With difficult and dangerous access, one’s picture of Libya tends to be based on conflict and crisis seen on the news. Some wouldn’t expect nature conservation to be on anyone’s agenda, yet it is alive and growing. We get the reaction from two conservationists that just returned from Libya.
Awatef Abiadh (Tunisian) and Sharif Jbour (Jordanian) – both Programme Officers for North Africa and the Middle East, respectively, as part of the BirdLife Mediterranean team of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF; the first donor to directly fund a local environmental NGO in Libya since the Arab Spring began) – just returned from a field trip and one of first conservation workshops dedicated to NGOs in Libya.
What did you hope to see on your visit to Libya? What were your first impressions regarding the environment?
AA: I hadn’t visited Libya since early 2014 when I saw eyes full of hope and people who wanted a real change [after the Arab Spring and fall of Gaddafi].
After different conflicts and security problems since, security prevailed in the majority part of the country. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited to meet Libyan people again, showing them that they are not alone, how we keep supporting them while they push the energy of Libya’s new environmental movement.
You’d expect the environment to be the last things on people’s mind given the situation there, but I left very impressed how engaged people are with wanting to look after nature.
SJ: All over the streets of Tripoli [the capital], it was obvious that litter and pollution is a serious visual and physical nuisance, due in part to the closure of the main landfills, and lack of coordinated efforts and funding mechanism to municipal entities to resolve the issue.
But Libya also has 1,770 km of coastline, and many rare plants and animals, such as Egyptian Tortoise Testudo kleinmanni, Loggerhead Turtle, Caretta caretta, Saker Falcon Falco cherrug (Endangered), Marbled Polecat Vormela peregusna, Lesser Crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis and Marbled Teal Marmaronetta angustirostris (Vulnerable).
What did you see on your field visit to one of Libya’s two Marine Protected Areas (MPA)?
AA: During our visit to Farwa, an MPA (gazetted in 2009) and priority Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) 170 km from Tripoli, we found a new Loggerhead Sea Turtle nest, near to nesting terns.
Huge swathes of Posidonia [‘Neptune’ sea grass endemic to the Mediterranean] also grow in the lagoon – a nursery for a variety of fish species. The University of Tripoli, together with a local NGO, Bado,have an impressive bird and turtle monitoring effort at Farwa, conducted in partnership with the Libyan Environmental General Authority.
Farwa used to be an island, but in the ‘70s Abu Kammech chemical factory was built there with a huge embankment that formed a land connection. Huge amounts of heavy metal pollution was dumped and collected in the lagoon behind, including Mercury, which affects people as well as wildlife.
The factory was abandoned during the Arab Spring, and now erosion now threatens the beaches exposed to the Mediterranean Sea, reducing the size of the beach used by turtles.
There’s also a presence of an invasive species in the sea grass nursery: the blue crab which is actually widespread in the coastal zone of Tunisia and Libya.
What would you say is the most urgent environmental issue in Libya at the moment?
SJ: Pollution is a top threat, but mainly within cities. Land tenure is clearly an issue that can lead to habitat fragmentation and deterioration. The massive and random local development of chalets at the coast is seriously worrying.
Libya has a huge stretch of beautiful Mediterranean coastline, but should this continue in such an unsustainable and rapid pace, much of the undeveloped (and almost pristine) coastline will be subject to destruction in the very near future.
AA: The current anarchical situation in the country means environmental law is not respected and far from implemented, and this is clear in the construction everywhere on the beautiful beaches, especially Karabolly KBA.
Groups of people understandably want to go to Farwa to escape for a few days, but they leave all their rubbish on the island. Last year Bado cleared 7 tonnes of plastic from there.
The country is in civil war with frequent military attacks, and terrorism; how, then, are there environmental NGOs?
SJ: Despite no sign of political rest on the horizon, the people we met are full of hope and are inspiring. They are devoted to their honourable causes, committed to continuing their voluntary efforts, and working despite the political unrest and the uncounted challenges.
AA: The Arab Spring and fall of Gaddafi meant that civil society organisations could form [previously they were banned]. Many international donors have not invested in Libya for security reasons, but the few that have – including the first: the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) – have focused on developing local civil society.
SJ: Those organisations said the CEPF engagement and support from our team means a lot to them; it’s something we are very proud of.
There must have been quite a buzzing atmosphere at the workshop?
SJ: CEPF convened representatives from the entire conservation community of Libya, which was very exciting.
Also, the level of support given by the government to NGOs is unprecedented in the North African region: unlike many countries, the government see the NGOs as partners and share responsibilities in addressing conservation dilemmas in the country.
They can be major players in putting solutions to mitigate threats to the environment.
CEPF is setting the scene for building on this opportunity to strengthen the role of NGOs in the country, building national alliances for conservation and establishing a solid long-term partnership with the government for conservation.
AA: We have grants available for local Libyan NGOs that focus on coastal and plant conservation. People were enthusiastic to build on what we’ve achieved in the last five years, to learn from the training, set long term goals.
What is the most inspiring project proposal?
AA: It is not about one project from one grantee, that’s not what we’re doing here. The workshop catalysed networking between conservation NGOs active in Libya, and the best approach was developed around Karaboli KBA where three NGOs are working together.
Everybody speaking the same language…
SJ: In fact, Arabic is the only spoken language across the country, with very few exceptions – other languages used to be banned under Gaddafi. The fact that CEPF puts out Calls for Small Grants completely in Arabic is very useful.
Also, with no language barrier with Jordan, where civil society is mature and with government support even to small NGOs, we’ve also taken Libyan NGOs to Jordan to learn more.