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Morocco Observations, Past, Present and Future – Part I

Written by Alex Metcalfe. Photo credits to Alex Metcalfe, Asiya Brock, Helen Evans and Houssa Yacoubi.

The view from the course site ‘Ourthane’ which means ‘gardens’


In 2004, during my first visit to Morocco, one night in the desert with the full moon at its zenith I climbed an enormous dune with Francois and Vincent, two Québécois I had met on the bus journey south.

Ascending that great pile of sand, every step forward seemed to take us three steps back. Our beleaguered progress was painfully slow. The nameless mountain of sand we were climbing stood far above neighbouring dunes to shelter a small and equally anonymous oasis a few hours slow and ponderous journey by camel from Merzouga, a small, one road collection of pisé houses and auberges that sit amidst the bleak and stony Hamada. The only movements to catch the eye was the shimmering heat rising from the Earth and the tall, thin and spectral twisters that listlessly faded into existence only to fade out again, as if exhausted under the unforgiving glare of the desert sun from the effort of giving form to the eddying winds of the Hamada.

Earth bricks dry at the oasis of Oaroun near Guelmime, southern Morocco

In the midst of that seemingly abiotic plain lay the Erg Chebbi. A favourite with tourists and travellers, this patch of Saharan dunes seem to have wandered off from the true Sahara to the south, or from nearby Algeria, in search of a new home. It was this nomadic patch of sand that I found myself surveying while my companions and I stopped to catch our breath after reaching the summit of the great dune. The entire scene that lay before us was coloured an iridescent midnight blue – a sea of sand frozen in time, bathed in the milky glow of the full moon.

What had really struck me as I travelled the length of the country was how different the many parts of the country actually looked and felt. The Mediterranean coast and the Rif Mountains, the Atlantic coast, the middle Atlas and the east, Marrakesh and Central Morocco, the Souss, the Anti Atlas and the Western Sahara are all unique in their peculiarities of climate, endemic species and subsistence patterns. I was surprised at how green much of Morocco can be and how much food is grown in the mountain valleys by the tribes who live there. Visiting the old cities of Morocco you feel a great sense of the grandeur of antiquity. Palaces, tombs and Kasbahs abound.

Courtyard garden, el badi palace, Marrakesh

Ceiling detail, el Badi palace – it took Artisans 14 years to complete their work

After piecing together the order of the dynasties who built them, that either swept into Morocco with the green tide of Islam or erupted from within, I began to look at the wider landscape and what it could tell me about how it had been used. Which land use strategies had fallen into disuse and which were still being practiced? How much had human activity shaped the country as I saw it now? How did Morocco look and function a hundred, five hundred or even a thousand years ago and which elements and consequently functions/ecosystem services had been lost. During my first visit these questions were still only in an embryonic form and despite my enthusiasm for Permaculture, I didn’t have the right eyes with which to comprehend what I was seeing. I wasn’t ready to understand the relationship between humans and the land holistically.

Once I began to think about the historical ecology of Morocco, and after experiencing the most heartfelt warmth and genuine hospitality of its people, I found I was irrevocably and unashamedly hooked.

Calf at the Tuareg camel souk, Guelmime

What is truly remarkable about that desert experience is how, despite reflecting what is often depicted as the archetypal Moroccan adventure, it represented an incredibly myopic vision of the country – a classic case of ‘the map is not the territory’. I had been sold an arid land of desert and Kasbahs; inevitably Morocco is a far more complex and rewarding place than I had previously understood it to be. I feel it important then, that I provide some general information on Morocco, the challenges the country faces and to clearly demonstrate why Permaculture aid projects, such as that being undertaken by the Permaculture Research Institute and Tribal Networks, are appropriate responses.

Exhausted, salted land. Biomass burned after harvest. Guelmime.

