Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Resource Depletion in Morocco

For those of you that don’t know, there are 4 different sectors in which Peace Corps volunteers work in Morocco: health, environment, small business development, and youth development. Health and environment tend to be more rural, while SBD and YD are generally in bigger towns and cities. There is a fair amount of overlap between health and environment work as water and sanitation are two issues that concern both sectors.
65 km to the North of me is a town called Boumia, where an environment volunteer is placed. Most environment volunteers have vague job descriptions (like health volunteers), but this volunteer has a very specific goal for his work: preserve the forests in land surrounding his town.
Morocco is currently faced with a number of environmental challenges. There is the big issue of climate change, which has a drastic effect on people here. Things here are getting drier, making it harder to be subsistence farmer. A few people in my village have told me that the river used to have much more water than it does now. But global climate change is something that rural Moroccans have done nothing to bring about and can do nothing to reverse.
However, the issue of overgrazing and harvesting too much wood from the surrounding land is a micro problem that Moroccans can affect.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, the Amazigh (Berber) people of this region lived in a sustainable fashion: not taking more from the land than it could reproduce by the following year. However, in the past 50 years, the population in Morocco has gone from 8 million to 30 million, with a large part of that growth coming in the rural areas. Like elsewhere in the world, this population growth is due partly to the green revolution. Modern fertilizers and pesticides dramatically improve agricultural output, allowing the land to support more people. Unfortunately, this increase in population has taken its toll on the surrounding environment.
For many Amazigh people, sheep and goat herding is their primary source of income. A full-grown sheep fetches something like 700 Dirhams ($100) at market, which is a tidy sum in these parts. So people naturally gravitate toward herding sheep. I haven’t seen it, but apparently there are flocks as big as 1,000 sheep. You can imagine that when 1,000 hungry sheep are driven through an area that they eat anything and everything they come across. There is no regulation for grazing and some areas are getting damaged severely.
The second major problem is the harvesting of wood. Most people here cook using wood-burning stoves. They bake their bread using ovens that burn wood. They heat their homes with wood-burning stoves too. And one of the biggest users of wood are the hammams (public baths), which are like saunas that heat up large volumes of water (using wood). This adds up to a lot of wood and a lot of trees cut down. Entire forests are in jeopardy.
Finally, the result of overgrazing and chopping down too many trees is soil erosion. With nothing to stop it, the topsoil is flowing away.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this poorly organized post, there is an environment volunteer nearby whose job it is to hopefully reverse this process. But what can be done? Our training has taught us (correctly or not) that Moroccans do not think of the environment as something to be valued; that it is merely valuable for the resources that it provides. Thus, the first part of the process involves educating Moroccans on the damage that they are causing and the impact that it may have on them down the road. According to my colleague, the timetable is something like 10 to 20 years before the resources are so depleted that it starts to affect everyday life here. However, in order to reverse the process, change must start now. So a little forward thinking is required.
One way to mitigate the effects of over grazing is to simply regulate it. If there were some sort of grazing rotating “schedule,” some areas would be off limits for a year or two, allowing them to recover. As it is now, infant trees are eaten before they reach adulthood. Unfortunately, there is no institutional infrastructure in place to govern the migration of the nomadic herders. In order to get them to leave some areas alone for years at a time will take excellent organizing along with some intellectual leaps. It would also be helpful to convince herders to find alternative sources of income (such as fruit production), but that’s a hard sell as well.
The issue of wood harvesting is also difficult. People need to eat and be warm. There is a wood-burning stove available that is twice as efficient as the ones being used now, thus reducing the amount of wood needed. Another option is to get people to switch to gas-burning stoves for their cooking. However, this demands a little more out of their pocketbook, thus making it a hard sell. Generally speaking, people are slow to change in these parts. Traditional ways of living have been unchanged for centuries and people are stuck in their ways.
So quite clearly, this is a collective action problem. As far as I can tell, there are many similarities between the micro crisis here in rural Morocco and the macroclimate crisis that we are dealing with on a global scale. Massive population growth has led to over depletion of resources. Some sacrifices are required on the part of all parties in order to reverse the trend. However, there is no institution that has the authority to govern resource use. Thus, the onus is on individuals to independently make the sacrifices and hope that their neighbors do the same.

I just finished reading The Dharma Bums, by Kerouac. It was an entertaining read. The best part for me was that he describes some hiking near the San Francisco area when he hiked Mt. Tamalpais, through Muir Woods and down to Stimson beach. Colton and I did the same hike last summer! Next I’m going to try and read Ulysses, which is very intimidating for me.
The work is going well. A 2nd year volunteer in the region has organized a training for traditional birthing attendants. There is a high rate of maternal and infant death here in rural Morocco, so this training could do a lot of good. So my job right now is to identify potential trainees and persuade them to go to the training. Of course this is pretty difficult because I’m a guy and all the trainees would be women.
Also, more and more people in my village are starting to come to me with problems. They’re starting to trust me and they see that I’m here for good. So I’m starting to get a better picture of what’s going on in my village. I had an extremely satisfying moment when one of my villagers told me (without any prompting) that a big problem they are facing is the same overgrazing and over harvesting of wood problem that I described above.
It’s a little hot here, but not unbearable. If you step out of the bright sun, the temperature is quite comfortable. The closest volunteers to me (a married couple) and I are planning a little hike for next weekend. So I’m looking forward to sleeping under the stars and having a little escape. Hope all is well in the States.


Jenny Barthold said...

Hi Duncan,
It's your old English teacher, Jenny Barthold. I am loving your blog--your mother told me about it, and I have been keeping up with your adventure ever since. You are and excellent writer, but then I knew that.

Funny you should mention Ulysses. I picked up a fresh copy yesterday to read up at my cottage this summer. I read it in college, but that was a long time ago, and I've forgotten it. There's a good paperback study guide that really helps. Knowing The Odyssey also helps, but of course you read that in SCAP English. I will send you those books if you would like them. Then we can email our thoughts as we read.

Congratulations on choosing such an interesting life.

Jenny Barhtold

Mark said...


I wonder why you titled your post "resource depletion" rather than "population growth," as you clearly identify the root cause of resource depletion in population increase. How many people can the land sustain?

Johnny One Note, Dad