On the outskirts of the North African capital city of Tunis, a lush eco-village called Sidi Amor is rising from a semi-arid, eroded landscape. Tunisians are designing and constructing environmentally sustainable buildings with compressed brick and dried hay obtained from the very 10 acres on which the eco-village sits.
Sidi Amor's scope and lofty ambitions make it a rarity in Tunisia. Already, its staff's initial accomplishments have sufficed to attract some modest assistance from the nations of Turkey, Korea, England, and Italy as well as the Tunisian national government and the World Bank.
American participation has been limited to diplomats attending ground breaking ceremonies, and a Tunisian architect now living in California who returns on his own dime to volunteer his services.
Indeed, volunteerism is the name of the game in this nine-year-old, privately run project of ecological rejuvenation, even in regard to the director who works without pay.
Budgetary concerns have not thwarted early remarkable progress in reclaiming a once impoverished tract of land.
Despoiled meager water sources on the property have been reclaimed and will eventually be made available to adjacent farmland. A beautiful series of gardens populated by a variety of native and imported nutritional, medical, and aesthetic plant species are flourishing as is a neighboring pine forest with excellent wildlife habitat. For construction purposes, Sidi Amor is utilizing rock from an abandoned nearby quarry while battling to mitigate air pollution from that facility's dust residue.
A number of environmentally sustainable buildings have already been erected as part of the ultimate master plan to establish a mixed use tourist/residential eco village.
Sidi Amor stresses recycling and composting of discarded construction materials, an invaluable exercise in a country where all types of litter are commonplace. An inculcation of a multi-use trash disposal ethic (and system) will serve Tunisia well.
A poster child of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is a leading hope for the delicate task of sowing democracy in the Arab world. But to be successful, democracy must spread from the ground up as well as the top down, which is why projects such as Sidi Amor deserve our utmost attention. This eco-village serves as a outdoors classroom to prepare thousands of Tunisian students (and other nationalities) for the formidable environmental challenges awaiting them and their country. Utilizing the surrounding environment in a sustainable way is an imperative lesson if this developing nation is to upgrade its economic status and achieve a stability so essential to a resilient democracy.
The United States has poured money into Tunisia to aid the military, further the practice of democratic governance, and encourage free market-oriented local commerce. They are important causes, but only one side of the coin. It would be a major mistake to neglect a project such as the eco-village, for the Sidi Amors of the world are the other side of the coin of democracy, and a crucial one at that.