Morocco’s 2,008km (1) coastline stretches along the Mediterranean in the north, round past Tangiers and down alongside the Atlantic to Tarfaya in the south. Depending on which map you happen to be using, La Guera at the southernmost tip of the disputed Western Sahara region can be considered the southern limit to Morocco, in which case this extends the country below the tropic of cancer by approximately 280km and bringing the total length of the country’s coastline to around 3,500km (2). With such a vast coastline and with much of its economic activity being primarily fishing and tourism, clustered around coastal areas, Morocco is particularly vulnerable to predicted rises in sea levels.

The two mountain ranges of Morocco – the Rif, where I had travelled in 2004, and the Atlas (where Tribal Networks arranged the first PDC in Morocco) – feature prominently not only in the topography of the country but also in the national psyche. The Rif Mountains skirt the Mediterranean for most of their 290km, home to fiercely independent tribes that have resisted attempts to subdue their independence at every turn throughout recorded history.

The Atlas Mountains act as a dividing line between the two main climatic zones, the Mediterranean northern coastal regions, and the southern interior which borders the Sahara. As in many countries throughout the world that have suffered successive colonial occupations, these two mountainous regions have long been strongholds of Berber tribes, their traditions and culture.

Understanding the land use patterns and the movement of the many tribes and peoples in Morocco are no simple matter. Communities that seem well established may actually have originated elsewhere. Patterns of subsistence may have changed many times as tribes migrated across the country. Some sedentary tribes are in fact long established whilst others may have settled more recently and many were nomadic for at least part of the year moving with their flocks from lowland to highland pastures. Certain tribes used to speak Berber and now speak Arabic whereas for other tribes they began speaking Arabic and now speak Berber. What is clear is that of the 31,627,428 (3) Moroccans, 99.1% are of Arab-Berber ethnicity. Berber, or Tamazight as it is increasingly becoming referenced as, is only in recent years gaining more respect as a language and as a respected core element of Amazigh culture. There are a few Tamazight language newspapers and television broadcasts. Yet despite some positive developments and comprising at least 45% of the population, Imazighen (plural of Amazigh) are still, for the most part, socially and economically marginalised (4), suffering high illiteracy rates and chronic under investment in historically deprived areas (5).

Harvesting wheat in the Souss

The main environmental issues faced by Imazighen are deforestation, erosion, water resource depletion, erratic rainfall and subsequent flash flooding interspersed with prolonged periods of drought and the dumping of raw sewage into water courses.


Deforestation in morocco merits close attention not only as an environmental catastrophe as it does anywhere in the world but because of the colonial narrative upon which much of modern thinking on desertification and deforestation is based. All of this has demonised, displaced and disrupted indigenous land use methods in Morocco for the last hundred years.

Sparsely wooded foothills. Is this a natural or entirely manmade landscape?

Authoritative commentators such as the 16th century travel writer Leo Africanus writing in his ‘A Geographical History of Africa’, and historians of antiquity; Herodotus, Pliny, Procopius, Strabo and Ptolemy have all been quoted time and time again to support the now dominant view of North African historical ecology when in fact the conventional environmental history of North Africa most widely

…accepted today was created during the French colonial period. Before the conquest of Algeria, North Africa had been most commonly depicted in French and European writings as a fertile land that had lapsed into decadence under the “primitive” techniques of the “lazy natives.” (6)

During this period the Arab chronicler Ibn Khaldoun was often selectively quoted so as to racially stereotype Arabs and Berbers as destructive and therefore undeserving of their own lands.

In less than two decades, there emerged a colonial environmental narrative that blamed the indigenous peoples, especially herders, for deforesting and degrading what was once the apparently highly fertile “granary of Rome” in North Africa. The declensionist story that quickly developed was used throughout the colonial period to rationalize and to motivate French colonization across North Africa. This narrative and its utilization reached their apogee between 1880 and 1930, precisely the period during which colonial activities caused the most deforestation. (7)

It has now been established that until approximately 1000 BCE forest cover varied considerably from region to region throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East (8). The physical evidence available today such as carbon-14 dated pollen core analysis suggests ‘that there has been a long history of a comparatively treeless landscape with a dynamic and migrating vegetation’ (9).

