Mar 23, 2021

Agonss, a life between meadows and snow

Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 1
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 1

Despite weakening bodies, with grey hair and clenched faces, these people are still closely committed to their work with all dedication and sincerity. Time has not weakened their spirits. Heaven did not bury them but rather made them warriors in the field. They love nature, and it loves them back. They focus on one goal, remaining in one place without straying and because of their patience, time has come to pass. 

February 4, 2021 was a cloudy day, with a dry wind whose voice transports you to the lives of the region’s residents. It is the farthest and highest residential community within the Okaimden Mountains. It is difficult to navigate the majestic rocky terrain of the High Atlas Mountains even for the most experienced motorists, but Mr. Hassan, assistant at the High Atlas Foundation, knows by heart the best route among the twists and turns. 

Under the guidance of Larbi, a Local Volunteer for the Farmer-to-Farmer program, we made our way towards our destination. Due to the increasing difficulty of the crossing, we continued our trek with members of the Akuns Association who we met in the City Fazme area. But all of these difficulties pale in comparison to the importance of today’s task: the development of an action plan for an agricultural project for the inhabitants of the Akonis region. It took more than two hours to arrive. We passed through many empty agricultural terraces but also observed the beauty of the place – mountains wearing snowy coats, a unique silence prevailing over a charming and picturesque scene, sometimes broken by the sound of water, a call among the inhabitants, or an innocent, spontaneous smile of a young child who do not hesitate to greet passers-by. It is a scene that embodies the simplicity and spontaneity of the countryside and its love for others, far from any pretense or fabrication. 

Upon arrival, the team moved on foot to the meeting place, accompanied by Mr. Hassan, President of the Akuns Association, and his cousin Omar, also a member of the Association, who took the opportunity to show us the region. The farmers of Douar Akonis then received us. 

30 farmers came to share with us the story of their struggle inside Douar Akonis, and we struggled to find words to convey their sentiments. We can only summarize what they said in a poet’s verses: 

“I am the son of the earth, hugging me and hugging it 

How can I leave it in the hands of the usurper, the jailer. ” 

We were pleased with our conversation. Then, Mr. Rashid began introducing the High Atlas Foundation’s Farmer-to-Farmer project to the Association. It is a global program funded by the United States Agency for International Development, where volunteer experts from the US provide technical assistance to farmers, cooperatives, agricultural groups, and other agricultural sector institutions in developing countries, as well as countries in transition. The objective of the program is to promote sustainable development in food security, agricultural production and marketing, to build local capacity and combat climate change, and to preserve environmental and natural resources. In this way, Mr. Rachid briefed the Association on the main goal of the program, which is to achieve sustainable and large-scale economic growth in the country. 

The conversation with the attendees revealed their main priorities, which were all directed towards developing the region agriculturally. As Mr. Mohamed Bilal told us, “Our region was a source of production in terms of agriculture, but climate change is negatively affecting the yield in addition to the poor management of water, despite the presence of 9 springs, some of which are transitory while others are permanent.” He added that they are particularly interested in growing apples, as among all those present there was only one farmer who owned some trees. They also said they would like to plant more cherry trees. We also talked with Mr. Ibrahim, who expressed his dissatisfaction with the decline of the agricultural sector in the region, prompting him to look for alternatives in other areas. 

After that, Mr. Arab led an activity as part of the participatory approach to confirm their priorities: preparations to plant cherry trees on an area equivalent to 30 hectares and training in agricultural techniques. It was a fruitful interaction between the members of Douar Akunis and members of the association. After Mr. Al-Arabi collected the necessary information to start developing the work plan, they praised the efforts of the Farmer-to-Farmer project team, expressing their hope to alleviate their challenges, restore the glory of agricultural production, and combat their isolation, which prevents them from benefiting from the income of their labor. 

Meanwhile, we talked to the women of the region, welcoming them to share with us a glimpse into their world. We asked Mrs. Khadija how she spends her day and she answered in a quivering voice, “I spend it between these barns and with this child who never tires of being carried on my back.” We asked her afterwards if she had a handicraft, and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Zulekha, answered with sorrow, “It is enough that her husband hardly finds a temporary income and he does not know a way to settle, so how can we women go through challenges that overcome men.” After that, we explained to them that all the manual work they do is worthy of merit and appreciation, and that this would benefit them and their families, especially if this work is framed within a women’s cooperative system. 

