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Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries

by High Atlas Foundation
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Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries

Morocco’s Need for Trees

According to Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture, one billion fruit trees and billions of medicinal plants are needed as one of several essential contributions in order to overcome poverty in rural areas, which afflicts approximately 80 percent of its people. In addition, drylands cover 97 percent of Moroccan land, being one of the world's best long-term carbon sinks it requires immediate action to halt irreversible degradation of soils.

Obstacle to Transition

Farming families in Morocco are economically compelled to transition toward fruit tree agriculture and away from traditionally growing barley and corn. These staple crops are currently cultivated on 70 percent of agricultural land, yet only generate 10 to 15 percent of agricultural revenue. To address this obstacle to sustainable livelihoods, rural communities must build nurseries to grow from seeds the fruit trees and medicinal plants they need to cultivate in their localities. However, farming households cannot dedicate their land to build nurseries because their survival requires sowing and harvesting every year. Therefore, the in-kind contribution of land for people’s nurseries is vital to meet the demand for trees of rural families.

Partners for Land In-Kind

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) receives land lent in-kind for the nurseries of farming communities from government agencies, universities, and civil groups, including the High Commission of Waters and Forests, the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports, the Ministry of Education and Professional Development, University Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah in Fes, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, the Moroccan Jewish community, and cooperatives.

HAF Nurseries: Millions of Trees

Currently the High Atlas Foundation manages twelve tree nurseries in seven provinces of Morocco. At maximum capacity, they can currently grow 1.6 million organic fruit saplings grown from native seeds. In addition to these twelve locations of community-managed nurseries, the High Atlas Foundation has also been lent land without cost from the above agencies to build 13 new nurseries of relatively large size, that if planted to their capacities, includes the generation of approximately 10 million trees per year.

Carbon Sequestration

Based on HAF calculations in consultation with carbon offset experts, the planting of 10 million fruit trees will generate approximately 425,000 verified carbon units (VCUs). To secure these units, monetize their value, and account for their CO2 offset benefit, the trees require monitoring twice during the first five years. While VCU’s are usually stored up to 150 years in living trees, due to the unique climatic conditions of Morocco, carbon is transformed into stabilized hummus, remaining in the soil for up to 1,000 years. The HAF commits to sustainable long-term carbon storage, providing the wrap-around service of constructing and maintaining the nurseries, transplanting them with farming families, cooperatives, and education centers, while monitoring and registering the data, for the cost of $0.55 per tree. Ten million trees impact approximately 40,000 rural households, including 200,000 people, while cooling the climate globally. 

Low Cost Offsets

HAF is able to provide tree planting, monitoring, and the required data to secure CO2 offsets at the low cost of $0.55 per tree due to these contributing factors:

  1. We grow the saplings from seeds, which allows us to retain significant value, spending only 16 to 25 percent of the private sector price per tree, depending on the variety.
  2. The lending of free land by public and civil agencies further reduces costs and price-per-tree unit.
  3. The utilization of local fruit seed varieties not only significantly enhances biodiversity, but enables seed procurement in close proximity to the nurseries, reducing transportation costs and increasing survival rates.
  4. Nurseries are maintained by local community members who receive from the HAF a fair salary plus benefits, including health insurance and social security, with seasonal workers also coming from the neighboring vicinity. Thus, labor costs are relatively modest with a high level of commitment and satisfaction.

Finally, the trees are distributed to the farmers, where capacity building workshops on effective tree planting and care play a key role in maintaining the HAF’s outstanding tree survival rate. Farmers pay $0.20 per tree, and the entirety of that amount is reinvested in seeds in order to replenish the nurseries, provide for their caretaking, and continue the generation of young trees for subsequent years.

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Upon hearing the words “Hamdullah wa inshallah,” Mark is transported as if in a time capsule to the many times he and Yossef, President of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), uttered them in gratitude for the food set before them or in hope for something good to come of their efforts as Peace Corps Volunteers. “It makes you more mindful of the moment,” he remarked in a recent interview conducted by Yossef for HAF.

