Muslim-Jewish goodwill blossoms in Morocco

The High Atlas Foundationʹs fruit tree nursery project

Since 2012, the Moroccan Jewish community has been helping local farmers by donating land around ancient cemeteries for the planting of fruit tree nurseries. The aim: ending systemic rural poverty by transitioning from grain to crops more suited to local growing conditions. By Yossef Ben-Meir, director of the High Atlas Foundation

In 2010 Morocco launched a national project to restore its Jewish cemeteries. Approximately six hundred Hebrew "saints" are buried in various parts of the kingdom. Many were laid to rest over a millennium ago and 167 of the sites have seen work begin on the preservation of graves and their immediate surroundings. Starting in Marrakesh, the Jewish community began lending land to the High Atlas Foundation near seven of these cemeteries, with the idea of planting organic fruit tree nurseries for the bene­fit of farming families and schools.

Other public and private donors to the High Atlas Foundation community tree nursery initiative include the Moroccan High Commission of Waters and Forests and the Fight Against Desertifi­cation, provincial of­fices of the Ministry of Education, as well as universities and co-operatives. Yet it is the land contributions that are vital for the success of sustainable, organic and integrated agricultural development using community tree nurseries.

Moroccan farmers are currently transitioning from growing traditional barley and corn to more lucrative fruit trees, meaning saplings are in high demand. According to Morocco’s Agency for Agricultural Development, staple grains are grown on about 70 percent of the countryʹs agricultural land, yet they account for only 10-15 percent of agricultural revenue.

Farming families – who generally own small plots unsuited to cultivating barley and corn – are deprived of education (particularly at secondary school level) and health infrastructure, while communities lack livelihood diversity. In many rural areas, for instance, fewer than half the girls continue their formal education after primary school. Dormitories, clean water and sanitary facilities would go a long way to improving conditions in rural schools.

Jewish cemeteries provide a new lease of life: in 2014, a pilot nursery on Jewish communal land was created near the village of Akrich, near the seven-hundred-year-old tomb of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. In the past three years, 150,000 (33,000 in 2018) almond, fig, pomegranate, argan, carob and lemon seeds have been planted in the nursery and – once matured into saplings – transplanted to private plots

Across the nation, drinking water remains the top priority of rural communities, though the same is also true of some city neighbourhoods, including the Marrakesh mellah, as the cityʹs Jewish quarter is known. For villages in the High Atlas, for instance, irrigation infrastructure would have a transformative impact, both economically and environmentally. For most rural communities, however, it remains to be implemented.

Employment opportunities for the majority of rural and urban youth are also chronically scarce. The planting of fruit trees is one way in which farming families are looking to end systemic rural poverty. Other vital measures include processing product, co-operative building, attaining greater market access and securing organic and carbon credit certi­fications.


Multi-cultural interfaith initiative

Growing fruit trees from seedlings on land lent by the Moroccan Jewry and distributing them to marginalised rural communities is not only helping to meet a major development priority, but also constitutes a multi-cultural interfaith initiative.

For those benefitting from these historic cemetery sites, the project has served to deepen their appreciation, reinvigorating relationships between the Muslim farming families and Jewish community members. After all, it takes two years to grow tree saplings from seed and Moroccan farming families simply could not afford to give up cultivating their land for two years, just to transition to fruit crops. The donation of new land for community tree nurseries, from which the two-year-old saplings are transplanted into families’ agricultural plots, overcomes the argument that there is not enough land for fruit tree production.

Thanks to enhanced food security and sustainable development for farming families, the Moroccan Muslim-Jewish initiative is generating goodwill, fostering social unity and encouraging further cultural preservation initiatives. That the farming communities themselves identi­fied fruit trees as a project priority, while also determining the varieties they preferred to grow has maximised the sense of solidarity and the measure of sustainability.