Before we left this beautiful area, several other women stopped us in the high mountains. Two women who were herding sheep seemed as though they had been doing that their whole lives. We went to them and found Mrs. Fatima watching the sheep, but her mind was astray and seemed in pain. She introduced us to herself and her friend and expressed her joy with innocence and utter spontaneity, saying, “We are really suffering from severe exclusion in this region, and the challenges are increasing day by day as long as we are in this situation. For example, I cannot find anything to do except help my friend Fatima graze her sheep.” She cast a fleeting glance at her, saying in a faint voice, “She doesn’t say much because the hard work alone has exhausted her, and she looks forward every day until the situation improves, since she is the only provider for her family.” We asked her again, “Do you have a profession?” She answered this time. Mrs. Fatima about this question with confidence and courage: “Our daily activities include all crafts, starting with the traditional foods that we prepare and the skills they require, as well as our beds and technical methods that we use in our agricultural seasons and that we inherited from our ancestors. In addition to preserving products, there are many things that only a master of these daily crafts can do, but the rugged road that leads us refuses to end, so we continue to endure difficulties. ” 

In fact, the words of these women and those farmers convey a deep cry from the heart of this population that wants to change, save their agricultural sector, improve their livelihood, and support their future and the region’s future. We then left at the end of the day, ready to share their stories with others.

HAF Team Agonss, a life between meadows and snow
HAF Team Agonss, a life between meadows and snow
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 3
Agonss, a life between meadows and snow 3
Mar 23, 2021

Former Pastoral Nomads Considering In-Place Farming

Volunteers plant carob and olive tree saplings
Volunteers plant carob and olive tree saplings

Recent trends reveal that pastoralists in the Maghreb region are turning to sedentary farming practices like agroforestry as nomadic herding becomes more difficult. This unpublished article investigates the causes for this shift, associated environmental impacts, and local responses.

North African pastoralism, an agricultural method used for centuries by nomadic people in the steppe highlands, is on the decline. Facing limited grazing land due to overuse and drought, pastoral nomads are favoring more sedentary farming methods like growing fruit or nut trees and crops.

Developmental nonprofits in the area have begun working with communities facing scarce economic prospects in the face of “extreme” climate events like drought, which occur in Morocco every two years. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF), working in part with Farmer-to-Farmer, a USAID program, creates tree nurseries in areas of the lower mountain regions. Some communities from the higher pasturelands have voiced their interest in these projects. This follows a trend within the past two decades of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists seeking out additional or alternative forms of agriculture. 

Since 2004, the number of nomads in the Maghreb region has declined by more than 60 percent. As of 2014, only 25,300 remain. 

Morocco is home to one of the largest regions of pastoral rangelands in the Maghreb. These rangelands make up about 40 percent of land territory, or 20 million hectares, in Morocco and Algeria. In Morocco, the majority of nomadic pastoralists range in the western coastal plains. Their pasturelands include the Rif and Tell mountains, where altitudes for some summer pastures reach 3000 meters above sea level. There, the air is dry and the pressure is lower, limiting the kind of agriculture the area can sustain. Along these routes, pastoralists herd camels, sheep, and goats, producing mutton and valuable products like wool (to be used for local handicraft) and manure, an alternative for chemical-based fertilizer.

Pastoralism is a process engrained in Moroccan history and heritage. Up until the last century, semi-nomadic pastoralists occupied the Middle Atlas regions, travelling with herds during the grazing season and growing crops like cereal for domestic consumption. Herders still use indigenous breeds and veterinary medicine developed over centuries.

Yet some pastoralist communities are beginning to favor more sedentary farming methods. Part of the reason is the rising cost and devaluing of mutton as a main source of meat, now associated with being unhealthy due to its high cholesterol content. However, the Moroccan Ministry of agriculture suggests the reason is that pastoralists are suffering from degradation of rangelands, which makes it difficult to maintain livelihood.