Mark was born in France, son of an airman, whose family returned to the U.S. where he grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two months after graduation from Penn State in 1982, he joined the Peace Corps and came to Morocco. There, he was able to use his degree in environmental resource management and specialization in wildlife management as a fisheries volunteer. He had originally aspired to be a veterinarian, but his keen interest in wildlife, parks, and protected areas led him to this more holistic discipline.

Initially having applied for a position in sub-Saharan Africa in wildlife management, he was surprised to be offered the position in Morocco, a country about which he knew little. Yet, he accepted the offer right away because he was eager to serve. This involved two-and-a-half months of rigorous fisheries training in Oklahoma. “It was like boot camp, pretty much under the direction of an autocrat,” he recalled. However, he acknowledged that it instilled a good sense of self-reliance and ability to figure things out and institute a good program in Morocco. He added, “Compared to that training, though, the language and cross-cultural training once I arrived was a piece of cake.”

After two years as a fisheries volunteer in Ouarzazate, when, just as Mark was prepared to leave, he was made aware of the need for a wildlife volunteer by Youssef Alaoui, an engineer with the High Commission of Water and Forests. He remembered that his “ears perked right up” upon this news, and he vowed, “If you guys get a parks and wildlife program going here, I’ll stay,” knowing that this was another two-year commitment. As a result, he became part of the very first cohort of volunteers to serve in wildlife, a field that was still nascent in Morocco in the 1980s. About the opportunity, he humbly stated, “I was in the right place at the right time.”

When Yossef asked during the HAF interview whether Mark could offer any explanation for the tendency in Morocco for things to fall into place just at the right time or just when needed, to this, he replied that he frequently thinks about this notion because, as he put it, “It has actually manifested that way multiple times in my career,” including the position he currently enjoys as Environmental Coordinator with Cochise County in Arizona. He explained, “If we put a certain amount of psychic energy into creating our destinies, especially if it’s in the service of others or contributing to the world in a way, it just happens. I have felt very blessed over the years in that way.”

This is also how he ended up in Arizona, some years after returning from his Peace Corps work in Morocco. His first position there was working for the Nature Conservancy on a nature preserve. He remarked, “It’s a matter of visualizing in your own mind what you would like to be doing.” Coming out west with a new wife into a very remote area was a major shift in thinking, and it required adapting to living conditions very unlike the urban life of Philadelphia, yet not too dissimilar from the circumstances of life in Tassa Ouirgane in the High Atlas Mountains.

During his second two-year commitment in the Peace Corps, Mark was given the freedom to shape the new program and to choose the subject of his projects. He selected the Takherkhort Reserve for the mouflon sheep, concentrating all his efforts on compatibility between the people who lived in Tassa Ouirgane and the conservation and protection of the mouflon in the reserve. Disappointingly, it did not manifest as he would have liked at the time. Though he was able to secure a grant for that purpose, the local government would not give permission for the project because of a history of water disputes with the outside authorities and fears of being taken advantage of. He is grateful, though, that it is happening now through the High Atlas Foundation and an eco-lodge that is there.

By 1986, Mark was ready to return to the U.S. He chose to attend graduate school at Ohio University, which had a high concentration of former Peace Corps volunteers. He found this experience very gratifying. He was able to secure a position with the National Parks service despite a six-month delay due to a federal hiring freeze. He describes that moment as “the launching pad” for his career. His responsibilities were in the Wild and Scenic River Program of the Mid-Atlantic States region studying the Great Egg Harbor River in southern New Jersey. “People think of New Jersey as this industrial state. But, in south Jersey, it is very rural and can be very wild, and you get back on these little rivers and tributaries, canoeing or kayaking, and it really is an amazing place.” That position also introduced him to a lot of other people in the conservation and environmental world. He had the opportunity to go to conferences, including an Open Space one in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Seeing the places and meeting the people there convinced him that he could live out in the Southwest. Arizona and New Mexico, he feels, are very similar environmentally even if they are not so politically and culturally.

