Once famed for its exceptional wildlife, Libya’s Farwa island risks becoming just another victim of lawlessness in the war-ravaged North African nation, activists struggling to save it warn.
An uninhabited 13-kilometer-long sandbar cut off at high tide in far western Libya, Farwa appears picture-postcard idyllic, with scattered date palms on white sandy beaches and ringed by the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has said Farwa is potentially the “most important coastal and marine site in western Libya, in terms of its high marine and coastal biodiversity.”
But it faces a long list of threats, said Fawzi Dhane from local environmental group Bado, identifying illegal fishing and pollution as key worries.
Climate change is also exacerbating the situation, making Farwa more vulnerable to the pressures already heaped on its fragile environment.
For decades there were few visitors, apart from occasional school trips to the island.
Libya’s former leader Moamer Kadhafi dreamed of building a luxury seaside resort there, complete with “floating” villas and a golf course.
But Kadhafi was ousted and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, and Libya has struggled to contain violence and political turmoil ever since.
In a country awash with weapons, some find lobbing grenades into the water an easy way to fish, a destructive method killing everything in the blast zone.
“The fishermen do not respect anything,” Dhane said, blaming boats from the port of Zuwara, some 40 kilometers to the east.
“They fish at all times, in an unregulated way and they practice fishing with explosives.”
Endangered loggerhead turtles are also being harmed, according to the activist.
“The turtles are sometimes caught in fishing nets, when they are not killed by fishermen who fear their bites,” said Dhane.
The Bado association works to protect turtle clutches laid on the beach from predators and from people who come to dig up the eggs.
The island, which lies close to the border with Tunisia, is made up of sand dunes stretching over 4.7 square kilometers. Its lagoon and salt marshes are also home to flamingos.
One of the only buildings is a crumbling lighthouse built in the 1920s under Italian colonial rule.
Farwa is among the most important areas in Libya for many migratory birds, according to Tarek Jdeidi from the University of Tripoli. It is a key staging post for those traveling over Africa to rest before flying across the Mediterranean to Europe.
Today, Farwa has become a popular spot for Libyan holidaymakers, with dozens visiting every weekend.
“They leave their rubbish behind,” sighed Dhane.
Another threat comes from the nearby Abu Kammash petrochemical factory, which has for years “leaked heavy metals” into the soil and sea, according to Dhane.
While the complex has been abandoned, the impact of the dangerous pollution “is still felt,” he added.
Shawky Muammar, an archaeologist who has conducted digs on the island, discovering Roman-era tools and tombs, calls the pollution from the dilapidated plant an “environmental disaster.”
He also expressed worry that rising sea levels due to climate change could swamp the low-lying island.
“It risks being swallowed up if measures are not taken to try to contain the sea,” he said.
In recent years, oil-rich Libya was split between two rival administrations backed by foreign powers and myriad militias.
After a peace deal in 2020, an interim unity government was agreed in March ahead of elections set for December.
In the meantime, environmental groups have taken on the task of protecting Farwa, while hoping for a return to stability and the rule of law.
Dhane said that he has “organized conferences and awareness campaigns in schools” to try and explain the threats the island faces.
And in partnership with international organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, “we are trying to educate fishermen,” he added.