In so doing, the project is responding to the expressed needs of the people and helping to deliver the results they seek. This illustrates how social bene­fits are maximised when people’s participation is incorporated into the development-cultural process.

Reinvigorating interfaith relationships: "the Moroccan Muslim-Jewish initiative is generating goodwill, fostering social unity and encouraging further cultural preservation initiatives. That the farming communities themselves identified fruit trees as a project priority, while also determining the varieties they preferred to grow has maximised the sense of solidarity and the measure of sustainability," writes Ben-Meir

"House of Life" pilot nursery near Marrakesh

In 2014, a pilot nursery on Jewish communal land was created near the village of Akrich, located in Al Haouz province south of Marrakesh, near the seven-hundred-year-old tomb of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. In the past three years, 150,000 (33,000 in 2018) almond, ­fig, pomegranate, argan, carob and lemon seeds have been planted in the nursery and – once matured into saplings – transplanted to private plots. They are now being grown by approximately 1,000 farmers and 130 schools in Morocco, entirely for the growers’ benefi­t.

The pilot project’s cost of $60,000 was donated by Wahiba Estergard and Mike Gilliland, of Lucky’s Market and Jerry Hirsch with the Lodestar Foundation. Younes Al Bathaoui, the then governor of Al Haouz province, coined the Akrich nurseryʹs name – "House of Life" – after the name given to cemeteries in Hebrew. Jacky Kadoch, president of the Jewish Community of Marrakesh-Sa­fi, was instrumental in granting this land and other parcels for ten years, while the Secretary-General of the Jewish Community of Morocco, Serge Berdugo, enabled the vital expansion of this land-for-tree nursery project.

The ­first trees from the Akrich pilot site were handed to local children and farmers by the governor in 2016, joined by the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, Dwight Bush Sr.


A second nursery in Ourzazate

The proposed second nursery was located beside the thousand-year-old tomb of Rabbi David ou Moche, in the province of Ourzazate in January 2018. The project’s fi­rst year will see the construction of agricultural terraces. The new arable space will encompass one hectare, upon which will be grown, from 500,000 seeds, one-metre tall saplings of walnut, carob, fi­g, pomegranate, cherry and almond.

At maturity they will be donated to local associations, ­five thousand farming families and two thousand schools. Some trees will be dedicated to addressing devastating erosion afflicting the immediate area.

Together with local partners, the High Atlas Foundation will monitor tree growth as part of securing carbon credits, the revenue from which will be invested in further tree planting. Replication of nurseries across hundreds of parcels of land adjacent to cemetery sites throughout the country would generate tens of millions of saplings and plants every year and afford a better life to millions of people.


An initiative with international potential

The initiative is inspiring similar projects across the Middle East, with its combination of Muslim-Jewish collaboration and local-international and private-public partnerships. Although the Jewish community in Cairo these days numbers just six members, their strategic approach to preserving their ancient cemetery is to promote development within the local community.

Morocco’s intercultural nursery project has also been visited by Palestinian and Israeli groups and featured in the media – let us hope it provides a pathway toward productive and deepened intercultural collaboration.


Yossef Ben-Meir

© High Atlas Foundation 2018

This article is taken from a longer essay entitled "The Moroccan Approach: Integrating Cultural Preservation and Sustainable Development".



Changing the world across generations: The story of Fadma, Amina and the Izourane Cooperative

Jenny Spencer
HAF’s intern.


Ask an American college student what they want to do in their life and inevitably, at some point, they will say some version of “to make a difference.” Ask a young professional why they are transitioning in their careers and you are likely to hear “I want to find more meaning in my work.” Despite high levels of education, we young Americans struggle to find opportunities to create positive change in the world.


In 2014, Unesco ranked Morocco among the 21 poorest countries in education. According to USAID, the likelihood of a first grader going on to complete high school is less than 15 percent. But there is no shortage of opportunities to create lasting change here. This week, on a volunteer trip with the High Atlas Foundation to distribute school supplies donated by Fre Skincare, I had the opportunity to meet a woman who was doing just that.


