Poverty rates in Northwest Tunisia are among the highest in the country and unemployment is rampant. This was recently demonstrated by the Tunisian statistical agency of a region where rural communities face a daily struggle against tough agricultural and environmental conditions. This beautiful mountainous part of Tunisia is rich in natural resources with 75 percent of the national water supply and more than half the country’s forests. But these assets have been over exploited and badly managed. Furthermore, communities here are remote and often isolated contending with a lack of government services, poor soil conditions and a constant threat of natural disasters.
A World Bank program designed to fight poverty in the area engages the communities directly helping them better manage their forests and agricultural areas. This inclusive approach to economic growth in the Northwest Mountainous and Forestry Areas Development Project is raising and diversifying local incomes while the project also delivers a range of social benefits, including better access to clean water and new roads.
The current project, approved in 2011, aims to reach 318,000 Tunisians across 67,000 households in the rural communities and those who benefit range from farmers to small landholders.
The challenge is reducing poverty in areas that are most in need. Poverty in Tunisia is concentrated in a few pockets where rates are much higher than the national average. These are typically the regions furthest from the coastal centers of economic activity. And they lag behind in terms of health, education, poverty and a host of other indicators. The mountainous northwest, much like other lagging regions across Tunisia, suffers from weak public infrastructure and support services. Problems of soil erosion are compounded by high population density, agricultural practices unsuitable to local conditions, poor soil on steep slopes and heavy winter precipitation. Natural disasters, such as flooding and fires, are a particular risk for communities in a region where heavy snow in 2012 destroyed roads, caused landslides, and left thousands without power and dependent on their finite food supplies.
The project is also designed to help mitigate some of the impacts of natural disasters by promoting better management of natural resources and soil protection, and reducing the isolation of rural communities through the development of all-weather roads.
Throughout the Northwest and based on World Bank project design, the Sylvo-Pastoral Development Agency (Odesypano), which is leading implementation of the project, is promoting a more active involvement of local communities in the formulation and implementation of rural investments. This is especially important in the new political environment in Tunisia where local communities now expect to give input to development projects – and where these projects can only be truly effective if they do.
There is still an urgent need to break the vicious circle of low agricultural productivity, overexploitation of natural resources and rural poverty. The goal of the World Bank, working with Odesypano, is to replace the poverty cycle with a virtuous circle of better land management, increased crop production, healthier animals, increased market access – all of which lead to more sustainable agricultural activity, better environmental conditions and increased income. With the help and input of local communities whose voices and opinions are key to making the right local choices, the poverty cycle can be broken.