Mixing ancient techniques with modern bio-technology to re-green Tunisia


This year's United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP24, taking place in Katowice, Poland is again calling for urgent action following a year of devastating climate disasters around the world and devotes one day, 13 December 2018, to the pivotal role played by education. In one arid part of Tunisia, students are fuelling a transformation drawing on old and new techniques to plant trees and re-green the country.

An ancient method of irrigation using terracotta pots reworked by modern technology is just one of the ideas put into action by a Tunisian project to regreen some of the most arid regions of the country.

The Regreening Tunisia project is the result of a collaboration between ISSBAT (the Higher Institute of Applied Biological Sciences of Tunis), Eco-Conscience, a civil society association that raises awareness on environmental issues, and the Tunisian Permaculture Association, which supports seed saving and the promotion of agricultural heritage. They are working together to marry classroom study with field experience and offer practical ways to mitigate climate change and develop sustainable agricultural production.

The project, based in Tunis and which began in 2013, works in educational establishments in two cities, Mareth and the ancient oasis of Zarat both in the coastal zone of Gabès, notorious for pollution due to the production of phosphates. It was one of the nominees for the 2018 UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development.

Alternative model of sustainable agriculture

Project Manager Samia Mouelhi said: “We are at the gate of the desert here with very arid conditions. The project began with a phase of education for sustainable development to acclimatise students with the idea of permaculture and then moved on to students and community associations taking an active part to change the environment.”

From that was developed an alternative model of sustainable agricultural development based on the scarcity of land and water in the country.

Once out of the classroom the students began by working on the ISSBAT Forest Garden in the capital. They embarked on projects to plant 40 fruit trees including olive, fig, date, prune, apricot, lemon, almond and pomegranate and carob, as well as 40 forest trees and 80 medicinal plants.

The project was then taken to scale in six schools in the Mareth region creating forest oases in arid zones and involving 74 project volunteer project workers including ISSBAT students and teachers. They planted 328 fruit trees, 495 medicinal plants and 240 forest trees.

“We were very careful to plant only local varieties that we know work best in the context and that can survive the challenges of climate change and which would enrich the poor soil,” said Samia.

From there the project moved to training local associations by giving them the design plan on what to plant and where, and explaining the system of hydroponics and mulching to give the trees the best change to flourish.

“Because the projects were far from us in Tunis the students ensured continuity and ownership by using social networks to keep in touch,” she said. “Local authorities were also kept in the loop with regular meetings.”

It was during this process that Samia remembered something she had seen her grandfather do while he was gardening.

'When it was very hot, he would put terracotta jars at the feet of palm and olive trees to capture water. All of a sudden the idea came back to me and we started to be interested in ancient irrigation techniques and producing our own pots,' she said. 'These pots used to be used to store meat or oil or even water but in modern day Tunisia they are often used as ornaments rather than useful everyday items.

Ancient techniques meet modern times

As a perfect example of taking an ancient technique and improving it for modern times, one of the Institute's Masters students is currently experimenting with different types of shape and terracotta clay to find the best version adapted to Tunisian soil and irrigation.

In addition to field visits, the project runs a series of conferences to keep parents, teachers and the community involved.

“The objective is that students are not only integrated into the project but that when they leave, they share and pass on their knowledge,” she said. “They become the trainers themselves.”

And the wider community benefits too.

“The project uses the notion of shared economy where the principle is 'win win'. We not only share knowledge and resources, but also the school students benefit in a very direct way by consuming the vegetables and fruit that the trees produce in the canteen. The objective that together we best exploit the resources we have for everyone's good.”

A measure of the project's success is that other institutions are now asking the institute about how to undertake re-greening and from farmers in the Mareth region.

To answer these demands, they are working to produce a document that will act as a handbook to transmit the knowledge gained.

“We even have farmers willing to give us a small piece of land to demonstrate the re-greening process,' she said. “For the future with more funding we envisage urban gardens in all schools and farmers helping us to create and develop oases.”

Education is the most powerful element in preparing societies for the global challenges that climate change brings. It equips individuals, communities and the wider world with the understanding, skills and attitudes to engage in shaping green, low emission and climate-resilient societies. UNESCO promotes Climate Change Education as part of its Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) programme. At COP24 Education Day on 13 December 2018, UNESCO and partners will organize a series of events to promote education and in particular, ESD as an integral part of any strategy to combat the effects of climate change, put into practice a global agreement and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.