The environmental degradation process in the Maghreb is mainly of natural origin, but has been accelerated by human activities. The most dangerous threats caused by environmental degradation are soil degradation and desertification, pollution, droughts, floods, and water scarcity.
Action is urgently needed to return lands to their original vocation, to implement large-scale reforestation, to rehabilitate the steppe and oasis, and to ensure the stability of rural communities. But what kind of action, and action by whom?
Addressing the causes and consequences of environmental degradation requires a new model of governance — one that is democratic and decentralized. More specifically, it requires the involvement of local communities in development projects — from conception, through implementation, and after completion. Enlisting this involvement and unleashing its potential in turn requires imagination, bold experimentation, and the application of new tools and technologies. As this essay demonstrates, some of these initiatives are already underway, providing encouraging evidence that many others may lie within our reach.
Inquiries on the Exposure of Vulnerable Communities to Environmental Risk
Conducting surveys on the perception of the effects of environmental degradation can be an effective way to raise the awareness of local policymakers, institutions, and communities to act against the sources of degradation. As a case study, we conducted an investigation regarding the environmental risk perception by the community living around the industrial zone of Arzew in Algeria, which contains ten petrochemical complexes.
This industrial zone is located near a large urban area. It is devoid of an environmental monitoring system. The adverse effects on the health of nearby residents, and especially on the most vulnerable population, are patently obvious.
To assess the perception of environmental risk on the population, a survey was undertaken in 2006. This investigation had two objectives: to understand peoples’ grievances and to raise awareness of industrial and institutional actors about the environment.
The survey covered 1,000 households randomly distributed over six municipalities, including the industrial area and its surroundings. It focused on four topics: economic data, environmental knowledge and risk perception, health status, and actors’ role. This investigation allowed the gathering of a lot of information. It appears that the population lives in relatively good conditions. With regard to the environment, 58% of the respondents attributed the occurrence of diseases to air pollution, 24% to solid wastes, and 14% water quality. In terms of health, 44% of households reported that at least one person is sick. 60% of diseases are respiratory deaths, including 83% related to air pollution. Regarding the issue of who is responsible for pollution, 37% of those surveyed blamed the decision-makers and 30% blamed the citizens.
These results show the high degree of awareness on environmental issues at the population level. This survey shows also that the Arzew population is cognizant of the dangers of air pollution and its impact on their health. Consequently, their involvement is crucial. The survey highlights the necessity for mutual listening and shared responsibility among all stakeholders.
Sharing Available Information on the Environment at the Local Level
Today, everyone agrees that whereas environmental degradation is occurring on a global scale, the responses to it must take place on a local scale. The question is how to deal locally with degradation? The goal is to involve all local actors concerned with development — policy makers, businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community representatives — to set up local charters for sustainable development. This implies the participation of all to reach a consensus on the choice of a development model based on local natural resources and human potential.
The first step to initiate this process is to raise awareness and to gather research, studies, and information already available locally. This requires the establishment of centers for collecting and disseminating information. New media and communication can serve as effective carriers for this action. Setting up platforms on the internet can boost information exchange on climate, environment, and sustainable development in the Maghreb region. These sites are often initiated by volunteer leaders who are fighting against environmental degradation. The sites allow researchers, students, and the general public to find reports on environment and development for the region that were carried out either by local researchers or institutions, or by researchers and experts involved in projects financed by international partners. These sites serve as a bridge between different actors, and are asked to provide information, expertise, and advice and run workshops and conferences on the environment at the request of institutions, universities, and associations. Through these sites, actors learn to exchange their views in developing a “consensus culture.” The sites also help build local institutional capacity.
Implementing Voluntary Actions on Environmental Education
The “Synthetic Course on the Environment and Sustainable Development” is a training program for experienced staffs of institutions, companies, universities, and associations. This initiative, begun in 2004 and based on two books by the author, was taken outside any institutional, partisan, or associative tutorship.
The basic idea is to provide concise and practical instruction on environment through “study days.” Each study day lasts for five hours and gathers groups of about 20 people. As of December 2010, 16 such groups, totaling more than 400 persons, have been trained. The total production is of nearly 2,400 man days, covering the full cycle at the rate of one day every three weeks.
The mission of this project is to invest in younger generations in particular — to provide them with the conceptual and practical tools that will help them to improve their environment and thereby protect their health and well being. The success of the project in fulfilling this mission is attributable to the solidarity, availability, and assistance of many willing partners who have sometimes engaged their own staff and have graciously provided all the logistics necessary to convene the study days.
However, many things remain to be done for the effective implementation of the lessons learned through use of acquired tools and environmental management. At the end of the training, participants are asked to think about a number of fields to be explored, such as: strengthening links to form an active relationship through the establishment of an exchange network via the internet; initiation of specific community projects to protect and rehabilitate the environment;
types of contributions that can bring everyone to his/her own environment; a definition of a practical and common process for short-, medium-, and long-terms; and need to build consensus around the learned concepts and techniques.
Each trained participant is called upon to share and disseminate his/her own experience as a new trainer or to develop an environmental initiative to ensure sustainability and amplification of this training action by implementing local projects.
The initiatives described above have sought to raise awareness, inform, train, and develop projects to address the environmental degradation. Each of these initiatives has elicited positive feedback. Together, they have enlarged the circle of participants who are actively engaged in combating environmental degradation. They are illustrative not only of the innovative work that is needed to arrest environmental degradation, but of its potential.
At one time or another, everyone feels concerned about environmental degradation. However, we must go beyond sterile criticism and, instead, assume personal responsibility for working to combat it. The solution to addressing environmental degradation lies within each of us.
. Revue des Cahier du Centre de recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culture (CRASC), SENS – Société- Environnement et Société, December 2009.
. Mahi Tabet Aoul, Environnement et développement durable au Maghreb: Contraintes et enjeux [Environment and Sustainable Development: Constraints and Opportunities] (Quebec : Centre des Hautes Etudes Internationales (HEI), Laval University, 2010) ; and Santé — Environnement — Société, [Health — Environment — Society] Cahiers du Centre de Recherche en Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle (CRASC) (December 2009).