The political history of El Kef, a Tunisian mountain town forty kilometers from the Algerian border, can be deciphered by examining its greenery. First are the Aleppo pines and Juniper trees, indigenous to the Mediterranean coastline and as ancient as the city itself. Then the olive trees, planted by farmers hundreds of years ago and pruned low to the ground.
The French colonized Tunisia in 1881 and went about beautifying cities—the streets of El Kef are still landscaped with tidy rows of ornamental trees. When Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the now-deposed Tunisian dictator, was in power, he ordered the planting of palm trees, which typically only grow in the south and aren't suited to the city's sub humid climate. Tourists, Ben Ali reasoned, expected to see palm trees in Tunisia.
And then there are the dead trees: scorched mountain tops dotted with blackened stumps, eucalyptus trees hacked at their base, smoking piles of olive wood slowing turning into lumps of charcoal. Twenty-nine percent of the Kef governorate is covered in forest, and it's considered one of the greenest regions in Tunisia, a country better known for its cacti and sand dunes. The forests are regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture's Forest Department, and there's a legal code that prohibits any unauthorized cutting or burning of trees.
Despite that, since Tunisia's 2011 revolution, over 7,000 trees have been cut in Kef, according to Habib Abid, Director of Forests at Tunisia's Ministry of Agriculture. A portion of these trees have been cut or burned in an attempt to clear the mountainous forests of potential terrorist hideouts. In recent years, the mountain range separating Tunisia from Algeria has played host to terror cells, including those from Ansar Al Sharia and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Trees are also cut at roundabouts and along certain roads to increase visibility for the National Guard.
But a growing black market, responding to increased demand for wood and charcoal, is what's really driving tree destruction in Kef. Downplaying the number, Abid told me "it's an area smaller than this ministry," his arm sweeping toward the window in his office in Tunis. But for residents of Kef, tree cutting, even in small amounts, has become equated with environmental destruction and corruption.
"I live it every day," Murad, a local farmer, told me from a cafe terrace in El Kef. He took a sip of black coffee. "It's become my problem."
I first heard of Kef's tree smuggling problem when a petition, written and circulated by a young university student in Tunis, was forwarded to me. The petition only garnered a handful of signatures and was addressed to the wrong responsible ministry, but it still peaked my interest. Corruption and black markets are no exception in Tunisia—nearly half the country's GDP comes from the "informal" economy, and corruption has actually increased since the revolution.
But trees? Smuggling hash and petrol seems lucrative, but timber sounded cumbersome and complicated.
When I visited El Kef in late October, the city was still in full bloom, a final swell before winter sets in. Cafe awnings sagged under the weight of electric green vines that crawled up cables, and trees erupted from the pavement. Two days before I arrived, the National Guard had seized two trucks carrying four stère (each stère is one cubic meter) of wood. The trucks were languishing in a nursery owned by the forest department, where the wood would then be sold for 9 TND ($4) a stère.
"Since the revolution we've seized 237 trucks," a mid-level employee for the El Kef Forestry Department told me, before the department declined to formally answer any more questions. At the nursery, I was briefly shown a list of trucks seized in the past few months—there was at least one confiscated truck per week. The nature of smuggling is such that official statistics cannot be confirmed, but residents told me 237 seized trucks was a "miniscule" number. "They take one truck out of ten," Murad later scoffed.
Transportation is just one part of the smuggling racket. First comes the tree cutting itself.
"It's been happening especially since after the revolution," said Ali, a local shepherd who has a small groveof trees on his land. Forests now only have two or three guards responsible for protecting thousands of hectares of land; it's both a Herculean and uninspiring task for men paid between 300 and 400 TND ($134-179) a month.
The forest guards are not systematically aided by the National Guard or the police, who are often too scared to venture into the forests, as terrorist activity in Tunisia, aside from two high-profile attacks on tourist centers last year, has mostly targeted the state's security apparatus. Civilians, on the other hand, are less frightened, and come during the cover of night to cut and cart away hundreds of trees, according to local residents and officials with the El Kef police department. (Citing security concerns, authorities refused to escort me to certain mountain tops and made my fixer sign a paper saying we wouldn't go, even in broad daylight.)
There are small-time smugglers, who illegally chop down trees for negligible personal gain, or to simply heat their homes and build their own furniture. "I've never had the chance to cross them, but if I were to see someone cutting my wood, I would think he must have his own reasons," said Ali, who's had several dozen trees chopped on his property in the past five years. Instead, El Kef residents pointed fingers at bigger entrepreneurs, to whom they claim the local government turns a blind eye to.
