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Morocco Observations, Past, Present and Future – Part II

Written by Alex Metcalfe. Photo credits to Alex Metcalfe, Asiya Brock, Helen Evans and Houssa Yacoubi. Part II of a Series. Click here for Part I.

Spicer and Asiya Brock shop for supplies in Marrakesh Medina

Consistent with Global Warming trends, Observation from Morocco’s National Meteorological Directorate show rising temperatures, less precipitation, and an increase in drought, widening the gap between water supply and demand. Average temperatures are expected to rise between 2 and 5 degree Celsius by the end of the century, while rainfall is predicted to decline 20 to 30%. – Moroccan Coastal Management: Building Capacity to Adapt to Climate Change through Sustainable Policies and Planning

Deforestation, water management and erosion are all evidently interlinked and inseparable issues faced by rural Imazighen, particularly those living amongst the unique and ever changing weather systems of the high Atlas Mountains.

After my first memorable visit I searched for a project in Morocco I could contribute to. I wanted to have a good reason for returning, something other than purely for pleasure. Morocco is a country where everyone can have a passport, but only those with enough cash in their bank account can get a visa to travel to places like Europe or the U.S. I had a much smaller sum in my account when I went to Morocco the first time and yet I was free to do so. That fact set me apart in some sense from the people I had the pleasure to meet and although they did not appear overly occupied with it, it was something I was keenly aware of. I felt that if I could work with Moroccans I would receive a more intimate education on life in their country than I would as a tourist and hopefully earn their respect by doing so. Like many, many other people who volunteer or work for positive change abroad I wanted, if possible, to side step what can sometimes turn into a series of purely economic interactions. I wanted to meet people’s families, work with them, to eat at their table and to digest their way of life literally instead of just intellectually.

Finally, in early 2009 I found Tribal Networks, a small NGO working to provide advanced communications equipment such as radio broadband to remote indigenous peoples so that they may communicate with centralised authorities and participate in decision making processes that affect them, their way of life and their ancestral lands.

I got in touch with Andy Homer co-founder and director of Tribal Networks and told him who I was and what I thought I had to offer. As luck would have it the project was at an ideal stage for me to come onboard as a project coordinator and from then on I have never looked back.

Tribal Networks

Tribal Network’s initial plan was to provide radio broadband for the remote village of Igourdane where they had been invited to work via a family connection in County Cork Ireland, where Tribal Networks is based. However on travelling to the community in April 2008 the visiting members of Tribal Networks soon realised that the people of Igourdane had much more pressing concerns that needed to be addressed before digital communications could become an urgent priority.

Igourdane, nearly 1000 feet above sea level is a Tashelhit (Tamazight dialect) speaking community in the High Atlas Mountains.

En route to Ourthane, the course farm

As with much of Morocco the wider area has become heavily deforested. Overgrazing is increasing pressure on the land. With limited vegetation to mop up rainfall and hold it in the higher landscape flash flooding has become a yearly occurrence causing regular fatalities. With the loss of tree cover the higher land cannot allow water to percolate slowly downward to traditional wells and springs, causing the water table to fall further and further. The loss of traditional water sources means that the villagers must travel down the mountain to a well in a dried up river bed which can often be contaminated by runoff and animal faeces. The other choice being to drink the filthy stagnant water that collects in the village. The journey down the mountain to the well is a round trip of about 10km (and even further to reach a spring) fetching perhaps 40 plus litres at a time using donkeys and mules.
As with many other communities in Morocco and indeed the rest of the world, the young and able of Igourdane are migrating to the cities and the rapidly growing new urban centres are swelling with the influx of the rural poor. The lack of a local source of potable water is in fact causing whole families to leave the area altogether.

In response to the problems faced by the people of Igourdane, Tribal Networks contacted the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia to see if they could help in any way. Geoff and Nadia Lawton subsequently paid a visit to Igourdane in December 2008. Geoff, after having made some preliminary recommendations regarding the rehabilitation of the watershed then encouraged long time friend and colleague David Spicer to become the principal designer for the project site purchased by Tribal Networks.

Tribal Networks is developing a Permaculture demonstration site and education centre in Igourdane that will also act as a community space and as a school for local children.
After visiting Igourdane in 2009 Dave came up with a design for the site including the Education centre.

Now that we had a design we had to plan out the process that would make it possible.
The people of Igourdane are open and happy to have interest in their community that might have some kind beneficial impact on their economy and livelihoods. However after some bad experiences with NGOs they are understandably cautious and discerning. A few years ago an NGO promised to bring water to the area from a distant source via a pipeline and pump station. When the money ran out they abandoned everything they had built and disappeared. In their desperation the villagers smashed the pipes open to see if they contained any water. They did not. After a couple of years talking and meeting with Tribal Networks the community was impatient for something tangible to occur to prove to them that our enthusiasm to help could be backed up by action.