Morocco has in fact been the subject of more paleoecological research than any other country in North Africa. Whilst there is evidently disparity between depletion of natural forest cover and new cover provided by replanting initiatives, modern data suggests there is no definitive overall pattern of massive deforestation on the order of the frequently claimed 50 to 85 percent over the last two millennia (10). Some species such as the deciduous oak declined sharply around three thousand years ago probably due to climatic conditions however other species have increased in number, with minor fluctuations, including oaks, cedar, juniper, pine, and other trees.

Forests cover 5 814 000 ha, made up of 63 percent deciduous species (holm oak [Quercus ilex], cork oak [Quercus suber], argan [Argania spinosa] and Saharan acacias [Acacia spp.]) and 20 percent conifers (cedar [Cedrus spp.], thuya [Tetraclinis articulata], juniper [Juniperus spp.], pine [Pinus spp.], Atlas cypress [Cupressus atlantica] and fir [Abies spp.]), while the remaining 17 percent are low formations (scrub and secondary species)… (11)

There are reforestation initiatives in Morocco, ‘planted forests cover nearly 500 000 ha and are expanding at an average annual rate of 8 percent’ a year however this is ‘well below the optimal rate (15 to 20 percent)’(12) for maintaining a basic, functioning level of ecosystem services.

In the U.K where we replant and manage (the efficacy of which is debatable) what forest cover we have left, deforestation still wreaks ecological havoc. The 2007 flash floods cost the U.K over £3 billion with scores of people yet to return to their flood damaged homes. Moroccan plantations, even if implemented as part of a well designed system, cannot replicate the ecosystem services provided by natural forest cover overnight. Land repair takes time. Permaculture design aims to facilitate and speed up the natural process of regeneration by creating the ideal conditions for the land to heal itself.

It is important to balance research and established opinion with indigenous knowledge and personal intuition. In researching for this article I found many supposedly authoritative sources echoing the colonial narrative despite finding contemporary academic studies that provided data to the contrary. It is clear that though Morocco is the most highly forested country in the Maghreb it is suffering from deforestation and environmental degradation. Undoubtedly there are multiple threats to forests in Morocco; felling for timber and fuel (for home use and particularly for Hammams) and non coppice based charcoal production. Yet in accepting without question the flawed and defunct colonial fiction of Morocco’s environmental history we perpetrate the further demonization of Imazighen. The very people we need to work with and learn from in order to repair damaged landscapes in Morocco.


Erosion around a seasonal watercourse. High atlas.

Erosion in Morocco is wide spread and highly destructive. Without forest cover to mop up run off in the highlands, seasonal and increasingly erratic rainfall careers unchecked through the landscape – causing flash floods which claim lives every year. Vital roads are regularly washed away and rebuilt and washed away. Some indigenous land use strategies that have been disrupted from the colonial period onwards can be seen as contributing to the erosion problem: concentrated as opposed to sustainable nomadic grazing, cultivation of marginal and brittle landscapes, timber extraction for fuel and charcoal production and the loss of the labour force needed to maintain traditional agricultural systems such as terracing. The over grazing of goats is often ironically singled out as a major hindrance to natural regeneration and as a major cause of erosion and soil depletion. Inevitably this is an overly simplistic account of the situation and an attempt to neatly parcel off the problem as yet another tragedy of the commons. However goats are an essential part of the rural economy throughout Morocco. Argan trees, a major economic resource, are browsed by goats and the nuts are traditionally processed only once they have passed through the animal’s digestive system. I have personally seen Carob trees thriving above a goat browse line. If managed properly as part of a considered conservation grazing plan, they are an essential feature of the landscape which can be highly beneficial to the maintenance of the systems they inhabit.