Overuse, not overgrazing, degrades pasturelands

Moroccan pastoralism is changing for a wide range of reasons. Viable grazing lands are affected by the amount of rain per season, availability of shrubs for grazing, and regional politics or poverty—all of which are subject to change. The main factors that make pastoralism difficult for many, and may be a reason for some to switch to sedentary farming, include shifting social values, environmental change, and rising population in both urban and rural areas. But the most pressing issue for pastoralists is land degradation.

Many typically point to overgrazing as a reason for the degradation of pastoral rangelands. This is often blamed on pastoralists themselves, whose herds graze away the vegetation. Yet varying rainfall, especially in arid climates, leads to periods of drought, and the shrubs that typically cover the steppe lands are not as plentiful.  

Rangelands in the Maghreb region lose 1557 hectares a year to drought and degradation, and in nearly three decades, more than 8.3 million hectares of land have been “severely degraded.” This is one of the reasons there has been a recent movement of pastoral nomads travelling northward, particularly towards theSouss region. But this kind of movement leads to regional conflicts like land disputes and tension, especially in the Souss region which is home to a large population of Amazigh people, who must now compete with newcomers for land and natural resources.


Overuse, rather than overgrazing, more accurately explains the desiccation of pastoral land. Overuse, or human-induced degradation, comes from improper agricultural practices like ploughing with heavy machines and over-irrigation, soil erosion by deforestation, and to some extent, overgrazing. Agricultural researchers have suggested that overuse, coupled with growing rural population and a difficult climate, wears away the land, so pastoralists must either move to more viable pasturelands or build themselves an economic cushion by engaging in irrigation farming and growing crops, fruit or nut trees.

Facing limited prospects, pastoralists move towards stationary farming

Land formerly used for pastoral purposes is being converted to sedentary farming areas. Fruit and nut trees provide diverse incomes as grass for herding becomes harder to find. Land used for forestry and herding has declined by 21 percent since the early 1980s, while agricultural land used for non-forestry and non-pastoral purposes has increased by 7.7 percent.

At the same time, as more people move to cities, rural areas face low population densities. Modernization policies have tended to favor farming expansions and development in areas with higher populations, leaving pastoralist societies, far from city centers, to be politically marginalized. This has reduced their access to certain services, such as privatized veterinary services which makes it difficult for herders to afford veterinary care.

A semi-nomadic majority 

Many pastoralists in the region, in part a result of changing social norms and development in the region, are only semi-nomadic and will likely stay so. This means that they may have both farmlands and herds, which they send off with a herder for the grazing season. As advancements in education expand access to rural areas, pastoral families value sending their children to schools for a more formal education, which requires them to stay in one place. Yet despite shifting trends and smaller numbers, pastoral systems will remain important as the population grows and demand for meat rises. 

As rural life changes, development must also change, so it is important to work with rather than against existing shifts. The High Atlas Foundation works with communities to address these agricultural changes by taking a participatory approach to development. HAF takes note of communities who are looking to grow fruit, nut, or medicinal plants, thereby determining trends and producing a plan for the community to approve for implementation. This process has taken root as HAF’s House of Life program, through which 12 nurseries have been built around the Kingdom. Trees are planted every January where they grow for two years, contributing around 30,000 trees annually to be donated to local farmers and schools as a way to reduce environmental damage and improve local livelihoods. As communities continue to mark their interest in sedentary farming, projects like this face new levels of expansion.

Young fruit trees growing in the Atlas Mountains
Young fruit trees growing in the Atlas Mountains
Mar 18, 2021

Multiculturalism Enables, Reinvigorates Participatory Approach Development

High Atlas Foundation facilitates a women's IMAGIN
High Atlas Foundation facilitates a women's IMAGIN

Deep relationships maintained over time and a global scope at a local scale characterize the participatory approach to development. Methods grouped under the umbrella of participation vary widely, and are formed by diverse influences, such as culture, climate, the individual in a community, and a community within the global arena. Perhaps chief among these is Belief: inclusive of both self actualization through economic empowerment, and systems of belief that shape our worldviews and guide our actions. As development practitioners in Morocco, The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) works to develop methods that harmoniously bridge these influences.

What is the participatory approach to global development?

