Moroccan Berber lifestyle and Atlas mountain ecosystems under threat

Posté par Michael Peyron le 5 avril 2010

Moroccan Berber lifestyle and Atlas mountain ecosystems under threat

This brief article, part of a series (cf. working paper IIa) devoted to the Atlas Mountains, provides further insight into the ongoing drama that is being played out up there. As previously stated the Berber lifestyle, as well as a broad spectrum of unique Atlas mountain ecosystems, is coming increasingly under threat from one of the worst manifestations of the World Tourism Order (WTO). Adventure trekking is the name of the game as played by gaggles of gawking, garbage-generating, camera-toting pleasure-seekers with full back-up of mules, mess tent and cook. Each participant moves within his bubble, nurtured by an imaginary concept of the voyage he is consuming, and cocooned from the real world by fellow-trekkers, tour leaders and interpreters. Biblical scenes are there for him to photograph and sunsets to relish, with the rough camaraderie of the bivouac to fall upon should he be unable to raise a signal on his cell-phone for that vital call home before snuggling into his sleeping bag.

Thoughtless activities such as these, aided and abetted by Tour Operators (TOs), solely aimed at short-term profits, are now becoming the rule rather than the exception. People indulge in them with a clear conscience given that they expose remote societies to the supposed advantages of the market economy and its attendant material well-being, perceived as the ultimate good. Anybody suspected of criticism is at once labelled by agents of the WTO as a subversive killjoy. Arguably, however, financial gains that accrue from tourist-derived revenue – initially a blesing – can contribute in the long run to untold damage, best defined as the self-destruct factor. True, free-wheeling visitors bring in new ideas, create envy and aspirations to modern consumerism, together with other forms of socio-economic fall-out. Many mountaineers, especially youngsters, feel tempted to abandon their humdrum rural existence and head for the bright city lights, thus paving the way for depopulation of mountain villages in the medium term. Others, who chalk up a profit from tourist-related activities, generally belong to the wealthier families in the valley. Yet others, however, failing to get in on the act, are content to perform as bit-players in folklore events, bringing in bitterness, cultural debasement and an uneven distribution of new-found gains. The sum of these causes, potentially leading to the disappearance of traditional Berber villages and lifestyle, together with vernacular architecture – normally a source of pride to the locals – would make nonsense of TO brochure talk, as these aspects of local lore are specifically the things that are on offer. That the visitor wants to see and sample. That he’s paid for.


  In Souf Ifendasen cedar forest, Bou Iblane area (M. Peyron)

The only way to avert this calamity would be for the agencies involved to achieve some form of self-imposed scale-down of their activities. In other words, each TO would have to comply with a moratorium on the number of treks programmed per season. A move that they could never stomach, running counter as it does to their staid capitalistic notions of turning a fast buck. Failing this, the commercial operators press on regardless, merely hiding behind official clean-up exercises of Toubkal and Mgoun areas and pious declarations of commitment to Responsible Tourism, with code of practice, avowedly aiming at self-proclaimed ‘high’ environmental standards, as if this were sufficient to undo decades of ecosystem degradation! Especially when one decision would be to limit the size of groups to 22 – still far too high a figure !!! Furthermore, in an ideal situation a sizeable percentage of the sustainable revenues netted in the area should be ploughed back into conservation. Easier said than done! In other words, adventure trekking in the Atlas is not about to take a downturn. Far from it; things will even get worse. As if this were not bad enough, at least three other threats are looming.

1/ Off-road tourism

Coupled with surfacing of former pistes, off-road tourism has taken off in recent years chiefly due to the ‘Gandini factor’. Gandini, a prominent French 4 x 4 exponent, has been producing guide-books on North African dirt roads at the rate of one a year since 2000, thus unleashing the 4-WD brigade upon countless new destinations. This phenomenon is bringing disturbance to peaceful valleys and causing irreversible damage to valley ecosystems. Frequent use by 4 x 4 vehicles is damaging to piste surfaces, not to mention the noxious exhaust fumes produced.


Off-road bivvy near Berkine, Bou Nasser in background, May 1990, (photo: M. Peyron) 

Luckily, there are limits to 4 x 4 access. Excessively muddy conditions, as on some Middle Atlas tracks in springtime near Beqrit (an attempt is currently being made to de-Amazigh this place-name by calling it Baqria!), or simple erosion as on Gandini’s piste des cols from Bou Ouzemou to Anargi, can eventually bring even off-road vehicles to a halt! Latter piste is actually impassable at time of writing.

Off-road bivouacs, like those near lakes Tislit and Isly (Imilchil region), also leave an unenviable legacy of un-disposed garbage. Added to this, trail bikes and quads now bring noise and pollution to ever remoter locations. Spreading tarmac also makes it easier for logging trucks to penetrate ever deeper into the hills, with catastrophic impact on already badly hit cedar forests.

2/ Indiscriminate logging


Furtive logging near hollow between Michliffen and jbel Hebri, spring 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

A less then acceptable dose of double-think surrounds most environment-related problems in the country. A case in hand is protection of Morocco’s cedar forests. Frequent conferences are held at which officials and guest speakers in suits, white shirts and ties (looking as much like field workers as arch-bishops!) carefully reiterate a series of measures taken to protect this unique Mediterranean ecosystem, followed by communiqués with all sorts of immediately applicable recommendations. Then everybody goes home basking in the satisfaction of a job well done. Trouble is that on the ground nothing happens and, next morning (and the morning after), felling of Atlas cedars is carried on unabated. In fact this activity is being taken to well beyond sustainable limits.