Debris, left over a metre above water level by flash flooding

Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in Morocco. Over 80% of the surface water is used by agriculture, often in flood irrigation systems. In the south this is usually done under plastic. In marginal croplands the ground becomes heavily compacted and salinated. Once the use of chemical inputs becomes ineffectual the land is abandoned as worthless and cultivation is moved to another area. Up until the 14th century irrigation was provided where needed, apparently sustainably, primarily by the use of canals and diversions from larger water courses in lowland areas, and the diversion and redistribution of springs and rivers in mountain communities. A good example of an indigenous water management system is the Khettera.

Dave Spicer & Olivier Vuillemin investigate the Khettera at the
Brainseeder project near Guelmime

After the breakup of important economic centres, such as Sijilmassa (A.D. 757-1393) (13), which often acted as hubs for water harvesting and distribution, the Khatterat system was widely employed as a way of sustainably harvesting and democratically distributing water – predominantly in the plateaus, plains and deserts of Morocco. Khatterats are underground galleries dug at a gentle slope and intersected with deep service shafts. Khetterats draw water from an aquifer, often at the place where mountains meet the level ground in an alluvial fan, and can stretch over 20km to carry water to agricultural settlements such as Oases (14, 15). The Khetterat…

… management system … operates on the basis of utilizing a man-made gradient to draw water from aquifers. Water withdrawal in such traditional systems: (a) is achieved under gravity and without application of an external power source; (b) minimizes evaporation losses because water storage and transport is mostly underground; and (c) can only withdraw water which is available in the aquifer through natural recharge, avoiding any over-exploitation of groundwater resources. This traditional technology is a particularly effective system considering the water scarcity, weather conditions and low-level technology generally available in this region. In communities working together to maintain these systems, long-term benefits can be enjoyed by all without a major capital investment and with nominal operation and maintenance cost. (16)

Very Large disused Khettera, at the Brainseeders project site near Guelmime.
Evidently still the most hospitable place for plant life.

Socio-economic changes in Morocco have altered land use strategies and ‘globally important agricultural heritage systems’ (17) are being gradually abandoned in favour modern water management systems. As systems such as the Khettera fall into disuse, so declines the knowledge of how to manage and repair them. Major water infrastructure projects such as the construction of dams, have lowered the water table available to Khettera user communities. The green revolution and the subsequent introduction of petrol pumps have only served to lower water tables even further. (18)

Continue on to Part II


    (RESURRECTING THE GRANARY OF ROME — 2007, Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa, By Diana K. Davis.)
  13. Moroccan Khettara Dale R. Lightfoot
  14. Lessons Learned from Qanat studies: A Proposal for International Cooperation – Iwao Kobori
  15. UNDERGROUND WATER GALLERIES IN MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA: Survey of historical documents and archaeological studies, Renato Sala, Laboratory of Geo-archaeology, Institute of Geology, Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan
  16. Seeing Traditional Technologies in a New Light, Using Traditional Approaches for Water Management in Drylands The United Nations World Water Assessment Programme, Insights, World Water Assessment Programme Side publications series INSIGHTS United Nations, Cultural Organization
    Edited byHarriet Bigas, Zafar Adeel and Brigitte Schuster United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH)
  18. The Ground swell of Pumps: Mulitlevel Impacts of a Silent revolution, Francois Molle, Tushaar Shah and Randy Barker.



  1. Thanks so much for all the incredible effort you’ve obviously gone to put that all together. It’s so interesting to get a deeper perspective on the cultural interplay on the ecology of Morocco. I do hear the “It’s all the goats and the lazy locals fault” line thrown around slot.

    Please pass on my regards to Dave Spicer next you speak with him. I can’t think of a more brilliantly practical mind to have on the job.

  2. What strikes me is how Permaculture aid workers seek the patterns of landscape and culture, to build well functional pattern languages. Reading this article I came to think about an old article from this site, “A Pattern Revolution”:

    Too many aid workers take the role as specialists, and this way they destroy the native patterns:

    In contrary it’s interesting to see how strongly Alex here seeks for the patterns hidden in the nature and culture, to reestablish strong and enduring patterns.

    Also thanks for the nice photos!

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