It was well past nine by the time we rumbled through the city to pick up Abderrahim. The streets of the medina were only just waking up from their Sunday morning snooze, but HAF’s Project Manager had been up since six. He hopped in the front seat of the taxi, passing back loaves of warm barley bread to the four of us scrunched into the back seat. We were happy to accept; it would be a long ride to Azilal province.
It is summer already in Marrakech. The city echoes with the slapping of thousands of sandals on hot pavement. People congregate at night in the cool parks, squares and cafés, sipping juices, feeding pigeons and chatting. But outside of the city the change in season takes on a larger significance. As we drive, we see on either side of the road small groups of men and women harvesting golden fields of wheat, scything the long grass with steady rhythm. The barley harvest has also begun, and the markets are already filled with fresh apricots, peaches, melons and plums. In a country where more than 45% of the labor force works in agriculture; the harvest is a matter of the utmost environmental, cultural and economic importance.
We drive north along a dusty road for a couple of hours before we stop at a roadside café. As we dip our bread in olive oil, honey and amlou – a nut paste mixed with argan oil – we discuss the agricultural system that produced our breakfast. What does it take to grow almonds, walnuts, and olives in the mountains of Azilal province? Why these crops? Encouraging fruit tree cultivation over grain or livestock production can be challenging, but the environmental and economic benefits, can be enormous. Today we’ll be seeing HAF’s methodology in action, visiting a tree nursery and seeing the beginnings of participatory planning in a local community. With the launch of HA3, the High Atlas Agriculture and Artisanal enterprise developed to connect farmers with organic markets domestically and abroad, these nuts and oils will mean increased family incomes and reinvestment in community development. But it all begins with the trees.
Our breakfast finished with sweet cups of tea, we head on toward the nursery, passing the incredible Bin al Ouidane lake with its myriad shades of blue and green. Dammed in the 1950s for hydro-electric power and irrigation, the lake reflects all of the faded greens and clay reds of the mountains. The new nursery, built in partnership with a local cooperative, is nestled into the slope of one of these mountains. We half walk, half slide our way down to the terraced beds. The three large plots are all prepared for planting, and several workers have already begun propagating thousands of olives in the lowest bed. The farmers use varieties that are well adapted to this mountainous environment, and the cuttings used for planting come from local olive trees, dried briefly to prevent rot. Abderrahim is hopeful that the success rate could be over 90%, comparable to the nearby nursery at Ait Mohammed.
The two upper terraced beds will soon be filled with more fruit trees: walnuts mixed with the adult almonds already littering the land, providing ample saplings to distribute to local farmers. These varieties, unlike many fruit trees grown in the region, don’t require pesticides or intensive irrigation, and are therefore excellent candidates for organic cultivation. Additionally, on the mountainous soils of Azilal province, they are essential in the battle against ongoing soil erosion.
These nurseries represent a huge commitment from the participating communities – some trees, such as almonds, will mature enough to bear fruit in a couple of years, but others will take as many as seven or eight. The amount of labor required, especially early on in the process, is high, but regular labor is also required after the seedlings sprout. Yet the local cooperative has been more than willing to take on these responsibilities, ensuring regular maintenance by community members and leasing land. Efficient drip irrigation systems are the next step here. The community is making excellent progress considering they only began clearing the land in late February. Insha’allah, these neat rows will soon be spotted with olive seedlings.
It’s now past noon and the blazing sun makes the air above us dance. Slowly, we make our goodbyes and work our way back up the hill to the taxi and toward Ourouizarght. It’s a small town, but a hub of the province, and it is here that we meet Amina. As the director of a women’s association in town, she’ll be joining us for a community visit to Ait Shribou, a nearby village. HAF hasn’t yet gotten involved in the community, so we’re here to introduce the organization and to get a feel for the conditions of the village, its environment and its agriculture. On the way there, we pick up women and children who volunteer to show us around. It is strikingly beautiful: walnuts are already coming in on the trees and some spring wildflowers are still in bloom. Si Hassan stops the cab by the edge of the road and we climb down into the valley.
The slopes are fairly steep and we stop in front of a small cave where one of the women invites us to drink the spring water. Ait Shribou is built around this spring and its sweet water is syphoned off into an aqueduct and transported to surrounding towns. Further down the hill, several women have gathered with their children to wash laundry in the aqueduct, beating their clothes dry in the sun.
Despite its water resources, life in the village is difficult. We gather in a small shop on the other side of the valley to identify the most pressing community issues. The three men in the shop offer us a table and chairs, and join the women in discussing the state of the village. Soon, poster paper and colored markers are produced, and two of the younger villagers began to map out their community. From this, in Darija (Moroccan Arabic) mixed with Tamazight (the local Berber Amazigh dialect), the development priorities of the village are discussed. Soon the paper is splattered in red, green and blue and the whole table is laughing. Neighbors leading donkeys peek into the shop, buying sugar and candies for the kids, and fresh mint is brought for tea. The discussion continues for several hours, and at the end, a meeting with the women of the community is proposed for the coming weeks. Spirits are high as we thank our hosts and work our way back to the car. As soon as the wheat harvest is finished, these women too will drink cups of steaming tea and discuss strengthening the future of their communities, one tree at a time.
Amelia Burke, HAF intern
Photos: Amelia Burke