenance of fire tracks. Each forest district has at least one security post tied to the permanency program. Radio operators and guards are joined by agents, drivers and workers to keep watch of the forests 24h/24h. They patrol every eight hours. Simultaneously, prevention and awareness raising actions are led in collaboration with the civil protection, equipment services and civil society.

Civil protection officer and civilians discussing after Tabarka's fire

With the resurgence of fires, outposts have been designed and implemented over the past three years. These posts have 600 L vans which are meant to intervene first and quick. Still those vans have very limited capacity and many roads are not practicable.

Inequality is blatant between Tunisians in eastern metropolis and those in remote areas such as the mountains.

This geographical inequality is reflected in the distribution of capacity among forest districts.

According to Rabeh, there is a strong case of regional imbalance:

“The northern and northwestern governorates are the ones of the great mountains, the number of foresters who are in Greater Tunis, is more than in these governorates which make the great massif of the Tunisian forest.”

For Rabeh Marai, the lack of capacity, both human and material, is the main challenge for forest guards.

For years now, forests guards have been requesting a revision of their status.

We have another problem, we foresters in Tunisia, it is the special status. Since 1992 we have fought, we did a lot. We now have two statutes on the Prime Minister’s desk. It is necessary that the ministry and the director general fight for the statutes. Otherwise, we are going to remain like that. And with the diversity of tasks and work that we have now, we can’t get there.”

By himself, Rabeh does the technical office at the service level, the exploitation at this scale, and is also head forester at the corniche (Sajanan). Plus, there are the rounds and the hunting ambushes. “With all this”, Rabeh says “I only do ¼ of my work. If we had more staff I could do that, with a well-defined specialty and the corresponding ressources.” 

In recent years, Tunisia bathes in instability. There is a sentiment of disillusion and powerlessness among Tunisians since Kais Saied self-coup after the death of former president Beji Caid Essebsi in October 2019. Far from the promise of freedom and democratic ruling, Kais Saied governance is affiliated with a reversal of nearly a decade of democratic gains. Economic precarity has encouraged land thief.

Rabeh Marai explains:

“Work in the yards, In the years 60-65 until the 90s, was ten times more profitable than what we have had in recent years. Following a lot of upheavals on many sides, with the economic pressure on citizens and the political situation, Tunisia has seen other kinds of fire. Some people want to change the vocation of these lands. They are private properties, but the state has taken them for centuries, following fixing decrees. Therefore, they are private lands under state governance. None has the right to exploit, make any speculation, construction, or project there. Some people burn the forests thinking that the state will leave the land behind. We are going to reforest and that will slow down the return of these lands to their owners. This situation does not benefit nor inhabitants nor the state, nor the forests.

Tracking down criminal and/or politically motivated fires is a difficult task for already overworked foresters. Discontent with policy makers is also strong among the foresters. Lacking capacity, they feel abandoned by the state and their hierarchies. After 20 years at Sajanan and a 10 years in Bizerte, Rabeh Marai asked to move. Here how his request was met:

I had asked to change places. I asked for the forest service of Tabarka or Beja. But here, in Bizerte, they told me “we are not going to lose the good seeds”, the speech you know. Truly hogwash.  But it is true, managers need a few elements that will help them. For them, not for me. I have gained nothing. Even here after 10 years, I am not even district manager. Sometimes I wonder what I am doing.”

The lack of tangible support and current socio-economic instability make it harder for foresters to find meaning in dealing with their overwhelming amount of work. Rabeh Marai testifies:

Especially after the revolution, the mentality is ‘I don’t care, I want to work and be paid akarouw [‘that is it‘ in Tunisian dialect]. Some do not do much, they are right, with the means we have.

When foresters do not prioritize duties themselves, they risk severe burnouts. Rabeh recalls:

Some leave. This is the case here, in Bizerte, we have a college that started in 2014/2015. He started being ill, the psychiatrist told him ‘if you stay in this area, this job, you can have a heart attack’. Because he was under a lot of pressure. In the last months he made two medical certificates, and he told us ‘I will not stay I will change'”

Change in forester status is crucial on many levels: For better working conditions for all workers involved and the Tunisian forest. Dependent on change is also the well-being and safety of its inhabitants, who will be more vulnerable to fires with climate change. With radical reform in the law, status, and organization of the forest administration, there is hope for better management and action on behalf of the DGF. Tunisians foresters can not carry the forest on their shoulders with no legs supporting them. The state and relevant ministries must provide a stable ground for foresters to keep on carrying the forests without tripping.