The southern Tunisian island of Djerba, popularized in Greek mythology by Ulysses’ sea voyage to the island – as told in the Odyssey of Homer – has since been nicknamed the “Island of Lotus Eaters.”
Nevertheless, behind the picturesque image of the island, its marine ecosystem is becoming more and more fragile. Damages to the environment include the squatting of beaches, the destruction of olive and palm trees, and the plundering of archaeological sites.
Local groups such as The Association for the Protection of the Island of Djerba and Djerba Mémoire have organized a training and sensitization session for February 5th, 2012, to spread awareness about environmental damage threatening the island. The groups have visited the threatened sites on the island, and have witnessed what has been described as an “environmental catastrophe that affects tourism in Djerba” by Houcine Kharroubi, a member of the directing committee of Djerba Memoire and a retired engineer.
The groups were joined by various representatives of civil society that advocate for the well-being of the island. They blamed construction developments from private investors as a significant source of damage to the island. “They have trespassed on local beaches and public property in spite of the local municipality’s ban,” Kharroubi complained.
The discovery of Punic tombs in the late 19th century in the island, and their subsequent excavation by the National Institute of Heritage, did not prevent individuals in Djerba from using calcareous rocks for construction, according to Kharroubi. The archaeological sites are situated in the region of Souk El Guebli and Henshir Borgou in Midoun, Djerba.
Kharroubi accuses individuals who were close to the Trabelsis, the former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s in-laws, of being behind these illegal projects and of transforming Djerba into a place for unscrupulous investors to carry out real estate speculations.
The associations wrote letters to the Tunisian presidency; the Constituent Assembly; the Ministers of Tourism, Agriculture, and Environment; and the governor of Djerba to alert them to the deteriorating situation, and have received no reply. “If they keep ignoring us, we may resort to sit-ins and other forms of protest to force the authorities to listen to us,” Kharroubi warned.
“A special committee is following up on the issue”, he added.
Slimen Ben Youssef, press attaché at the Tunisian Ministry of Environment and author of a book entitled “And God Created Sweet Djerba” - published in 2008, promoted eco-tourism in Djerba from a sociological, cultural and economic perspective. He stated that the ministry works towards reinforcing the protection of threatened sites in Tunisia in coordination with the Agency for the Management and Protection of Tunisian Coasts – a department of the Ministry of Environment.
The main project of the agency consisted of creating an artificial beach 50 meters wide along the 9 kilometer northeastern coast of the island to protect the coast from erosion.
The agency works towards raising awareness of the importance of preserving Tunisia’s coasts among locals and setting up an observatory to monitor levels of pollution and erosion. ”The Ministry is working towards the protection of Tunisian coasts through different projects aimed at fighting coastal erosion,” Ben Youssef stressed.