"Everyone works with corruption."
A low-level employee in the local government, who asked not to be named and would only speak to me on a mountaintop on the outskirts of the city, explained that wealthy individuals or companies purchase small parcels of land from the local government. Legally, they have a right to cut up to 1,000 trees, but by fudging numbers or paying a small bribe, they'll cut up to 2,000 trees. From there, the timber is sent to factories in the larger cities of Sfax and Sousse, where it's transformed into furniture.
There are two main routes leading out of El Kef that smugglers use to transport goods. Residents explained that first a banal, decoy truck is sent out to scout the road. If any manned roadblocks are set up, they place a phone call and the real trucks take an alternate route, or, they simply pay a small bribe to the guards and are allowed to cross. In general, it's impossible to tell which trucks are carrying wood that's been legally cut from those that have been illegally razed. According to both residents and the low-level local government employee I spoke with on the mountaintop, in a single night of chopping, smugglers can make up to 1,000 TND ($447).
Tree cutting and reselling has been reported in other parts of the country as well. In late January, in the small town of Menzel Bourguiba, eight eucalyptus trees were illegally cut down by a private company on a main boulevard. Instead of taking legal action, local authorities gave the go ahead for the company to claim the wood; each tree was later sold for 100 TND ($44). The trees measured four meters and were at least one hundred years old, France 24 reported. There, residents accused the local government of corruption, a claim I often heard repeated in El Kef.
"Everyone works with corruption," the El Kef government employee told me. Local authorities emphatically denied that the government was profiting in any way from the smuggling racket, and said they are working to combat these "delinquents." No arrests of smugglers, however, have been made. While the goods and trucks are seized, the transporters themselves are only verbally dressed down in front of a tribunal and required to pay a fine of 300 TND ($135). Then, it's back to business as usual.
The government is also able to easily sell burnt land, which has some residents insisting that the narrative of scorching land to weed out terrorists is nonsense. Instead, they claim, the government purposefully burns the land knowing it will be later purchased—something local government officials denied—or entrepreneurs themselves set fire to land. Natural forest fires, of course, also regularly happen across Tunisia, and there are not enough water resources to put them out.
"We can only watch it burn," said Abid.
Burnt trees have a surprisingly high value in Tunisia, as the wood can be turned into charcoal. It's a surreal sight to drive through the green mountains of Kef region and see soft plumes of smoke moving listlessly across valleys. Depending on the quality of the wood (olive wood is preferred over splintery eucalyptus) a 12 kilo sack of charcoal can sell for 12 TND ($5), amounting to 1 TND (44 cents) per kilo. "That's the same price as sugar," said Murad.
Further from the source, like in Tunis, the country's capital, a 12 kilo sack of olive wood charcoal goes for 45 TND ($20), a charcoal seller in the ritzy northern suburb of La Marsa told me.
Charcoal is in high demand for sheeshas and barbeques, and dozens of families around Kef purchase smuggled wood and make their own charcoal to sell. The action of making charcoal, and buying smuggled wood, is illegal. But in a Kafkaesque twist, one can legally sell the finished product—provided, of course, one has the proper license from the Ministry of Agriculture, according to Murad and interviews with charcoal makers in the region.
Farmers in the area complain that the rise of charcoal-making has wreaked environmental damage on agricultural land. Transported from forests, the charcoal wood is infested with insects that eat their crops, forcing them to use harsh pesticides. Deforestation has begun to dry up the land and the wells. Decades ago, water used to be pumped for four hours a day, now it's reduced to twenty minutes, Murad told me. These small-time charcoal makers, however, are hardly getting rich off the trade, and feel boxed into their line of work.
About ten kilometers outside of El Kef, I met families making charcoal amidst precisely piled blackened wood. In one house, I was greeted by a barefoot child gnawing on a fennel bulb. The men in the family have been burning charcoal for the past ten years; the money they're making is hardly enough to keep the electricity on. The family sleeps six to a room, and can't afford a much-needed medical operation for the matriarch.
"It's hard work," Mohammed, the eldest son of the family told me, "but there are no other alternatives. The state ignores us." He shrugged his shoulders.
On the long drive back to Tunis, we trailed a flatbed truck stuffed with freshly cut wood for part of the journey. The thick smell of charcoal hung heavy on our clothes and stayed in my hair until I washed it out.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.