I Am Not a Dump: Mobilization and Environmental Action in Tunisia
Artists in the sleepy town of Agareb sparked an unprecedented environmental movement in Tunisia. To draw attention to the harm a nearby landfill was causing, a young interior designer painted a mural of a weeping eye bursting through a broken wall, and a theater professor organized a fashion show with trash transformed into children’s clothing. The movement that emerged–Manish Msab (I am not a Dump)–soon took the government to court, received an audience with President Qais Saied, and gained representation in parliament. Manish Msab was the first—and until now, the only—environmental movement to defeat the government in court. The landfill is now closed.
Many civil society actors and environmentalists in Tunisia took Manish Msab’s success as an inspiration. One activist said the movement’s ability to motivate others reminded him of the start of the Tunisian revolution. An official at a Western embassy in Tunis said it demonstrated civil society’s potential to drive change. Yet, Agareb also demonstrates a challenge for civil society efforts seeking to drive environmental action in the Middle East and North Africa: while it is possible to mobilize against local conditions, it is much harder to mobilize communities—even those that suffer the effects of environmental degradation—to advance environmental sustainability.
In 2008, the Tunisian government constructed the Agareb landfill. The project was intended to serve 1 million people in the region of Sfax for a period of five years. After five years passed, the government extended its operation, and Agareb became Tunisia’s second-largest landfill. Situated just a few miles from town, foul smells from the dump permeated everything. Yet, most inhabitants of Agareb believed that the landfill was the price they had to pay for jobs in nearby factories. For them, economic security was a higher priority than environmental security.
Over time, though, people came to see the landfill as more than a nuisance. Increasing rates of cancer, skin lesions, infertility, and respiratory illnesses persuaded some people that the dump was the source of their miseries. In 2016, a group of seven artists launched a movement to mobilize opposition to the Agareb dump. They spread awareness about the risks of pollution through street art and graphics designed to be shared on social media. They also understood the power of theatricality. They recruited members of the student union to parade in the street wearing plague masks, held a mock “Miss Tunisia” photoshoot in front of the landfill, and organized a fashion show for children in which participants made clothes from trash. Ridiculed at first, the artists gradually won the community over. Mothers mobilized networks of women to join protests and sit-ins after their children fell ill.
But even as the protest movement grew, its leaders refused to institutionalize it. In particular, they resisted creating an official non-government organization (NGO) able to receive financial donations, believing the community would have accused them of profiting from their efforts.
Various actors tried to discredit Manish Msab. Critics on local television suggested that they were exploiting children for political gain, environmental activists from Sfax disavowed the movement, and local business owners attempted to depict them as pushing “environmental radicalism.” The so-called “business mafia” was the most powerful force. It drew on its close ties with local authorities and exerted pressure to keep the landfill open. Still, Manish Msab worked with a non-profit in Tunis to bring a legal case against the government. The group won the lawsuit in 2019.
The court victory inspired civil society actors across the country. In interviews in late summer of 2023, the Tunisian environmental community’s enthusiasm about Agareb was palpable. Several pointed to it as civil society’s greatest success in the environmental field in Tunisia to date. Even so, events in Agareb did little to solve Tunisia’s much larger waste crisis.
When the government temporarily halted Agareb’s landfill operations, trash piled up in the streets of Sfax. The government ordered the reopening of the landfill and the protestors in Agareb conducted sit-ins, marched in the street, and blocked trucks from delivering waste. Manish Msab blamed the landfill for the death of a 21-year-old woman from a mosquito bite, describing her as a martyr. While the government stalled in closing the landfill from 2019 to 2021, protestors escalated and the movement grew. More than 10,000 people joined Manish Msab’s Facebook group, a quarter of Agareb’s estimated population.
In late 2021, the government sent riot police to remove protestors forcibly, and a young man from Agareb was killed in the chaos. National headlines followed, and Tunisians were shocked. The Ennahda party attempted to capitalize on the incident by blaming President Qais Saied. Meanwhile, Saied’s supporters claimed that the protester died of natural causes, and they accused Manish Msab of being on the payroll of the president’s enemies. Apparently realizing the degree to which the struggle had inspired other Tunisians, Saied invited the activists to the presidential palace and ordered the landfill to be closed for good.
Manish Msab holds valuable lessons for mobilizing communities against environmental degradation. First, the campaign was brilliant at attracting attention. The organizers clearly understood the power of theatrical performance, and they used art to start conversations. These efforts raised awareness and helped build a community of supporters. Second, residents believed the issue was both immediate and tangible. Although no accurate data proved the landfill’s impact, the movement succeeded in linking the landfill to real-world consequences—both the pervasive stench and the unexplained illnesses. Third, the organizers continually returned to the theme of social justice. They highlighted the ways in which their community suffered disproportionately from the pollution, building a strong sense of social solidarity. Fourth, the movement’s leaders proposed a simple message. Their aim was to close the dump, which was a clearly defined and achievable goal. Finally, the movement was avowedly nonpartisan. Although the campaign had political goals, its independence and refusal to formalize as an NGO helped Manish Msab brush off allegations from the community, politicians, business owners, and even other environmental activists that they were pursuing a partisan agenda.
Although Manish Msab succeeded in closing the dump, it has not contributed to a more sustainable solution to Tunisia’s endemic crisis of waste management. The government now dumps waste from Sfax in another landfill instead. While other activists and international actors in Tunisia describe Manish Msab as a model for environmental action, they are projecting their own aims onto the movement. Indeed, Manish Msab’s leaders do not talk about broad societal goals like sustainability. Instead, they talk in very concrete and tangible terms about social justice and the unfairness of authorities favored other communities while choosing their own to suffer the effects of pollution. The theater professor who co-founded the movement won a seat in parliament in 2023. So far, he has used his new position to bring attention to his constituents’ discrete issues. He has done nothing to highlight Manish Msab’s experience as an inspiration for broader waste management reform. For the successful campaigners in Manish Msab, their struggle was a parochial one, not a national one.
In fact, Manish Msab may have been unsuccessful if it stressed more intangible national goals. Pushing for environmentally sustainable systems of waste management would have diluted the clarity of their mission, and linking the landfill to regional or national issues would have undermined the power of its immediacy, local social solidarity, and tangible impact on daily life. Similarly, a push for national waste management reform would have clashed with more powerful actors who have an interest in the status quo. Manish Msab’s determination to remain nonpartisan and informal kept them outside of certain political processes, restricted their ability to receive funding, and limited their potential to grow, which all undermined a push for systemic change.
Environmental civil society groups seeking to build on Agareb’s success should draw from its creative efforts to mobilize the community with art and messages of social injustice. These messages connected with the community on a visceral level in a way that general appeals for recycling, or the dangers of climate change often fail to do. But after having mobilized a community against environmental degradation, opportunities arise to socialize sustainable solutions, showing that better systems of waste management could exist. Engaging with experts and non-governmental groups working at the national level would provide ideas for realistic and sustainable solutions that local groups can integrate into their messaging. Ultimately, efforts to promote environmental sustainability will need to combine technocratic expertise with the power of community mobilization. Bringing the two together remains harder than it looks.
This piece is based on dozens of interviews that the author conducted with activists, civil society representatives, and international officials in Tunis and Agareb in August and September 2023.