It was therefore of vital importance then that the next steps in our plan began to manifest positive change for the people of Igourdane.

We had already been facilitating the networking of Moroccans interested in or already practicing Permaculture. Andy had created a user driven French language Permaculture networking and resource web page. We were using that page to raise awareness of the work we were doing whilst at the same time facilitating the growth of a national Moroccan Permaculture network. The flow of information from that resource in addition to the correspondence we had built up through other contacts had brought us to the stage where we could feasibly hold a course that would attract enough students.

Tribal Network’s plan is to hold Permaculture courses, full PDCs, work camps and intro courses in Morocco to raise both funds and awareness for the project in Igourdane whilst simultaneously boosting and working with existing associations and grassroots organisations present in Morocco.

The first course was an ideal opportunity to; test our capabilities, attract international students and to raise funds for our work in Igourdane.

The villagers’ main concern was the lack of potable water in the community – before anything else was going to happen they needed to see an improvement in that respect. A borehole might not be an ideal action in an area with a falling water table however as a short term measure that can both alleviate the suffering of the local people and gain Tribal Networks some credibility in the area, we saw it as a viable choice – besides the fact that without that source of water we would also be unable to kick start our implementation plan for the demonstration site.

Break for tea en route to Al Garage

Our primary aim has to be to get the earthworks, ‘the bones of the system’, as Dave calls them, completed before we even contemplate putting on courses at the site. This is because practical examples are so vital to germinating a working understanding of Permaculture design, especially if the students can help to build them. We would need cover crops and trees to be ready when the earthworks are completed and those elements would need a nursery to raise them. That in turn would need a dependable source of water.

It was all hinged on putting on that all important first course. We couldn’t yet concentrate on training people from Igourdane for the first course as we did not yet have the linguistic resources to facilitate that. We couldn’t descend upon their community with demands for the comfort of a group of students, especially during the first course, while we were still finding our feet logistically. No. This course was to be the first step in a process that would lead to Tribal Networks being able to work with the community to produce a demonstration site; where we can actually show the local people the social, environmental and economic benefits of a well designed system, a place where they can participate and work alongside students from around the world to comprehend Permaculture on their own terms and within their own community.

Morocco is beautiful, exotic and vibrant. It can also be equal parts challenging and rewarding working there. With people day to day to organise and run the course I was forced to cultivate an awareness of my limited local knowledge. The understanding of how to get things done that I had brought from my own culture, the way I communicated this, and the pace at which it should happen, were all potential clash-points if I let them be. I like to think of myself as a laid back person with an above average level of patience when dealing with others and I am sure those who know me would agree. It’s a standing joke that the pace of life in Morocco is more relaxed and that certain things may take longer to happen than you’d expect elsewhere. I felt that this was good for me in that it made me decide what I really thought was truly urgent and the rest of the times I began to submit to the pace of things and relax.

I don’t like the term developing country. My dislike is not out of some flaky and misguided sense of romanticism where I’d wish all the quaint and exotic places I like to visit stay the same, unchanged by time and globalisation. I simply reject the notion that where I come from somehow denotes that I am more advanced or further along than someone from Morocco for example. I agree that there is often a huge disparity in financial wealth and access to resources and opportunities, however that does not make me a more capable or able individual.

For the past year or so myself, Andy Homer, David Spicer and our man in Morocco, Marwane Ammazine, had been organising the first PDC in Morocco and on the 18th of May this year our efforts bore their hard earned fruits.

Introductions… Hello my name is Marwane… I am from Marrakesh….

After working and communicating mainly online, with very limited resources and despite losing three students to a volcanic eruption, we managed to get ten budding Permaculture designers to attend our very first course.

The Course

I arrived in Marrakesh on the 14th of April – a few days before the course was due to start. My flight found itself in a queue spiralling high above the city. While circling Marrakesh I could make out the boundaries of development and the agricultural land immediately outside of it. Bright green irrigated squares and irregularly shaped patches were etched with the familiar order of 21st century agribusiness. Everywhere without exception I could see a second type of plot adjacent to the rest, a bright sandy colour dotted with the remnant tufts of vegetation and the broken lines of stunted crops. That land was plainly exhausted. It had evidently ceased to be productive enough to make a return and had been abandoned to time and the wind. It was clear from this small snapshot that the type of modern agriculture being practiced in Morocco was inappropriate at best and destructive in the long term.
After meeting up with Marwane in Marrakesh we had both intended to head off to mountains with supplies and materials, to check on the course accommodation and generally ensure everything was ready and as it should be.

View across the course site. Olives and barley.