In 1994, Mark became an environmental consultant in a small Arizona town on the San Pedro River, and that is when he met Yossef for the first time. With each visit, Mark’s relationship to Morocco has continued to grow in a “deep and abiding love and respect for the people of Morocco,” though this has taken time. He has enjoyed witnessing and hearing of subsequent generations of Peace Corps Volunteers who have devoted their services to engaging communities in environmental education and park conservation. “To come back and contribute to that as a trainer was satisfying.”

This relationship eventually drew Mark back to Morocco as a Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer with HAF. Though there had been some factors, such as the treatment of women, that put him in a frame of mind to be ready to leave Morocco at the end of his Peace Corps work. Serving in this new capacity with F2F, he has been heartened by notable cultural shifts, HAF’s women’s empowerment training, and the women on staff. “That is really going to be the salvation of our planet.”

The work with the Farmer-to-Farmer program gave him the chance to return and finish the work he felt he had left unfinished in Tassa Ouirgane. The president of their village association expressed gratitude for Mark’s work on grafting in the fruit tree nursery and work with the community to protect the agricultural fields near the river and the gabion walls against erosion. Mark noted, “It was a privilege for me to be able to come back and try to affect some good service and help them anyway I could. I feel that I accomplished more in the two months I spent there with HAF in the F2F Program than in a year and a half when I volunteered in that village with the Peace Corps. It was very satisfying to be able to go back and have a do-over.”

“But I don’t think anything has cemented my abiding appreciation of Morocco and its people than my coming back in 2017 and 2018 as a Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer with the High Atlas Foundation, and now volunteering again virtually in 2020 . There were some amazing cultural and social transformations that have been taking place in Morocco that really just astounded me,” Mark reflected.

During one of his F2F assignments, Mark wrote an article that focused on women and trees. In it, he describes how women’s empowerment is the solution, not just for gender equality, but for the entire world’s sustainability. The article, and the process behind it, offered him both an epiphany and, with it, some long sought after closure as he recognized positive efforts pushing forward toward progress for the greater good of the global, and Moroccan, society. “HAF and so many others around the world recognize that empowering women is the key to salvation of the planet. The article was cathartic for me and satisfying knowing that others felt the same way.”

For years, Mark had felt incomplete in his feelings regarding Morocco, stemming in some way from the difficulties experienced by Moroccan women. Then his F2F experience embodied advancing tree planting and women’s cooperatives. Today, as Yossef reflected in the interview, there is now a tree nursery managed by young women in Tassa Ouirgane village, where Mark served as a Peace Corps Volunteer years ago. This village, and the nursery, is now the location of a new project funded by UNDP as a direct result of an analysis that Mark completed over multiple visits as an F2F Volunteer decades after his first service there. This full-circle could not have been planned better or more poetically. That such a sense of accomplishment was established after so many years of dedication to the people of this very specific place goes to show that good things happen, but with time.

His message to returned Peace Corps Volunteers who are contemplating a return to service through the Farmer-to-Farmer program, is simply: “Don’t hesitate. Just do it.” Though Mark himself at first hesitated at returning for a shorter-term service in 2017, not knowing whether he would have sufficient support and skills to navigate his assignment and daily life, his fears quickly subsided as soon as HAF-F2F team members Hassan and Rachid picked him up at the airport. “I felt like I was home again.”

Mark highly encourages RPCVs to apply to serve as F2F volunteers in Morocco with HAF: “This idea of former Peace Corps Volunteers coming back to Morocco with HAF as F2F Volunteers is a wonderful thing. You do not have to be a farmer. It is much more than that. I came back and was able to conduct an assessment of sustainable indicators and interview members of women’s cooperatives. These are opportunities that I never had in the Peace Corps – to sit with women and ask them questions, and that they felt open and free to say what they wanted to say. It was an incredible experience.” The F2F opportunity might also fulfill the arc of other RPCVs’ experiences and relationships regarding Morocco, just as it has with Mark’s.

