By Mark Apel, Former Peace Corps Volunteer
First, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Yossef and the staff, volunteers and interns for the opportunity to join HAF’s work on bettering the lives of rural people in the Kingdom of Morocco. I valued every minute of my time assisting the organization with sustainability assessments, training, proposal development and grant-writing. Having lived in Morocco 30 years ago, it was heartening to see some changes with regard to a new consciousness about sustainability and resiliency, an acceptance of and adaptation to climate change and women’s rights. I know how much HAF has been an integral part of those changes in the last few decades, witnessing your work firsthand.
I had the opportunity to visit four separate HAF project sites and speak with the project participants as a group, with the assistance of HAF staff Amina El Hajjami, Kamal Akaya, Jamal Ait Said and driver Hassan.
IDRAREN – HA3 (High Atlas Agriculture and Artisinal), Asni
Organic Almond and Walnut Oil Processing Factory Cooperative
Here, I interviewed a group of 6 women workers and one male director of the factory (April 19). This was my first opportunity to ask questions around the perceived impacts and benefits of working at the factory, where the goal is to develop and market a value-added product for sale in the US, i.e. organic walnut and almond oil. The oils and process have been certified organic through ECOCERT. HAF provided the trees to local farmers to produce the raw product as well as training of the women using the Participatory Approach. It should be noted that the Participatory Approach and local decision making led to the idea of this particular enterprise in Asni.
The interviews with the women led to some interesting insights about perceived benefits and impacts. The interview process was very informal and encouraged the women to speak openly about the project. Responses were noted based on the relative category of sustainability indicators – environmental, economic and social impacts. This categorization of impacts allowed me to see where the greatest impacts were occurring. For example, the economic benefits of being employed at the factory were noted by the women as having an impact on their ability to afford books and materials to send their children to school and how the money earned by the cooperative was being used to help improve local infrastructure. Social benefits that were noted described how the women now had an opportunity to come together, not just for work but socially, and to participate in local politics. From an environmental standpoint, participants were keenly aware of the fewer agricultural inputs required to raise almonds and walnuts as compared to apples. This raised the possibility of pursuing organic certification for apples. The interview also provided the chance for HAF staff to hear about issues affecting the project, such as the need for refresher training from HAF and the competition with apples in the region. Please refer to the link above to view all the notes.
Men’s Association for Environment and Rural Development, Tassa Ouirgane
Tassa Ouirgane is located in the Azzaden Valley and is adjacent to Toubkal National Park. The Association overseas community water distribution and olive oil production. HAF has provided trees, a breeding bull, and training for men and women in the Participatory Approach to identify critical community needs and to start a girl’s cooperative (now defunct). Income earned by the Association’s activities (like sales of olive oil) stays local for schools, food, roads, improvements to the local mosque. In 2012 HAF held extensive workshops with men and women’s groups to identify their top priorities for the community. The women’s top priority was literacy for young girls, which has since been achieved by a grant from the men’s association, to pay a teacher. The men’s top priority was to address soil erosion and the restoration of farm fields in the river bottom that were lost to flooding in 1995 and subsequent floods due to climate change. HAF has applied for several grants to outside organizations to help with this issue, with no success in obtaining funding.
My visit to this site (April 19-21) provided an opportunity for the men’s association to reiterate and reconfirm in a group setting (13 participants) their number one priority of restablishing farm fields and controlling erosion in the river bottom.
As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in this site, I am familiar with the issues related to the Toubkal National Park and the environmental degradation that has contributed to more extreme flood events and soil loss. I used this opportunity to work with the community over several days to identify specific ag fields for restoration and the potential strategic location of gabions to redirect flood flows and to map these areas.
Commune d’Ouirika Nursery (Haj Abdelkabir) and the Women’s Cooperative d’Aboghlo
This women’s cooperative, 60 members strong, splits their time between working in a tree and plant nursery and working at home making couscous (semolina) from organic wheat and barley, while also growing medicinal plants for sale. I was able to interview members of the co-op in two separate locations – one group working at the nursery, and the other half of the co-op at a meeting hall in the nearby town of Tnine Ourika. All in all, 43 women participated in the two group interviews (April 26).
At the nursery, a piece of land was generously given to the women’s co-op by Haj Abdelkabir to grow almond trees, pomegranetes, zatar, calendula, verbena and irises. This project was facilitated by HAF through the participatory approach, and chosen by these women as their own endeavor. HAF has provided additional training in things like organic production. The women work here once a week tending to the plants and trees, weeding, watering, etc.
While the women have an agreement with the French company, L’Oreal, to grow organic verbeena, zatar, calendula and irises as part of their sustainability initiative, no income has been realized yet since the production is still in the early stages of cultivation. Nonetheless, the women are willing work without wages to wait the 6 years they project it will take to have enough product for sale. In my assessment/interview with this group at the nursery, it was evident that the women have a strong understanding of the environmental impacts of their work, such as going pesticide free, pulling weeds by hand (and using them as fodder for livestock) and using compost as fertilizer.
Their responses were also strong in the social impacts of their work as a co-op. They noted how the experience has taught them a great deal about organic cultivation, being outdoors, and being a unified voice for their community. Until this co-op was formed, these women were very isolated in their homes and had little social interaction with each other. They now feel like a ‘family’ and support each other.