Enter Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that erupted a day or so after I had flown to Morocco, shrouding much of Europe in an enormous cloud of smoke and ash and seriously affecting flights from all over the world. Would our students make it? Was it the beginning of the apocalypse? Would we have to cancel the course?

In the end the three students who were unable to fly out of their respective homelands were Chloe, Simon and Tom. After three to four days of trying and with no hope of even getting on a train or a boat, all of which were jammed with other people in the same predicament, we were sorry to lose the privilege of meeting them. We had also lost three vital days waiting for those students who might make it through the ash cloud to Marrakesh.
We spent a long hectic day shopping around and haggling for course materials and foodstuffs, all things that would be either expensive or unavailable once we arrived in Al Garage.

Spices for sale, Souk day, Al Garage

After picking up Asiya (Australia) and then Helen (British, living in Spain) we packed two cars with people, supplies and equipment and headed for the hills.

Al Garage is a small town with a wild west frontier feel to it. A few roads criss-cross each other surrounded by an ever growing number of new concrete homes. The main road is lined with all manner of kiosks, grocers, open butcher shops and men selling cigarettes on upturned wooden fruit crates. Piles of watermelon stand next to scrubby wastelands, strewn with trash and fetid pools of water. Dogs lazy in the midday heat sleep under the trucks parked in front of the butcher shops, hoping for scraps. People, families live there, it’s full of the regular daily movement of the young from school and back again, people living and making a little business.

Marwane dishing out lunch

As Andy once said “it’s a place that has never made any concessions to tourists”; rarely do any ever stop there. Cars and trucks park along side donkeys and carts. Men, some in western dress and some wearing jellabas hold hands with old friends sharing news and gossip. It is not a pretty place but after a few days of finding its rhythm it holds a certain charm over you. Families will often promenade especially on a souk day or on Friday and a Sunday, in what we would think of as the late evening. The cafe culture is mostly male orientated however nobody bothers you to order again or move on. The cafes were a great respite for Dave and I to order some strong coffee and go over the days teaching or simply people watch and pass the time. When the muezzins calls go up from the minarets, they synchronise and harmonise their call to the faithful, invoking a peaceful sense of domestic order, communality and togetherness. The call to prayer around seven is also the signal that the Hammam is open for the next three hours. Considering the hot water was out of order at the house, the Hammam felt like an opulent palace bath when in fact it was the community wash house.

The rest of the students found their own way to Al Garage and we met them at the course house.

Altogether the first class of 2010 came from as far afield as Spain, Australia, Switzerland, and Britain, urban and rural Morocco.

Once we had surmounted the challenges of lost time and settled into the house and found our cook Rabha, the course found its own rhythm. Rabha is a highly renowned cook who caters for weddings, festivals and visiting dignitaries and we were very lucky have her.

Rabha: Making Batboot

Our days began with breakfast. Fresh bread, crepes, jam, cheese, olives and olive oil washed down with fresh mint tea and coffee. On some days Rabha treated us to the wonderfully named batboot. A lighter naan like bread.

The course took place on an Amazigh farm just outside Al Garage in the Ait Attab tribal region of the High Atlas mountains. We held it there because it was as close to where we could accommodate the bulk of the group in Al Garage with the rest camping on the farm. It was also the closest location from which we could practically access our partner community, Igourdane.

Marwane, Said (Marwane’s brother) and Nasser (his cousin) would take us by car and minibus to a kilometre or so outside of town. We passed groups of women and families harvesting lentils, fields of barley, children and old men on mules and donkeys.

As the country turned into Olive groves we were dropped off in a clearing by the side of the road. Marwane and co would return with lunch in the early afternoon.

Local people fetching water

Following a path downhill through the olives trees we came to the spring – three short pipes jutting from a slab of rock feeding a stream. This is where people from miles around come to fetch water with mules and donkeys. Great rubber or wicker panniers carrying 20-25 litre drums are filled, secured and taken back home into the mountains. The water appears clean, tasty and healthy. Hundreds of frogs and tadpoles live in and around the water.

After exchanging warm greetings to whomever we met that morning at the spring, we made the short walk through olive trees, under-planted with wheat and barley, to the farms of Hassan and Yousseff. The sea of barley shone like golden hair as it waved dreamily around us.

The classroom

Our classroom was the shade of two ancient Carob trees one male and one female. (Apparently, if the wild grape vines, a type of Muscat, grow up a Carob tree the carob imparts a delicious flavour and fragrance to the grapes. The carob pods mature some weeks after the grapes.)

Aside from the two families living there we were not alone! A few berber/fresian cross cattle and calves, several chickens, a duck, turkeys and lovelorn donkeys kept us company and on occasion let their opinions be known on some subject or another.

Continue on to read Part III


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