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From “protect by punishment” to “protect by involving people”: read about the peaceful revolution that is changing nature conservation in North Africa and the Middle East

By Shaun Hurrell

Header Image:The Endangered Barbary Macaque is benefiting from the work of local NGOs in Algeria © Elzbieta Szulmajer

Read this article in Arabic here – اقرأ المقالة باللغة العربية

Our relationship with nature is dependent on more than the way the wind blows and the flowers bloom. During a period of societal turmoil, for example, nature can become an unlikely political symbol.

In Tunisia, Awatef Abiadh saw it happen during the Arab Spring: “The Protected Area system was established by the government without any consultation with local communities”, she says. “Declared by law. Full-stop.”

As such, during the Tunisian Revolution, people turned their resentment of an oppressive regime to collateral damage. “Locals ransacked Ichkeul, Bouhedma and Chaambi National Parks, taking threatened species like oryx and gazelle, and cutting many trees in anger against the government”, she recalls.

For Abiadh, this showed there was a lack of harmony between local people and nature across the region, and today inspires her work for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which has invested in bringing people together for conservation in the Mediterranean for the last five years.

“During the uprising, protected areas in Tunisia became the unlikely symbol of the regime and were ransacked.”

“I grew up in the countryside in Kairouan where I learned my first lessons about nature,” says Abiadh. “We needed to use and exploit nature to earn our life, but we loved it and kept it close.”

Abiadh started a career as a teacher, but in 2007 whilst working as a lecturer, she became involved with a series of wildlife surveys on Tunisian islands, because her supervisor was seasick and suggested she go instead.

Volunteering and a passion for conservation followed, and today she works as the Programme Officer for North Africa for the CEPF Mediterranean Hotspot, granting projects and helping non-governmental organisations (NGOs), large and new, with their social and environmental challenges.

“Since we started in the hotspot, we have contributed to a 180-degree change in conservation, from ‘protect by punishment’, to ‘protect by involving more local people’”, she says.

The project closest to her heart, and family home, is led by Notre Grand Bleu (NGB; “Our Big Blue”), a local group of nature enthusiasts and divers that emerged out of the Arab Spring into a fully-fledged NGO, and were granted by CEPF to protect the Kuriat Islands – and their Endangered turtles – from bad tourist management and fishing.

Kuriat is a positive story of hope, where NGB succeeded in forming the first ever co-managed committee for nature conservation in Tunisia. Jamel Jrijer, NGB, said: “Engaging locals in conservation activities gives them a sense of belonging and creates commitment to good environmental practice.”

Together with 18 stakeholders including government, research, tourism, and fishing, NGB are close to creating a Marine Protected Area that everyone is behind. Whilst the Arab Spring helped mobilise North African civil society, some organisations of course already existed.

AREA-ED, in neighbouring Algeria, was founded in 1998 and has worked to create the National Parks Babor and Tadabort, providing crucial high-altitude habitat for an endemic and Critically Endangered Algerian fir tree, resident fluffy monkeys, barbary macaque (Endangered), and bark-climbing Algerian Nuthatch Sitta ledanti (Endangered) – all threatened by fire, illegal logging and overgrazing.

A CEPF project in 2014 allowed AREA-ED to work in new ways. “Both of these projects are the first times a participatory approach has been used in creating protected areas in North Africa,” says Abiadh. One lesson that has emerged from all 106 CEPF grants in the Mediterranean is that nature conservation is a powerful way of bringing diverse people together, and even just time spent in nature can be transformational for some.

When you see the smiles on people’s faces at a turtle hatchling release on the Kuriat Islands, it’s easy to understand; but perhaps nowhere is it more important than in trying to rebuild a country in Civil War: Libya.

With free press and other forms of civil activity banned during the 42-year long rule of Colonel Gaddafi, nature surveys, campaigns, and many things conservationists take for granted in their daily work in other countries, were impossible. But since the Arab Spring and despite the Civil War in 2011, NGOs are forming in Libya, with some even receiving international funding. This, thanks in part to support from CEPF – the first donor to directly fund a local environmental NGO in Libya since the Arab Spring began.

The pioneers of this movement, of which a large proportion are female, are fresh with energy and enthusiasm, and are seeing Libya’s nature with new eyes (and binoculars). They include CEPF grantees the Libyan Society for Birds, who organised a birdwatching trip for local Scout children on World Wetlands Day and are furthering the country’s ornithological knowledge; and the Libyan Wildlife Trust (LWT), who are introducing ecotourism to Alqarabolli.

These groups are lacking in experience, however: six years is not long enough to work out a country’s conservation priorities, especially a country whose environmental laws were set in the 1990s by a ruthless dictator.

Now, with a 51 CEPF exchange project, conservation organisations from the Middle East are sharing their lessons and expertise to help build Libyan NGOs, including also the Oxygen Society, who aim to bring fresh air into people’s lives in Alqarabolli by creating cultural activities relating to nature.

The first exchange, in Jordan in May 2016, was hosted by Sweimeh Association Charity, a small local NGO on the shores of the Dead Sea that works with villagers to conserve the surrounding natural habitat. “It was such a success”, said Thuraya Waheeba, Oxygen Society. “I learnt a lot about establishing NGOs, ecotourism and integrated socio-economic development.”

“In stark contrast to Libya,” says Sharif Jbour, CEPF Project Officer for the Middle East, “civil society in Jordan is mature, with a governmental mandate to support not only large NGOs, but smaller-scale groups mostly formed by interested members of local communities, operating in and around important natural sites. This model is unique in the region and beyond Arabia.”

Add the fact there is no language barrier, and it was the perfect location. The Libyan NGOs also visited nature reserves managed by Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN, BirdLife in Jordan), who have a 100% local-employment policy and natural handicraft workshops. “Jordan’s rich biodiversity is beautiful, and inspired some new ideas to suit our conditions in Libya”, says Abdalnaser Binnayil, LWT.

Six years ago you would not have expected a Libyan environmental organisation to be in existence, let alone exploring ecotourism as a means of nature conservation.

Despite a low level of species endemism (4% unique to the country) Libya certainly has some great natural assets. With nearly 1,770 km of Mediterranean coast and a vast semi-arid region leading to the Sahara Desert, there are reefs and ponds; plus salt marshes and mud flats for migratory birds. “Ecotourism is a realistic opportunity for Libya once conditions allow,” says Abiadh.

“Wherever people have free time, they enjoy spending it in nature. In Tunisia, we have ecotourism projects that are still receiving a lot of local visitors, and from abroad e.g. Algeria.”

However, rather than a rosy picture of NGOs blossoming out of political turmoil and civil war in North Africa, of course the reality is a lot more complex, more problematic, with not all civil society mobility being positive (think: more weapons, terrorism). But for a nascent nature conservation movement, CEPF has laid the seeds, and the green shoots are sprouting.

“Young people are now seeing Libya’s nature afresh. The role of civil society organisations is crucial to conciliate local people with nature from the outset.”
Maybe, just maybe, this will contribute to a more stable region.

Awatef Abiadh

This work is through the investment of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in the Mediterranean. 

Find out more at

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank. Additional support in the Mediterranean Basin is provided by the MAVA Foundation. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

CEPF is more than just a funding provider

A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (expert officers on the ground) guides funding to the most important areas and to even the smallest of organisations, helps build civil society in the region, and shares learned lessons and best practices such as those featured in this booklet. In the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its national Partners LPO and DOPPS.