Another view of timber rustling site between Michliffen and jbel Hebri, spring 2008 (photo: M. Peyron)

Actually, there seems to be a kind of nameless logging lobby in Morocco which is allowed to operate with almost total total impunity. Its visible participants, clearly identifiable on the ground, include would-be respectable loggers and saw-mill owners, Moroccan handicraft merchants, furniture makers and carpenters, the Forestry Commission, and gangs of timber rustlers. It is, however, more difficult to establish any visible relationship between these diverse agents. Yet related they are! The Forester who, at best, turns a blind eye when the timber rustlers go past, or at worst, pockets a fine, may actually be in cahoots with the rest of them. In cedar areas beyond Bou Iblane, at the foot of Ayyachi, or on Jbel Tazizawt – conveniently out of sight of officialdom – small gangs of unemployed locals maintain a lucrative trade. 


    Wanton cedar demolition by timber-rustlers, Tazizawt, May 2007 (photo: M. Peyron)

They fell cedars at night, returning to chop them down to size, loading the resulting logs on to specially-equipped mules and heading for the nearest saw-mill or official logger willing to buy their cargo on the quiet. The illegally procured wood is then resold for a profit to town merchants, thus becoming perfectly respectable, and ends up at the local Co-opérative artisanale, or adorning the ceiling of some bigwig’s villa. Everybody knows that the racket is going on; nothing or little is done seriously to throttle it.


Cirque of Ja’afar in happier days when cedars still grew there, May 1969 (photo: M. Peyron)

Not that the Forestry commission is totally inactive. Fresh plantations of cedars, however, are usually sited close to main roads (Zad pass or Tizi n-Tanout ou Filal), in a kind of window-dressing operation to demonstrate to all and sundry that the Forestry people are up and running! In other instances, young cedars are not always planted in ideal conditions, i.e. on NE-facing slopes and suitably close to Mediterranean oaks, which provide cedar saplings with shade during the early stages of their growth. Young cedars on one SW-facing site on Jbel Misouguine (Bou Iblane) were in pretty poor condition when observed in March 2004.


Young cedars, Jbal Missougine, Bou Iblane, spring 2004 (photo: M. Peyron)

3/ Mammoth development projects

Typical of environment-unfriendly development projects is the 1.4 billion dollar UAE-sponsored package aimed at revamping the Oukaimedden ski resort. An 18-hole golf course, 25,000 square metres of business premises, shopping malls with Gucci-style boutiques, eleven 4* and 5* hotels are planned, together with a massive upgrade of ski facilities that will include extending the ski area and ensuring a November-April ski season with the use of blowers and artificial snow. Typically, Amazigh culture will be misrepresented – a bogus water-front complete with artificial palm-trees and ‘Berber’ kasbahs (the ultimate eyesore) features on illustrations of the project!

Those in favour of the project are waxing eloquent over hoped-for fall-out. Hundreds of jobs will be created, and the entire Marrakech area will take off economically! What’s more, they claim, global warming will soon be putting Alpine resorts out of business, while Ouka and some unknown resort in Israel (of all places!) will unaccountably attract jet-set skiers. A ludicrous piece of information that totally disregards the sobering reports of weather experts to the effect that Morocco will be getting hotter and hotter as the years go by! Either way, trickle-down benefits for local inhabitants are likely to be insignificant with job opportunities limited to the car-wash, general stooge, parking attendant, and night watchman categories. As a result, locals will have next to no empowerment; hence, they will be absent from decision-making process and benefit sharing, whereas they should be involved at all levels of the project.


Oukaimeden artifificial lake and snow slopes, March 2006 (photo: M. Peyron)

The Ouka pastures are used as an agdal by local stock-breeders every summer. Now, this activity will be drastically curtailed. Any opposition by shepherds will be swept aside, no doubt thanks to some token financial compensation to sweeten the pill. Anyway, most local Berbers connected with the resort are reportedly enthusiastic at the idea of the project, one reporter even shrewdly observing that many Berbers would no doubt willingly swap their picturesque yet harsh existence for the relative comfort of an Austrian-style ski resort existence.

There is no escaping the fact, however, that waste disposal, especially concerning plastic, already a headache for the present small resort, will pose real problems during peak periods with several thousand tourists in residence, including possible contamination of water supplies to down-valley villages on the Ourika side. Water facilities will be strained to the limit for toilet flushing, hot showers and artificial snow. Worse still, the existing Ouka road, narrow and winding as it is, and quite unsuited in its present state to the heavy traffic that development work will entail, will need a total upgrade.

It’s not hard to visualise other, seedier aspects of this Disneyland of the heights! The comfort of Ouka’s wealthy clients will have to be satisfied round the clock. Once they will have exhausted the possibilities of ski, golf and window-shopping, bored bachelors will want to head for the pub and their early evening pint. Night-club teasers will invariably be in strong demand for more serious after-dinner entertainment, with professionals from Eastern Europe no doubt on hand to bolster locally recruited talent. Talk about a sun, sex and snow ambience…

Michael PEYRON



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