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Reference: Allison et al. 2017. Trees, forests and water: Cool insights for a hot world. Global Environmental Change 43, 51-56.

Forests capture more than carbon. While through the mechanism of photosynthesis, plants are experts at retrieving carbon dioxide from the air, they have also perfected strategies to retain water in their natural surroundings. When thinking of the benefits of future forests, it is crucial to think beyond the tree level. Tree roots loosen the soil, and by creating macropores, they drastically increase infiltration rates and help recharge groundwater levels. The effect of just one tree on those soil properties can be measured within a radius of 25 meters around the tree crown. So, by planting just a hundred trees, an area as big as 32 full-size football fields can be restored.

Reforestation reduces the risk of ecosystems drying out in a warming climate by keeping water in the soil. But that is not all. Through their roots that hold onto fertile soil, they prevent erosion and reduce the risk of flooding. Especially in mountainous areas, these properties are essential to keep farmland fertile. And because healthy soils lead to thriving communities, trees planted with the High Atlas Foundation provide a promising future for farming communities in Morocco.  

The much-needed positive effects of newly planted forests go far beyond the local scale of villages, cities, and countries. Researchers have recently discovered that forests are the main link for oceanic precipitation to reach the drier continental regions. By releasing water vapour through tree leaves, forests create clouds and cool the climate dramatically. Through this recycling of rainfall, water gets transported over long distances, and the release of microorganisms and organic compounds triggers rainfall along the way. Hence, investing in trees means the containment of carbon, retention of water, support to livelihoods, and, most importantly, the creation of  a green link into our future.

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The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) has been working with farming families in Morocco since 2000 to plant trees for sustainable agricultural development. The first question we are often asked is “Why plant trees?” Let us address that question as well as exploring other questions about tree planting in Morocco: who, where, what, when, and how.

Community-managed tree planting is of vital importance to the nation. As noted by former-volunteer and HAF Director of Projects since 2014, Amina El Hajjami, all nurseries that HAF supports are created and managed by members of local communities. When we grow trees in this inclusive way, we engage with everyone in the community: the youth as well as the men and women. When we plant with a participatory approach, we are also planting the “seeds” of dialogue, collaboration, and eventual financial independence. As noted by HAF President Yossef Ben-Meir, this can result in projects that do not involve trees: clean drinking water, school infrastructure, building a cooperative, preventing soil erosion, and more.

Typically, HAF works with communities in remote mountain regions, places where they experience marginalization, social and environmental difficulties, where they have minimal infrastructure, lack of opportunities, and have not benefited from outside assistance. We begin by asking not which types of trees, where they will be planted, or who will be responsible, but first asking community members about their daily challenges and their hopes and dreams for their future. Because these are traditional areas, we might initially sit in gender-separated spaces, but this can change as time passes.

We begin with an empowerment workshop over a period of days even before deciding on projects - something we call an “Imagine Empowerment Experience.” This is important because many rural people, especially women, are uncomfortable communicating their ideas publicly, so we must address this first and empower the residents to understand and assert their voice. Most of the women have not attended school, thus being unaware of their rights. The 4-day, 32-hour empowerment workshop includes seven areas of daily living: emotion, relationship, money, body, work, sexuality, and spirituality. In all these areas, women need to have clear visions of how to be stronger and develop themselves: for instance, the relationship between their personalities and money, developing a closer relationship with their bodies, often used for a lot of heavy work. Through this, the women learn how to contribute their ideas. We then find that most of these women want to create projects, cooperatives, or associations. At that point, they are ready to participate in the multiple follow-up sessions.

