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Seeds of hope: Young volunteers replant Tunisia forests

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Siliana (Tunisia) (AFP)

Around 40 young Tunisian volunteers gather on a bare hill in the central region of Siliana. Their weekend mission -- revive a burned forest by planting Aleppo pine shoots.

Hamdi, from the eastern city of Sfax, gets straight to work after travelling 250 kilometres (150 miles) to the marginalised region.

A camping and hiking enthusiast, he found out about the initiative on Facebook. "It's a chance to have fun and do something good together," says the student.

He is part of a network of nature lovers who have joined forces with Tunisian authorities for an ambitious venture; plant 12 million trees across the country by the end of this year.

That target equates to one tree per Tunisian citizen.

"We can only get there together," says Baya Khalfallah, one of the heads of the Soli&Green association, which launched the campaign in November.

"To reach our objective, we are counting on all the (community) organisations, our partnership with the government -- and, obviously, on those who are environmentally conscious," she adds.

Most of the volunteers come from the large coastal cities of Tunis, Sfax and Sousse.

Amin Farhat, a young executive from Tunis who is also an activist for a recycling charity, says they want to safeguard Tunisia's natural beauty and resources.

"We're doing it for the future," he says.

- Effective & enthusiastic -

Soli&Green, founded by a handful of environmental activists in their thirties, organises planting weekends in winter and helps other organisations that want to do the same.

Since November, it has compiled a list of all the country's reforestation initiatives and estimates that by mid-January, almost a million trees had been planted.

The state does most of the work. The regional commission for agricultural development (CRDA), a public body, provides volunteers with basic training, thousands of tree shoots and a watering truck.

"When we use labourers, we plant around 1,000 trees a day. But with volunteers, we can plant 4,000, even 5,000 a day. There are a lot of them, they are effective and it's free," says Nizar Khlif, a manager at the Siliana branch of the CRDA.

"And there is a participatory approach -- they involve the local population."

The arrival of the city-dwelling, backpack-carrying volunteers has inspired Siliana residents.

In 2017, 40 hectares (almost 100 acres) of forest went up in smoke. A suspected arsonist said he had hoped the blaze would compel authorities to recruit forest rangers, and that he would be hired.

"It was as if we'd lost a family member," says 14-year-old Khairi Jaied, from a nearby village.

"I have many good memories of the forest. It's good to see these people helping so that our region can rebuild its resources."

- 'Motivating' -

"Before the fire, there was a dense forest here," says 46-year-old Khlifa Jaidi, pointing at a rocky hill.

Reforestation is a crucial part of curbing erosion and fighting global warming -- trees capture carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and transform it into oxygen.

But it's also a way of creating local revenue.

"People used to gather Aleppo pine seeds to make zgougou (a traditional dessert) and rosemary, sold for its essential oil," adds Jaidi, a local guide from the nearby town of Kesra.

Forest fires, both deliberate and accidental, eat away at hundreds of hectares each year.

But the state is increasingly joining forces with local residents and its reforestation strategies seem to be paying off.

Forests and scrubland now cover more than 1.3 million hectares (over 3 million acres), or around 8.5 percent of the country, up from 7.4 percent in 2011, according to the directorate general for forests.

The aim is to reach 10 percent by 2024.

Whether it's post-fire reforestation or fighting desertification in the south by planting palms and olive trees, the task is enormous.

Nessim Zouaoui, 26, says he is sometimes discouraged.

"I spend most of my free time cleaning beaches and planting trees," says the young entrepreneur and activist.

"But we just went to see a neighbouring plot where we worked in March and we realised that we had completely planted a forest. That's really motivating!"

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