Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 43, Spring/Summer 1998
Ecotourism in Drylands

The role of NGOs in promoting drylands ecotourism: An ongoing project in southern Tunisia

By Mohamed Ouessar and Habib Belhedi

"ASNAPED's role in [this] project provides one model of how NGOs might work to promote similar projects in other drylands of the world."

The historical town of Douiret

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It is commonly believed that all ancient civilizations of the world's dry regions were nomadic. However, this is not true of the town of Douiret, in the Matmata Mountains of Tunisia. In fact, the historical evidence found in the old town shows that it was first settled more than one thousand years ago. Douiret was subsequently a focal point of one branch of Berber civilization. The architectural remnants to be found there, as well as many structures still in use, indicate that the town's historical inhabitants had a very rich typical drylands civilization.

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Douiret's location was in fact dictated by security and environmental reasons. The Matmata mountains are found between the Plain of Jeffera and the Mediterranean Sea on the east, and the Sahara Desert on the west. The town and its dependent surrounding villages, located on the crest of the mountains, were easy to defend against enemies. The inhabitants built a fortress (ksar) on the most inaccessible site in the area, and used it to store the local population's food reserves (e.g. oil, barley, wheat, dried figs and dates). The fortress was protected by outlying posts and an early alarm system. At the same time, the town's residents developed water harvesting techniques (earthern dikes or jessour, and cisterns) for the mobilization and use of rainfall and runoff waters. These water harvesting systems are still in use today. The jessour, built in the intermountain runoff courses, capture water and silt and create terraces where fruit trees (e.g. olive, fig and date palm) and annual crops (e.g. cereals and legumes) are cultivated. The cisterns, locally known as majen or fasquia, are small to medium (1 to 50 m3) subsurface reservoirs where rainfall and runoff are stored for domestic uses, livestock watering and occasional supplemental irrigation.

The original houses of Douiret were excavated into the mountains, in two or three parallel series of adjacent troglodyte caves stretching a total distance of about three kilometers. Because of the insulation provided by the surrounding earth, the temperature inside these houses did not fluctuate much, giving the feeling of freshness in summertime and keeping the houses warm in winter. Buildings were constructed in front of, and were physically connected to, the troglodyte houses. These buildings were used for storage, cooking, and livestock keeping, and the spaces between them and the troglodyte houses were used as courtyards.

This autonomous, self-sufficient system functioned well for centuries. Then, gradually, due in part to geopolitical stability, the people of Douiret started emigrating to neighboring cities and the capital to seek new jobs in order to diversify their incomes. These trends were heavily encouraged after the country's independence in 1956, with a policy of marginalizing the rural zones and seeking a rapid "modernization." These trends resulted in an accelerated rate of abandonment and/or poor maintenance of Douiret's ancient agricultural techniques. At the same time, the government started building a new town and encouraging old Douiret's inhabitants to relocate there. As a result, the ancient town was essentially deserted by 1990.

The role of ASNAPED

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The Association de Sauvegarde de la Nature et de Protection de l'Environnement à Douiret (ASNAPED) is an NGO that was founded in 1986 in order to promote revitalization of Douiret's economy and way of life. ASNAPED's members include both local inhabitants and outsiders interested in preserving Douiret's ecology, archeology, history, and culture. ASNAPED's first objective was to restore the most important parts of the ancient town, such as the mosque, the primary school (which was transformed into a youth hostel), the retaining walls, and some of the houses. More recently, its strategy has broadened to include overall development of the local economy. Steps are being taken to revitalize the area's traditional agricultural economy. For example, in 1995, a small project supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resulted in rehabilitation of the water harvesting structures in a watershed near the village. However, because rainfall in this region is often erratic, ASNAPED is also focusing on diversifying Douiret's economy by developing alternatives income sources such as ecotourism. At present, a multivariate project financed by the European Union (EU) is being carried out with the aid of national and international organizations. ASNAPED's role, in this as in its other projects, has been to develop the initial concept, identify funding sources, obtain funding, and direct the project's execution. During the entire process, ASNAPED acts as an intermediary between the project's different partners, such as the local population, governmental authorities, cooperating NGOs and organizations, funding agencies and donors.

Current project activities

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The rehabilitation of the water harvesting structures initiated by the 1995 UNDP-financed project will be extended to other watersheds. Ultimately, more than 500 jessour and 100 cisterns will be restored. The effects of this restoration are expected not only to benefit local agricultural production and ecosystem health, but also to enhance Douiret's appeal as an ecotourism destination.

Douiret's tourist appeal also continues to be enhanced by restoration of its physical infrastructure. Currently being restored are a large number of old buildings (ghorfas) and houses (ghars), a traditional olive mill (maasraa), and four traditional grave monuments erected to honor religious figures (marabous). This restoration is being carried out by local specialists in order to preserve the original architecture and construction techniques. The former headquarters of the region's governor during French colonial times have already been remodeled for their future role as a center of international studies. This center will be equipped to receive students, researchers, and others who are interested in working on different themes and research topics concerning Douiret. In addition, some of the troglodyte houses will be repaired and outfitted as a tourist hostel, with room for fifty guests.

Preparation of a local museum is also underway and has almost been completed. The museum will exhibit local cultural artifacts including poetry, farming implements, crafts, cooking utensils, and clothing. In addition, a "house of wool" is being planned, to allow for "living museum" demonstrations of traditional wool shearing, processing, spinning and weaving techniques. Last but not least, a replica of a Roman theater is being constructed by volunteers from numerous organizations such as the National Institute of Architecture, national and international scouts, NGO workers, youth and pupils. This theater will be used as the site of various artistic performances and festivals.

In terms of governmental interventions and support, the current project calls for lobbying of regional authorities in order to include the village in official traveling and tourist itineraries. In addition, paving of major regional roads and improved maintenance of unpaved roads are planned in order to ensure better connections with neighboring attractions such as Chenini, the park of Ain Dkouk, and Ksar Ghilane.

Finally, ASNAPED is undertaking efforts to lobby UNESCO to classify this ancient and richly historical town as an international monument.

Ultimately, it is expected that this ambitious and multifacted project will contribute to the generation of new income resources for Douiret, while preserving the town's architectural and cultural characteristics and the health of the local ecosystem. This project therefore represents a major step forward in promoting ecological and cultural tourist activities in the region, and ASNAPED's role in the project provides one model of how NGOs might work to promote similar projects in other drylands of the world.

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Author Information

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Mr. Mohamed Ouessar works at the Institut des Régions Arides, Médenine, and is a member of ASNAPED. He can be contacted as follows:

Ir. Mohamed Ouessar
Institut des Régions Arides
4119 - Médenine
Tel: +216 (5) 640 661
Fax: +216 (5) 640 435
Email: (NB: this is a group address, so in subject line of your email please specify that the message is for Mr. Ouessar)

Dr. Habib Belhedi is a member of ASNAPED. He can be contacted as follows:

Chirurgien Dentiste
Rue Habib Ghandour
3200 - Tatouine
Tel: +216 (5) 860 540

Additional web resources

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Map of Tunisia
This (large!) 1990 relief map is from the online map collection maintained by the Perry Castañeda Library at the University of Texas-Austin. File size is 249K, image size is 1002x1224 pixels.

Douiret, Tunisia
This web page offers brief information and some very nice pictures of the old town of Douiret. The page is part of a web site produced by CiAS (Centre d'Information Arabe Scandinave).

ArabNet - Tunisia
The ArabNet web site houses information on Arab countries throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The address above takes you to the Tunisia section of the site, which provides extensive general information on Tunisian history, geography, business, culture, government, transportation, and tourism.

Tunisia Online (
This commercial site provides general information on Tunisia, primarily in French.

Tunisia Online (
This site also offers general information on Tunisia, primarily in English.

Travel and Tourism Guide to Tunisia
This web site from Tunisia's National Tourist Office provides extensive information on tourism and tourist attractions in Tunisia. Currently there are no entries specifically focusing on Douiret.

L'Institut des Régions Arides
This French-language web page, from the maintainers of the Tunisian WWW Home Page, provides an overview of IRA's mission, organization, and current research activities. [NB: the host web site for this page was created to promote science and technology in Tunisia by facilitating communication among Tunisian scientists via the Internet.]

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