When we follow-up with community planning meetings, we prioritize, map, and visualize the future that the participants seek. We create an action plan. One strategy is mapping the natural resources in the region - water, trees, and so on - and then adding social mapping of the local infrastructure, such as hospitals. Another technique - dream mapping - allows the men, women, and youth to talk about their different visions for the community and to create a map or picture of what that will look like in reality. We draw because of the low literacy rate pervasive in these communities. We also have many strategies for determining the community’s needs and priorities. From this, we plan how to support them and write proposals for our funding partners.

All of these workshops and meetings occur before we know about the role of tree-planting in the community. The process involves self-discovery, confidence-building, building our sense of belief, assessing all of our options, analyzing our challenges, doing it collectively, building consensus, and sharing information. By the time the trees get into the ground, imagine how many days and weeks and hours and energy and the people and thoughts and partnership and all these things have to happen for this one tree in one place to get into the ground.

So, why do the rural people of Morocco consistently prioritize fruit trees as an important initiative for them. The answer is, in part, that 80% of their income is based in agriculture. Seventy percent of agricultural land is covered by corn and barley, yet this only generates 10-15% of agricultural revenue because of the low price and the importing of these staple crops to meet demand. This is no longer as viable for them as it once was. In the past, people mostly worked for survival, but now they have new priorities, like supporting their children’s pursuit of education to enhance their life situation. People who add fruit trees on their land have more income than those who plant only subsistence crops, but they cannot give up arable land while seeds take a few years to mature, which would leave them without even the low income they earn from their crops, so the nurseries on land lent in-kind by public, civil, and private agencies are needed. It is a mercy - Rahma - to make the transition gradual. It also requires a lot of water to coax a tree sapling from a seed, water that is often scarce in places without reliable irrigation systems.

We also plant trees because of its positive environmental impact. The trees reduce erosion as rain moves soil down the mountain and water drains directly into the rivers. With trees, the soil absorbs and retains the water. It also cleans and strengthens the environment more than barley and corn could ever do by sequestering carbon dioxide. All the trees that we’ve planted from December to March are organic - walnut, almond, pomegranate, fig, grape, carob, argan, and more - a total of 13 varieties. We see that communities allow land to regenerate without using it for their herds, giving it the chance to revitalize. In places like Ouezzane, this allows the natural growth of different varieties of fig, as much as 10 endemic types.

HAF uses donated land in rural regions nationwide to plant seeds in our 11 nurseries, which are run by community partnerships and cooperatives. HAF has different partnerships that enable us to use land at no cost: agreements with the Center for the Protection of Children in Fes and in Oujda; the Departments of Water and Forests in Marrakech and Tetouane; a cooperative and an association in Al Haouz and Azilal; one in the Salam school in Ifrane; with a women’s association in Toubkal of Taroudant province; with the Moroccan Jewish community in Tamsloht and Ouarzazate; and also with University Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah in Fès. Truthfully, we have more land than we have finances to plant.

We are grateful to the partners who help us finance this work. ECOSIA is maximizing planting in these nurseries and supporting monitoring. The National Initiative for Human Development helped fund a mountainside nursery at a thousand-year-old Hebrew saint’s burial site, land donated by the Moroccan Jewish community. We are excited about a newly-signed partnership agreement with an innovative, new business - Moroccan Trees - and also solar panels and water delivery systems funded by National Federation of Electricity, Electronics and Renewable Energies. The USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program is absolutely critical in providing technical and capacity-building support for the cooperatives. The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Research in the U.S. State Department’s environmental education division, and many private donors, have helped serve Moroccan communities as we are currently able.

It took the foundation 11 years, from 2003 to 2014, to plant its first one million trees. To symbolically mark that achievement, we began our annual planting day that now takes place on the third Monday in January each year. On planting day, most of us at HAF work in groups of staff and volunteers (international and Moroccan) to plant trees with the communities and associations, schools and cooperatives in all the provinces where we work. On that first, glorious day, people were planting until 2 or 3 in the morning. It marks the New Year and Martin Luther King day, which is known as the day of volunteering, giving, unity, diversity, peace, compassion, mercy, and love. It’s a joyful day for planting. This year, in those 11 nurseries, with community partners, 1.4 million seeds were planted, and we are supported by the partners.