In the 1990s, Lalla Fadma Abjar moved from the city to Tidzi, a small village in the semi-desert Sous valley of southern Morocco, 25 km from the beach town of Essaouira. At that time, just over a quarter of women in Morocco were literate, and this was of course much lower in the rural areas. Lalla Fadma was one of the few.


Around the same time, Moroccan professor Zoubida Charrouf recognized the extent of the decline in the ancient, hardy Argan tree, whose dry bark is reminiscent of a juniper and whose fruits could be mistaken for olives. While it once covered all of North Africa, preventing desertification and providing many benefits to communities across the region, by the 1990s the Argan tree could be found only in the Sous valley. To motivate local communities to protect the argan forests and to empower women, Professor Charrouf began developing women’s argan cooperatives and marketing and raising awareness of the products internationally.


In 1998, UNESCO declared the argan forest in the valley to be a biosphere reserve, and a movement began. As one of the few literate women, Lalla Fadma was sought out to establish one of the first cooperatives in the region. She bought the land herself and, with a small group of women, created the Cooperative Feminine Izourane Ouargane and began processing the “liquid gold.” For the first time in their lives, they earned income and had a place to socialize outside their homes.


Now, Lalla Fadma’s daughter, Lalla Amina Amchir carries on her mother’s work, expanding the opportunities for women and their families. There are now 40 women in the cooperative, most of them widows or divorced. In the last 2 years, Izourane women’s cooperative was able to plant 2,000 new trees thanks to the partnership with HAF and Fre skincare. In addition to the income that these trees will help to generate, the partnership provided training in women’s empowerment, educating the members about their rights, and provided school supplies for their children, to help combat the high dropout rates that are still pervasive in rural Morocco.


With only a third-grade education, Lalla Amina administers the cooperative herself. She proudly showed us the impeccably organized cabinet where she stores the financial records. She explained how she has worked hard over the past two years to complete the seemingly endless series of paperwork required to become certified by the ONSSA which would enable the group to access a more consistent and reliable market, with greater guarantee of payment. Hopefully, the Izourane cooperative will receive the certificate soon, as this will also help to differentiate them from the many argan shops lining the road, which Lalla Amina explained are actually for-profit enterprises masquerading as cooperatives, but which do not truly support the women.


While the argan industry has become increasingly established over the past two decades, Lalla Amina and the other cooperative presidents have done all of this work with very little support. The Ministry of Agriculture provides some trainings on administrative matters, but these are offered only in French, a language not spoken by most of the presidents. Similarly, while an association of presidents exists in name, no activities are carried out to enable the presidents to practically support one another.


While she perseveres through these challenges, Lalla Amina sees the fruits of her efforts and the benefits of the support of partners like the High Atlas Foundation every day. She explained that earning income brings women purpose in their lives, and invest their earnings in their homes and in their children. In addition, the provision of school supplies, donated by Fre Skincare helps to ensure that kids go to school and have the resources that they need to learn.


As we distributed backpacks and notebooks to the 30 children on our visit, Rachid, a HAF project manager, asked each child what they want to be when they grow up. Most aspire to be teachers or doctors. Thanks to Lalla Amina, as well as the support of HAF, Fre Skincare, and Izouran’s other partners, these dreams are increasingly likely to become a reality. When they do, whether the children will know it or not, each of them will carry a piece of the dedication, work ethic, and empathy of Lalla Fadma and Amina, and they will continue to change the world.


Photos that could be included:

P1010212 (Note that Lalla Amina is on the far right)

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Dear all,

Germanwatch and the High Atlas Foundation have the pleasure to invite you to a webinar on energy access, with a focus on Morocco and Africa more broadly. The webinar will be held on the 18th. September 2018 from 1 pm to 2 pm Central European Summer time on webex (12:00h Morocco time today). Please find the link:

Access to modern energy services is an essential pre-requisite for human development. Without energy, it is challenging, if not impossible, to promote economic growth, overcome poverty and expand employment opportunities. This has been recognized by the international community, with the Sustainable Goal 7 on "access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all". Yet, more than 1 billion of people still do not  have access to electricity today.