My assessment/interview with the other members of the women’s co-op was held in a separate location. The co-op started with a few women and the idea of needing to pass along traditional couscous making (forming semolina from wheat and barley grains) and the cultivation of medicinal plants to the younger women as they were losing this skill. It was then decided that they would form a co-op to provide a vehicle for earning income from the sale of these products. Again, HAF facilitated this through the participatory approach whereby the decision to pursue a co-op and teach couscous making was their decision. The assessment/interview revealed that their economic prospects from this endeavor are marginal unless they can step up production, address appropriate packaging and market their goods. Right now they only sell the product among themselves and a little at the local souk (market). They are inspired to broaden their marketing, and from a social standpoint, want to serve as an example to the rest of this community and region of women’s empowerment and cooperation.
The women’s responses in this group reiterated many of the same social impacts revealed by the women in the nursery. Their work as a co-op in the nursery and couscous-making has provided them with the opportunity to be a unified voice, support each other in women’s issues, and serve as a model for other women. They also noted that their coming together physically entails a 4 kilometre walk for many of them, and has improved their overall health and weight loss. Before, they said, they were isolated at home, watching television and having little to no social interaction. The co-op has provided them the chance to know other women from nearby villages. The interviews also identified some issues for HAF as new projects. For example, packaging and marketing the products of the co-op are an important priority for these women and could help them realize more economic benefit from their work. Secondly, transportation was an issue for some in terms of getting to work at the nursery or coming together as a group. Training in marketing is something that HAF could provide to the co-op, as well as some ideas on packaging. HAF has strong partnerships in and out of Morocco, that may foster some assistance with these issues.
UNDP Small Grants Programme – Grant Proposal for Tassa Ouirgane
Based on my previous work as a Peace Corps Volunteer and most recent meeting in Tassa Ouirgane, I was asked by HAF to develop a grant proposal for UNDP’s Small Grants Programme that may be able to provide funding for gabions, a new well, solar pump, and storage tank for Tassa Ouirgane to address the issues discussed in the Sustainability Assessments section of this report. HAF will contribute walnut trees for bank stablization along the ag fields, as well as seeds for a new nursery to be established as part of this proposal. The nursery will provide trees to farmers in the area and to other projects in the region. At the same time, organic certification for the trees will be sought from ECOCERT. The Association will contribute labor, rocks for the gabions and management of the nursery.
The sustainability assessment provided a unique opportunity to develop an integrated proposal that addresses climate change adaptation and increased community capacity, using the participatory approach to a critical community issue in Tassa Ouirgane. The title of the proposal is: Contribution to the regeneration of degraded soils in the High Atlas, to support: the development of income generating activities; preservation of biodiversity; the local economy through the restoration, preservation, improvement and implementation in value of agricultural terraces of local residents; and the fight against erosion and protecting banks of the Oued Azzaden in the northwest region of the Toubkal National Park.
I spent a significant amount of time writing and editing the grant, including translations between English and French and then turned over the logistical details of the proposal (materials, budgets, timelines, etc) to HAF’s project coordinator, Mr. Larbi Didouken, for completion and submittal of the grant. HAF intern Nina Schmitz also helped with the GIS mapping of the gabions and acreage proposed to be restored and/or protected in the river bottom. Her GIS skills were very helpful in this proposal.
If successful, this grant will have a long-lasting impact on the community by: restoring their agricultural capacity; providing direct benefits to Toubkal National Park through riparian restoration; and providing a new source of income to the Association from the cultivation and sale of walnut trees from the newly established nursery.
Sustainability and Project Planning Training
I concluded my assignment by coordinating and conducting a training for 20 HAF staff and personnel from the field. This included nursery managers and women’s co-op representatives from around the High Atlas region, at HAF’s Marrakech office on May 6.
Training focused on two main topics: 1. Sustainability assessments (including an exercise in defining environmental, economic and social impacts for any project) and 2. Project planning, using the Logic Model of desired objectives, inputs, outputs and outcomes/impacts. These two topics were then integrated into the concept of using sustainability assessments as an evaluation tool for the project leaders to measure progress on proposed project objectives.
Program coordinators felt the training was valuable in that it provided them a systematic way of evaluating their projects. For example, if the overarching objective of any project is that it be ‘sustainable’ then it is important to evaluate all aspects of the project, i.e. the environmental, economic and social issues and including political, technological, historical and cultural considerations. This consultant will develop a small manual that summarizes the training and will help project managers with planning and tracking their projects in a uniform way.
HAF’s stated cornerstone of their impact is the application of democratic planning and assessment methods. This reinforces citizens’ ability to play an active role in decision-making, empowering communities with self-reliance and agency. The application of assessment methods in their work with communities applies as well to HAF staff that implement these programs. Having a coordinated and uniform process for planning projects before too many resources are invested is good business management and enhances HAF’s ability to seek contributions and partnerships toward any particular project. Lastly, the practical application of a sustainability assessment, through an annual interview with the groups that HAF works with helps to track progress on the desired objectives, including the short, medium and long-term impacts, as stated in the pre-planning process. At the same time, an annual process provides HAF the opportunity to receive feedback on issues and problems from the communities and cooperatives that they work with. The advent of cellphones has greatly increased everyone’s ability to communicate, even from the most remote regions in Morocco. However, group assessments done in person tend to reveal more information, especially as women’s groups find their voice and feel more empowered to speak their minds.
I’ve really enjoyed my time volunteering with HAF and Land O’Lakes and hope that I may be able to return next year to Morocco as a follow-up to this assignment. Thank you for the opportunity.