Community development builds the capacity to manage shared objectives and pursues self reliance. Its scope is multidimensional, covering economic, social, political, and environmental objectives, so that communities can profit as much as possible from a single initiative. The method of getting there is the participatory approach — group dialogue and consensus-building, communicating through visual and accessible diagramming, and ultimately planning projects that communities themselves identify and therefore own.

The participatory approach is a tool that not only can, but must be adapted and retrofitted to suit belief systems. It is not a one-size-fits-all standard procedure, but rather a set of strategies for extracting ideas and achieving consensus built on deep relationships and trust. When a planned initiative is interpreted through a lens of culture, participatory efforts dramatically improve chances of success and present equally enormous learning opportunities for both sides of the development relationship.

How do belief systems influence community building and decision making?

The strength of religious authority varies from country to country, and people around the world adhere to a wide array of belief systems. Moroccan culture is shaped in many ways by Islam, the state religion practiced by more than 90% of Moroccans, and coexists with the secular body of law that interprets religion and governs everyday life. Amendments to the Moroccan constitution following the 2011 Arab Spring introduced provisions for women’s rights, though wide disparities in legal literacy mean that while most Moroccans in metropolitan areas know their rights, most in rural areas do not. As a result, Morocco ranked 143 out of 153 countries in the 2020 World Economic Report’s Gender Gap Index, and Morocco’s incomes per capita are stagnated at 50 percent below what women’s participation in the economy could make possible.

What are strategies for forming partnerships that achieve development goals by affirming religious beliefs?

High Atlas Foundation has partnered with communities to establish 11 nurseries in 7 provinces, spanning the full picture of rural diversity in Morocco. Flagship tree nurseries around Marrakech began as interfaith partnerships facilitated by HAF: Jewish congregations gifted sacred land within cemeteries for tree nurseries, and local predominantly Muslim farmers protect and care for them. Today, in addition to providing medicinal plants and hosting interfaith celebrations, the nurseries are training grounds for farmers from Morocco and across Africa. The planting season (December – March) is currently underway. Said, project manager of HAF’s tree nurseries, shared that HAF plans to plant 1 million seeds across Morocco this year.

The tree nursery to the south at Tassa Ouirgane, a village anchoring the mountainous Tassa Ouirgane National Park near Toubkal, the highest peak in Morocco, has a quite different story. Initially a failed attempt by an association of men in the village to build and manage a site, the women of the village decided to step in. When HAF was first recruited for facilitation, Director of Projects Amina facilitated training for an informal group of women. This training included information on how to plant olive, walnut, and carob trees, all of which have completely different needs. This group would go on to become the Takharhout Women’s Association, 

To help the women organize and identify their priorities, Amina ran an Imagine workshop, a four-day rights-based, participatory approach that provides tools to help women identify and advocate for their needs and goals. The training focuses on 7 key areas (emotions, relationships, sexuality, body, money, work, and spirituality). Most crucially, HAF has built a full Imagine manual in Arabic, integrating the Moroccan family code and women’s rights as per Islamic teaching. 

How can we balance religious and secular influences in multicultural societies to ensure justice and equity?

Tree nurseries work because they limit the lens of development to a specific site and geographic area of direct impact, and to a universally beneficial aim. Providing for one’s family and protecting the environment are not polarizing aims, and therefore raising saplings can create a safe space for people to celebrate without discord or, inversely, to open themselves to more challenging moments of dialogue or social change.

In the case of Tassa Ouirgane, where traditional interpretations of Islam strongly influenced the structure of their community, women were able to prove to themselves and by extension, the men of the village, that leaving the house was “good for society.” That transformational mindset shift proved that when women are empowered to own, manage, and profit from projects, they do not upend the religious and communal fabric of society; instead, they lift up the whole of the community by strengthening bonds between neighbors and promoting economic vitality through action.

Is participation inclusive of all religions and belief systems?

Participation has an inherent spiritual value not confined to any one religion: building community and knowing ourselves. The aim of any religion is to teach people how to achieve harmony with others and the world, as well as awareness of one’s own role and potential. The act of raising a seed into a sapling is about rebirth, nurturing life, distributing lifegiving resources, and pursuing harmony with the natural bounty of a place. When participatory approaches are employed in the right way for the right reasons, we examine and more fully know how our own beliefs manifest in our live

Ian MacPherson is an undergraduate architecture student at the University of Virginia.

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