Between Despondency And Hope in Morocco's Oriental Region
21 March 2016
By Ida Sophie Winter
Marrakesh, Morocco - January 29, 2016 - On the fringes of the Saharan desert,
skirted by the rocky coastline of the northern Maghreb where it meets the blue
Mediterranean, lies the Oriental region of Morocco. Nestling within an often
verdant, predominantly mountainous terrain is Oujda, the largest city in the
northeast of the Kingdom and the region's administrative capital, with a
population of around 550,000.
Oujda has known prosperity under a variety of rulers over the centuries, owing
to its strategic location at the crossroads of an intricate web of
trans-Saharan caravan routes, near the border with Algeria, and at the meeting
point of the Moroccan and Algerian railway systems. In consequence, the city
has developed a cosmopolitan, progressive, and adaptable character.
It remains a bustling metropolis despite hardship-- the Rif is the most
economically disadvantaged area of Morocco, with the closure of the
Moroccan-Algerian border in 1994 making a particular impact. Since 2003, there
has been official encouragement to revitalize the region; with the increase of
tourism along the Kingdom's northern coast, promising mineral deposits and
agricultural prospects to the south, and the improvement of regional transport
infrastructure, there is clear potential for Oujda's economy to flourish.
Forests constitute one of the many local economic and natural resources, with
the Rif region receiving more rainfall than any other in Morocco. Yet the
ecology is endangered due to wide-scale deforestation that has taken place
over the large century due to overgrazing, forest fires and land clearing for
agriculture, particularly for the creation of illegal but highly lucrative
cannabis plantations. The process is part of a vicious circle of soil
degradation and the washing away of topsoil that not only threatens a unique
area of the Kingdom but also has wider ramifications.
Similarly, the youth of the Oujda Child Protection Center (OCPC) represent a
microcosm of the potential for growth and opportunity and sadly, too, for the
opposite not only in the Rif and in Morocco, but far beyond. The Middle East
and North Africa region is home to the highest rate of youth unemployment in
the world, but for the eighty young men, aged 12 to 18, who find themselves at
OCPC, a new partnership with the High Atlas Foundation means growth and
opportunity could be just on the horizon.
They find themselves at OCPC for a multitude of reasons, but share two things
in common. ''The children's presence in protection center is court-ordered, as
they have committed a felony punishable by law,'' OCPC Director M. Ali Baidou
explains. ''However, they all desire to be reintegrated with the rest of the
world, with access to the labor market to help themselves and their families.''
To ensure that the youth of the center do not fall into harmful behavior
patterns upon release, they require opportunities at OCPC to make time spent
there, a more positive and productive experience.
Activities associated with the land, such as gardening, have long been
appreciated for their therapeutic effects and incorporated into healing
programs. Similar, progressive schemes are taking place in prison settings,
with preliminary research indicating a clear correlation between participation
in the program and a lower rate of recidivism. As well as plant raising,
activities may include preparing and consuming the fruit and vegetables
(resulting in an improved prison diet) or in a powerful and indeed potentially
empowering form of social justice distributing them to local disadvantaged
families, often with backgrounds similar to the prisoners' own.
The transformative power of seeds is something that the High Atlas Foundation
(HAF) knows well. Founded in 2000, HAF aims to be a catalyst for grassroots
development in vulnerable communities throughout Morocco, by facilitating
participatory development projects, of which one of the most commonly
identified is fruit tree agriculture. Since its inception, HAF has planted
over 1.3 million organic, indigenous fruit trees and medicinal plants in 13
Moroccan provinces. In 2014, it embarked on its One Billion Tree Campaign that
embraces Sami's Project, a junior educational initiative. As a whole, the
scheme aims to support the Kingdom in its bid to overcome subsistence
agriculture, which lies at the root of rural poverty, and to offset severe
environmental challenges including soil erosion and deforestation.
In keeping with standard HAF practice, OCPC youth were fully involved from the
outset, participating in community meetings under the aegis of HAF trained
facilitators and deciding on a project that included vocational skills and
agriculture. Through the establishment of a fruit tree nursery producing a
total of 400,000 almond, fig, olive and pomegranate seeds, OCPC youth will
learn the intricacies of arboriculture through the entire value chain from
seeds to sales. In this way, they will be provided with an immediate outlet
and tangible sense of accomplishment as well as an enhanced employment skill
set in the long term.
Upon asking HAF President Dr. Yossef Ben Meir ''why trees?'', the response
contains an unmistakable passion, stemming from the conviction of experience.
''Morocco needs to grow a billion trees and plants and to empower its
disenfranchised youth. We can do both at once,'' explains Ben Meir from HAF's
southern home base in the ochre city of Marrakesh. ''Establishing nurseries at
youth centers and equipping our young with the skills necessary to comprehend
and participate in the entire agricultural value chain assures their best
chance of a successful future and meets the essential needs of rural
For the eighty young men at OCPC, an organic tree agriculture project in their
backyard may not solve everything, but it's a highly promising beginning.
Further, if this pilot scheme, successfully implemented, were to be replicated
on a national scale, it would have the capacity simultaneously to bring vital
benefit to the economy and the ecology of the region and stimulate an
unprecedented level of change among Moroccan youth, breaking through the outer
husk of despondency and allowing hope to flourish and prevail.
Elle Houby is from Denver, Colorado, living in Marrakesh, Morocco and is a
Report and Public Information Officer at the High Atlas Foundation