A sacrifice zone: The disastrous social and environmental consequences unfolding in North Africa

Aerial view of a Moroccan man or farmer working on a field [Getty]
11 November, 2021

The United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, has forced world leaders to publicly state their supposed commitments to addressing the climate crisis. Despite the notable absence of some of those leaders from across the Arab world, the environmental problems impacting the MENA region are set to worsen in the years to come.

“Those whose lives will be changed the most by climate change are the small farmers in the Nile Delta and rural areas in Morocco and Tunisia, the fisherfolk of Jerba and Kerkennah, the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, and the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Tunis, Algiers and Casablanca,” explains Hamza Hamouchene, the North Africa programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).

"Most writing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by a discourse and policies that are controlled by various actors, including neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the German GIZ and European Union agencies"

But, this isn’t just some distant future problem that we can put to the side until a later date. The detrimental effects on the socio-economic standards and ecological realities in the region are in fact already being felt by the most marginalised: “small-scale farmers, agro-pastoralists and fisherfolks”.

Hamouchene, a UK-based Algerian activist who founded the Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA) association, paints a bleak picture of the current crisis, stating that some people are being forced off their lands by stronger and more frequent droughts and winter storms, growing deserts grow and rising sea levels.

"Crops are failing and water supplies are dwindling, deeply impacting food production. Not to mention that prolonged heat waves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable,” he adds.

Climate scientists have even predicted that the very presence of people in the region is at risk. The tragic case of wildfires in Algeria, which took the lives of at least 90 people and destroyed tens of thousands of hectares of forest in the Kabylie region “is a telling example” of the issues at hand, continues Hamouchene.

Furthermore, he explains that this is all being brought on “by an extractivist model of development”. This term, which is regularly used in discussions related to the climate crisis, refers to activities that overexploit natural resources destined particularly for export to world markets.

Hamouchene gives the examples of “large-scale oil and gas extraction in Algeria, as well as phosphate mining, water-intensive agribusiness, and mass tourism in Morocco and Tunisia” as aspects of an extractivist model of development in North Africa “that is accompanied by disastrous social and environmental consequences.”

Worryingly, there are too many cases for Hamouchene to cover. He nevertheless gives an insight into some of the horrifying realities faced by the populations of the region. Gabes, in Tunisia, for example, “is the only coastal Mediterranean oasis in the world. It used to be called ‘a paradise on earth’ before the installation of a chemical factory on its shores to process mined phosphate. That factory has caused ecocide in the oasis by pillaging its waters, polluting its air and sea and killing some of its fauna and flora. 

In Salah in Algeria is another example. Despite being “one of the richest gas towns in the African continent”, it has been heavily polluted and left with terrible infrastructure: “The one hospital they have, they call the ‘hospital of death’”.

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These practices are ultimately, he notes, “incompatible with social justice and play an important role in the ecological crisis in North Africa.” The territory has therefore become “what Naomi Klein calls a ‘sacrifice zone’: an area disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing, inhabited by people whose bodies, health, land and water are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital.”

These issues feel considerable and overwhelming, especially given the neo-colonial elements that plague them. As Hamouchene highlights, “the violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels – a choice made by corporations and Western governments.” This is facilitated through the complicity of military regimes and rich local elites across the region, in cahoots “with multinational corporations, the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction & Development.”

However, the combination of authoritarianism, economic dependency, and widespread poverty that wider coverage of the situation across North Africa – especially in the last two decades – is widely overlooked in reporting of the problem.

"The struggle for climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities most affected, and be geared towards providing for the needs of all"

“Most writing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa is dominated by a discourse and policies that are controlled by various actors, including neoliberal institutions like the World Bank, the German GIZ and European Union agencies”, which fail to reference “the historic responsibility of the industrialised West for causing climate change, of the crimes of oil companies like BP, Shell and Total, or the climate debt owed to the Global South” in their analyses.

According to Hamouchene, failing to make these connections with wider socio-economic and geo-political issues “leaves environmentalists stuck in narrow bubbles, and struggling to connect with the mass movements needed to achieve and win climate and environmental justice.”

Nevertheless, there is some hope. People across the region are opposing the status quo and resisting “the looting of their subsoil resources, the despoliation of their lands, the environmental destruction and the loss of livelihoods” asserts Hamouchene. Though the activist does not romanticise these movements, explaining that they “are fraught with tensions and face contradictions such as demanding jobs in industries with high environmental and social costs.”

However, addressing the climate crisis in North Africa is a responsibility that we must all assume, especially in the West. Highlighting and supporting existing struggles, while “centring the voices of the North Africans resisting” this double process of simultaneous environmental and socio-economic crises, is an important part of that work.

It is also ultimately at this intersection that the battles of social movements and rural communities can be won. It is by “transforming them into an international fight against capitalism and imperialism”, that the current impasse can be transcended. After all, “the climate crisis is a key aspect of imperialist expansion and capitalist exploitation of both people and the planet.”

It is on this premise that Hamouchene joined thousands of campaigners around the world, to call for “system change, not climate change” during the COP26 gathering, which has been heavily criticised by activists for having been “hijacked by corporate power and private interests that promote false solutions, which remain focussed on profit-making, like carbon trading and the so-called ‘net-zero’.” Rather than “forcing industrialised nations and multinationals to reduce carbon emissions and leaving fossil fuels in the ground.”

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While world leaders are being accused of partaking in a PR stunt instead of truly committing to saving the planet, Hamza Hamouchene is among many others, including activists, political organisations, and NGOs, that are coming together on the periphery of the official event in Glasgow, in the hopes of building transnational solidarities and strategic alliances. Hamouchene explains their collective goals.

“The struggle for climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities most affected, and be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, a clean and safe environment, a future that must sit in harmony with the revolutionary demands of the African and Arab uprisings, those of popular sovereignty, bread, freedom and social justice.”

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia