If you are in the habit of chucking your litter about on the streets, don't do it in Tunisia - or Labib will get you. Labib is a cartoon character, a long-eared desert fox with immaculately clean habits. You see him everywhere: on posters, in the form of statues, on television, in newspapers and in dedicated magazines. Labib, which is a diminutive from the Arabic meaning 'friend of the environment', is an amiable enough character until he sees litter. On television, you see Labib swooping down to pick up a cigarette packet discarded by a truck driver and stuff it into the astonished driver's mouth; or you see him collecting all the debris from a family picnic and emptying it over the heads of the guilty parties.
"Labib stands no nonsense," says his creator, the Minister of Environment and Land Use, Mohamed Mehdi Mlika. The Ministry's aggressive campaign to instill a clean-environment culture in the population initially upset some people. "But look at Tunisia today," says Mlika proudly. Indeed, as French landscape photographer Henri Malon told me: "I have travelled all over the Mediterranean region and I can honestly not think of a country that is cleaner than Tunisia today."
Measured by any yardstick, the pace of Tunisia's 'green revolution' must be the most astonishing in the world. Credit for this must go to the enthusiastic and pragmatic manner in which the government has tackled green issues. "I have been passionate about the environment for as long as I can remember," says Mlika.
Mlika, who holds a doctorate in water treatment engineering, was attending the 1992 Rio Environmental Conference as head of an environmental agency, when he was called and asked to take over the Arab world's first Environmental Ministry which had been created one year earlier.
"I was given two basic briefs: protection of the environment and sustainable development," he recalls. He was also given 4.5% of the budget, which is the highest allocation to environment in the world. Mlika galvanised the new Ministry and turned its activities into an integral part of the development process. Environmental laws have been incorporated into virtually all aspects of life.
"We took a unique and pragmatic approach," he says. "In Europe the emphasis is on legislation and policing of the environment; in the developing world, environmental policies are derived from theories that come from abroad. We had to find a way that would work for us."
Tunisia's way is to involve...