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Tunisian Industrial Disaster: Activist Group ‘Stop Pollution’ Protests Against the Tunisian Government

Tuesday, November 02, 2021 by Robbie McAdam, with Raouf Ben Mohamed

During COP26 in Glasgow, XR Global is continuing to share global stories of climate and ecological injustice to underline the need for genuinely equitable and just outcomes from the conference if it is to have any meaningful impact.

This piece explores the battle for safe living and working conditions in Tunisia through the eyes of corageous activists fighting back against polluting processes of industrialisation happening in the city of Gabès.

Image of explosion at the chemical factory in Gabès

The explosion at the chemical factory in Gabès.

Raouf Ben Mohamed is an experienced and courageous environmental activist and organiser with Stop Pollution and Earth Fast, as well as an XR rebel.

On Wednesday 17th March 2021, Raouf and members of Stop Pollution organised a large protest against the Tunisian Government rallying against government corruption, which activists argue led to the disaster at the chemical complex in Gabès.

This is Raouf’s story of the disaster and the following days of protest.

What happened at the chemical complex in Gabès?

On Saturday 13th March 2021 an industrial disaster struck the city of Gabès in South-East Tunisia. A tank in an asphalt factory exploded, killing six people and injuring many more.

Raouf stated that this is a new factory, having only been opened around six months to a year before the disaster. Since opening, the factory had been beset with many controversies, including serious lack of protective equipment for its workers.

Image of protesters in Gabès holding a sign roughly translating to ‘Gabès in Pain, Asphalt mixed with Blood’

Protesters in Gabès holding a sign roughly translating to ‘Gabès in Pain, Asphalt mixed with Blood’.

To make matters worse, the factory had no fire exits for the workers to use in an emergency, meaning when the fire took hold in the factory the fire service had to knock down walls to get workers to safety.

The factory owner was accused of putting profit before workers’ safety. Raouf insists that the factory was allowed to operate despite violations of safety standards due to corruption and bribery.

Right next to the factory is a warehouse with a stockpile of ammonium nitrate. This is the same chemical which caused the massive explosion in the city of Beirut, Lebanon in August 2020; damage from that explosion spread to a 6 mile radius, with shockwaves being felt around 100 miles away.

Image of protesters at the rally organised by Stop Pollution

Protesters at the rally organised by Stop Pollution.

The stockpile of ammonium nitrate in Gabès is over four times the amount that was in Beirut. If this had ignited due to the factory explosion, then it would have caused untold damage to the city of Gabès - potentially costing many, many more lives.

Fortunately, the ammonium nitrate did not explode, but people in Gabès believe they should never have been exposed to such a risk and that the Tunisian Government is not doing enough to protect them.

The Stop Pollution Protest against the Tunisian Government

Image of a protester’s fist during the Stop Pollution demonstration

A protester raises their fist during the Stop Pollution demonstration.

Raouf and fellow members of Stop Pollution, many of whom are also members of Earth Fast, organised a demonstration in response to the disaster to remember the six lives tragically lost. Those gathered had four demands of the Government in the wake of the disaster:

  1. Investigate the circumstances of the explosion and hold those responsible to account.
  2. Support the affected families and provide compensation to them.
  3. Fulfil its pledge by implementing the decision of June 2017 to: i) Stop draining phosphogypsum into the sea; ii) Dismantle the polluting units of the chemical complex in Gabes; iii) Create an environmentally friendly industrial city outside urban areas.
  4. Change the country’s development model - currently based on polluting industries which have limited operational capacities - and move to an alternative development model which provides employment while respecting people and the environment.

Hundreds of protesters turned up in Gabès to put pressure on the Government to meet these demands, marching through Gabès to the chemical complex, where Raouf gave an impassioned speech to the crowd.

Image of Raouf giving an impassioned speech

Raouf speaks to those assembled.

During his speech he recited a poem about resistance and offered his condolences to the families of those tragically killed in the disaster. He stated that ‘the worst has happened’ and that they have now ‘reached the stage of death’ as a result of Government inaction and business owners putting profit before safety.

He told the crowd that it was ‘not their destiny to live in a polluted environment’ and that they ‘have a right to work and a right to a clean environment.’

Image of Haifa giving an impassioned speech

Haifa addresses the crowds.

Raouf also spoke about the negative impact of the chemical complex on local employment: the complex employs three thousand workers while the industrial area as a whole is home to six thousand. However, since its creation, seventeen thousand jobs have been lost across the marine and agricultural sectors in the region.

This move is part of a development strategy that activists see as unsustainable and a hindrance to real development in the region. Stop Pollution demands an environmentally friendly alternative which secures jobs and protects workers.

Raouf went on to demand that the regional authority of Gabès resign, saying they no longer had legitimacy due to the explosion and their responsibility for severe pollution in the area.

Image of demonstrators at the protest

Demonstrators at the protest.

The protesters chanted slogans demanding that the regional authority resign, and called for the prosecution of those responsible. They also called for an end to the greed of the capitalist system, which they see as driving pollution in the region at the expense of the Tunisian people.

Raouf and Stop Pollution are continuing their protests in coalition with trade unions and environmental groups like Earth Fast. They are determined to continue until their demands are met, emphasising that solidarity in action will make a difference.

Find out more about Stop Pollution and Earth Fast

More information on Stop Pollution can be found on their Facebook page

More information on XR’s Earth Fast movement can be found here


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