One of the continents where energy access is still lacking for many is Africa. But there are many positive stories as well: Morocco is one example of a country that is considered an energy transition pioneer. Despite the country’s well-known focus on large renewable energy projects, much progress has also been made on decentralized renewable energy access in some rural parts of Morocco.

In our discussions among NGOs, we  frequently say that providing universal energy access should be a focus in the implementation of the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI. But what exactly do we mean by that? What should be our key demands as NGOs? And what are some examples of concrete approaches that AREI could support? We would like to use this webinar to discuss these questions with you, based on an overview of current energy access definitions and debates and a case-study on energy access in Morocco.

The webinar will begin with 2 presentations of 15 minutes each:
- Marine Pouget, Germanwatch: Is energy access only a question of "on/off"? What about the quality and affordability of energy?
- Yossef Ben-Meir, High Atlas Foundation Morocco: An Moroccan perspective on energy access: status quo, challenges and opportunity with energy decentralisation in Morocco
After the presentations, a 30 minutes discussion with the participants will be organised.

We hope you can join us!

Best from Bonn and Marrakech,

Marine and Yossef

The Impact of Training in the Oriental Region

By Ibtissam Niri
HAF Empowerment Facilitator


Our workshops for cooperative-building efforts in the Oriental Region may have finished weeks ago, but the process for the High Atlas Foundation (HAF)--joined this week by the U.S. Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)--to follow up with its impact on participants continues.

One year of preparation, 35 cooperatives, six provinces, six subjects of workshops, and more than eight mentors: these statistics demonstrate that the work conducted in this region by HAF, with MEPI support, was not easy but was nonetheless vital to pursue. The good faith of people and partners led to the realization of this project, which was inspired by an idea to help cooperatives and give them the chance to know more about their rights, external and internal resources, and to help them move passed any frustrations and to take actions to achieve the development outcomes they most want.

We began our trip in Oujda and drove one hour to Ain Beni Madar, where we met our first cooperative, El Baraka, and its President, Lala Aicha. El Baraka was created in 1995 by 17 members and works on handcraft carpets, beekeeping, and breeding turkeys. She invited us to her cooperative’s location to take a look at their activities.

Lala Aicha looked very happy when she talked about the training and the impact of what she learned from it. For example, after the training she immediately collected necessary legal documents and took action to initiate the process of receiving certification from National Office of Sanitary Security of Food Products, which provides authorization for the domestic and international sale of products. Lala also talked about the benefit of the training’s Marketing as well as Empowerment workshops, as she learned many helpful things from it and reported several positive changes in her life as a result of them. “I found what I need in my personal and professional life, I found my vision, and I’m working now to get it. I need to take just a few more steps to reach what I want. That’s what I learned from the workshops,” she said.


With her words, I was reminded of the feeling in the empowerment workshop when most women who were initially afraid to say, “I have a vision” later say, “I have a vision and I can achieve it.”

I discovered this same occurrence with many of the women I met them during the second stop of our follow-up trip in Tandrara and Bouarfa, where we met with six cooperatives. I also discovered the improvements in their products’ packaging and how they presented their products to us. For example, their sales pitches were delivered clearly and confidently. The cooperatives shared their successful stories with the HAF and MEPI teams.

We are happy to have seen great results, revealing the positive impact of our training. One of participants in Bouaarfa said, "The training is not a waste of time or money, it is a benefit; a gift from people with beautiful minds who want to help others become who they want."


Finally, the last stop on our trip was Figuig, an unforgettable place as a city of hidden historic landmarks as well as powerful cooperatives managed by powerful men and women. 