Why plant trees? The High Atlas foundation is dedicated to valuing, processing, certifying organic, building cooperatives, and all the entire value chain. We are with the young people who are part of these environmental education activities. As we plant trees, we see life-long memories that are powerfully informative to school children all across Morocco and the cooperative members. We are here to be of service to the farming families, rural communities, and urban neighborhoods that invite us to be part of their development experience.

Anyone can now participate in tree planting by buying online from our e-store as a donation or in honor or memory of someone - even one tree can make a difference. We are not a private entity to generate revenue or profit but to supply trees to farmers and be able to have a seed to plant anew, for a bright, healthy future.

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There are a number of reasons that explain the ascendency over decades, and now the mainstream, of participatory approaches to meaningful development. We often see that when people decide upon the project or change that they most want, that they will give their energy and time to help ensure its continuity and success. We widely appreciate that each local context has comparable similarities and differences from the others. Environments, relationships, and many other factors come together to make each location special and unique, and in regards to what is specifically appropriate and desired by its people.

But there is another indelible quality to participatory action for enduring change: that is, the experience and process itself helps to reveal the bound connections between the project sectors of life and how they impact our different social and economic groups.

For example, it sadly remains so that clean and accessible drinking water remains the most common priority that rural communities in Morocco determine for themselves. We certainly need to acknowledge that in recent decades there have been important improvements, but we also cannot deny that girls’ participation in education is seriously undermined by the lack of water and sanitation systems at rural schools and that the harsh burden of fetching water from kilometers away primarily falls upon girls and women. Accessible clean drinking water not only reduces infant mortality and enhances quality of life with less disease, but also directly and measurably (up to 16% according to the World Bank) enables girls to study with basic comfort and without shame. Thus, water access and girls’ education are positively linked.

Here is another example: Let us consider the enormity of the national demand for fruit trees, and in requiring an effective investment. What is the plan on the national level to generate trees as farming families transition from traditional barley and corn to organic fruit that can be cultivated and sold in lucrative markets, particularly as raw products are processed? It takes two years for a seed to grow into a sapling, and farmers must sow and grow crops each year in order to make most basic ends meet. The provision of land for farmers to build their nurseries as a contribution where rural communities cannot meet their needs, is one essential criteria for overcoming poverty conditions.

Partnership with government agencies that can provide land in-kind for farming communities is therefore vital for the nation to achieve its goal of billions of trees. The Department of Waters and Forests, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, provincial authorities, public universities, and thoughtful civil society groups are all in a position to grant the use of land for communities to build their nurseries. At regional levels, all these agencies have done so, which underscores the point that the interplay at all sectors, faiths, administrative tiers, and components of society, together have an inescapable and undeniable role within the sustainable development process, without which, the most critical needs of the people cannot be met, even when they are empowered, determined, organized, and committed to achieving change. Unity of all strata and sectors, when combined with the community’s own unity and consensus around their plans for actions and projects, are essential to the building of better days that we need.

Part of natural resource management is about gender and youth empowerment, just as agricultural growth is tied to social solidarity, and actions that are in unison. Financial independence of women’s cooperatives is as much bound to markets as it is to water and self-discovery, justice, and participation. The High Atlas Foundation embraces the participatory approach and participatory activities for development, because it reveals these interconnections and the multifaceted plans required to bring along all sectors, individuals, groups, and layers toward a shared fulfillment.

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Organization Information

High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Yossef Ben-Meir
President of the High Atlas Foundation
Marrakech, Morocco
$40,789 raised of $50,000 goal
521 donations
$9,211 to go
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