Thursday, November 5, 2009

Out of the Woods

I just got an article published in The National, a newspaper in the UAE. Here is that article. You can also view the article at

I live in rural Morocco. Jbel Ayache – one of the tallest mountains in North Africa – and several other gigantic peaks tower over the village I call home. Though the mountains are beautiful, I cannot look at them without noticing how denuded they are. Almost every large tree has been cut down. Little new growth exists. The small trees and bushes that remain cling to jagged rocks.

Because of the altitude, our winters are extremely cold: we rely on wood harvested from the forest to heat our houses. In the past, the forest came up to the edge of the village. Men would cut down massive trees right by the side of the road, then sell them to big logging companies. This was a major source of village income, but those trees aren’t around anymore. Instead of picking up logs by the side of the road, the loggers now purchase harvesting rights for land deeper into the mountains. Every morning we see big lorries rumble by; in the afternoon, they rumble by again loaded high with wood.

My 73-year-old host dad has no sons, so he is responsible for collecting the family’s wood. He wakes up at five or six in the morning, rides his mule for two hours, then cuts down oak and cedar trees with an axe for at least four hours. Usually he gets back at two or three in the afternoon, eats a meal, then immediately falls asleep for the rest of the day. Waking for the evening meal, he complains about his sore joints. I once went with a friend to try my hand at cutting. Oak, I discovered, is a very hard wood, and the tree must be cut into pieces that fit on a mule’s back. Now I pay someone else 50 Moroccan dirhams (Dh24) per mule load to cut my wood for me.

The primary means of income in my village is the herding of sheep and goats. When I hike in the mountains, it is difficult to be alone; I inevitably run into a shepherd and his sheep. These animals – there are hundreds of thousands of them – eat any shoot poking out of the ground, effectively destroying the next generation of trees. But people have lived and herded in these mountains for centuries without placing undue stress on their resources. I asked my host father, who loves to talk about the past, what had changed. “The road changed everything,” he told me. Twenty-five years ago, lorries couldn’t reach the forest. Selling sheep at souq meant crossing a 10,000 foot mountain, which cut into profits. Anyway, there was a much lower demand for meat in urban Moroccan markets, as few people could afford it.

A village 28 kilometres away from mine has already cut down all the trees from the land near their village. The wealthiest residents buy their wood from neighbouring towns. Most people, however, can only burn small, dried-up bushes that barely produce enough heat to cook food, let alone heat a house. I have been to this village in winter. The herders and their flocks are gone in search of warmer weather. Those who remain wear thick wool jellabas to attempt to keep out the cold. During the day, people rarely leave the house, and most conversations focus on how cold it is. Nights are spent huddled together in a common room.

The example of our neighbours is just one of many reminders of the dangers of resource depletion. The scope of the problem – dwindling forests, scarce grazing land, water washing away unanchored topsoil – is obvious to anyone who is remotely involved in community life. Yet next to no action has been taken. Morocco’s department of water and forest has even offered villages like mine a deal: they will plant trees if everyone agrees to stay off the land for five to 10 years, until the trees mature. Furthermore, they will compensate the community to the tune of 250 Moroccan dirhams (Dh120) per hectare per year. But very few communities, including mine, have accepted the offer; even when they have, the promise to stay off the land has typically been broken.

Because enforcement is lax, no individual has any incentive to change his consumption. This applies even to would-be conservationists: unless everyone is on board, one family’s sacrifice won’t protect the resource. If, for example, my friend Driss reduced his flock from 200 to 100 sheep, it would make his family much poorer. And without similar action from other community members, it would make no difference: someone else would probably respond by increasing the size of their flock. It wouldn’t be hard: giving away sheep is a common government practice. Just recently, the King distributed a gift of 5,000 sheep to the residents of our nearest market town. Even if an entire community wanted to sign on to the government deal, they would surely be wary of neighbouring villages taking advantage of their now-unguarded grazing land. This is partially a standard tragedy of the commons, and partially bad blood: before the French colonised this part of Morocco, these tribes often fought each other.

The solution is elusive, and there’s no quick fix. Topsoil takes a long time to build up to the point where it can support trees. All I can see when I climb these mountains is loose rock. This autumn, there have been heavy thunderstorms, and there is no soil to absorb rainfall anymore, so the water rushes downhill. Our rivers run brown with the last dregs of our soil. Last Saturday, some nearby fields were completely washed away, their corn completely destroyed. Several families lost their apple crops. Within the week, the men will be back in the forest, doing the only thing they can to stay warm: cutting down more trees.

Im in Marrakech now, helping with In Service Training (IST) for newer volunteers. They've been in site for 6 months now, so this training is supposed to help them think about how they can use what they've learned about their sites to implement projects. Me and 5 other volunteers from my training stage were invited to talk about our projects and how the lessons we've learned are applicable in others' sites. It's been a good experience; I believe that I've been helpful.

One very positive thing about IST has been seeing the other 5 volunteers from my stage. I'm sometimes negative about Peace Corps and the small impact that volunteers have, but these 5 have all successfully implemented substantial projects in their sites. I'm also hearing about others who aren't here who have done some cool projects. It looks like, when we leave this country, my training group will have a long list of positive projects to point to, which is a good feeling.

One negative thing is that I question the unintended consequences of some of the projects. Specifically, trash and waste management. One volunteer has implemented a project in their site where the community gathers trash in a central location, then burns the trash in an incinerator purchased by a Peace Corps grant written by the volunteer. Burning trash is illegal in America because it releases dioxins (carcinogenic) into the air. When volunteers talk about the health impact of leaving trash laying around, they talk about flies and water contamination, which are products of food and animal waste, not plastic. The project may be creating a public health problem where little/none existed (plastic sitting on the ground does release polycarbons on a slow time scale). I'm not going to get into more detail because I don't want to be overly critical.

Finally, the big news from IST is that we got to hear Hillary Clinton speak. She was in Marrakech for an international forum on Middle Eastern business climate. Us PC volunteers went over to the palace where the forum was, and she found 30 minutes to talk to us and State Department staff. CNN covered the event:

It was pretty fun. Several people shook her hand (I was stuck in the middle of the row, far from the lucky ones in the aisle). As always, I can't help finding a negative side to any positive story. It sucks that Clinton focused on the oldness of one particular volunteer, rather than the productiveness of all volunteers. I hope I don't sound like a bitter guy saying this and I do think being an 85 year old in PC is pretty cool. But I believe that PC is generally perceived as this quirky organization that doesn't accomplish anything tangible. It would have been nice for Clinton to talk about the work that volunteers do in Morocco, rather than the age of one. Do I sound bitter?

Hope all is well! Going back to my site today and tomorrow.


Charlotte said...

Hi Duncan,
I've been reading your blog for a few months, and just wanted to say that I really enjoy your posts. Your experience in rural Morocco is so radically different from mine in Rabat, and I find that contrast fascinating. I like the honesty with which you report on your observations. I'm looking forward to reading more!

mary ellen newport said...

i was listening to the stories about hillary in kesh and wondering if you would run in to and you're cool. and i'm yr mom.

Jillian said...

Congrats on the piece! How'd you query The National, anyway (or did they come to you)?