It was ultimately a fruitful trip for HAF to take with MEPI, as our partner for this program, to learn more about the effects of our training on people in cooperatives in addition to people who simply want to improve a particular aspect of their lives.

I felt so proud because I had the chance to see numerous women who attended the workshops I facilitated not only practice what they learned at the training in their daily lives but also teach it to other people--reflecting a sustainability result of the workshops, which supports the mission of HAF to implement sustainable projects in Morocco.

How can we know if a project we took part in, really had an impact?

Gal Kramarski
From Jerusalem, in Marrakech


Several months after finishing my internship with the High Atlas Foundation, I got the chance to go back to Marrakech, this time, only for a visit. Though the purpose of the travel was truly exciting, an interfaith conference in Essaouira, I was more excited about visiting my friends from HAF and the people we had worked with on HAF's women's programs, from the villages of Ourika, Setti Fadma and Oukaimeden in the High Atlas region.

Often in the development field, we seek for great changes that we can measure with numbers for instance, to indicate on the impact of a given project. However, sometimes, as I learned in this recent visit, change can be something that you feel, or see in different shapes.


Our first stop was the Aboghlou Women's Cooperative in Ourika valley. The first thing one sees when entering the cooperative are the products that the women are growing, preparing and selling. A year ago, they mainly sold traditional anise cookies, different types of couscous, and dried leaves that were grown, collected and packed by order. This time I could see additional products, such as quinoa, henna and more. Nevertheless, the most exciting was the new designs of the packaging of the products that looked so much more professional. When asking the cooperative members how they see their progress, they shared that if once their dream was to sell their products to people in their region, now their dream is to reach the national level, and next, to export their products abroad. The head of the cooperative shared that not only the fact that they started to generate money motivated them, but also seeing their success made them think big, and develop their cooperative. She added that women from other villages were inspired by the Aboghlou cooperative, and started other associations and cooperatives in their area. In her words, this makes her very happy.


Remembering one woman from this cooperative the last time when I was there, shared that she had never spoken to a man before in her life, was afraid to take public transportation, etc. and this time, seemed very confident when explaining about the cooperative to the people that were present in the room. This led me to an important understanding. In fact, the essence of the personal impact of the empowerment of these women comes in a shape of greater self-confidence that nourishes these women's beliefs in their abilities, and encourages their actions towards economic development as well. Another good example, is that a year ago the cooperative members refused to accept back several women who had dropped out at the beginning of the process of establishing the cooperative. They mentioned that they did not feel responsible for them, and could not see the importance of including others in their development process. Eventually, regarding the question of accepting others, they decided to take some time and think about it. Today, when I asked them about their decision, they said that at the future, they would be happy to receive back anyone who will be committed to their joint success.

Following this fabulous visit, we drove up the mountains to Anamer village. We met the women there, who shared their great feeling of satisfaction from the Arabic lessons they decided to take, following the workshops we conducted with them, only eight months earlier. I was so excited to see how positively they remembered us, and the workshops we had done. After having tea, I left with the kids of the village to see their fruit trees, and walk by the river, while Fatima-Zahra and Ibtissam, shared their advice with the women about the process of establishing an association. This was truly moving to see how one small action lead to such strong feelings and a true bond between us.  

Our last stop was the house of our dear colleague Abd-el-Jalil, in Oukaimeden, that showed us the agriculture in the area, and hosted us for a fabulous lunch. Once again I was exposed to the great generosity of my friends from the HAF and their open hearts that now as before, made me feel at home.

My main conclusion from this visit was that change comes in different shapes, and amounts, and though sometimes the impact of our work is not tangible or measurable, every single action that we did or did not take, left something on the people we interacted with. I can indicate for myself that it left a huge impact on me as well, that takes the shape of feeling that I was a part of something great. So how could we know if a project we took part in, really had an impact? In this case, we see it with our eyes, and feel it with our hearts.

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