By Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, president of the High Atlas Foundation
I have come to recognize a familiar feeling after ends of tree planting seasons, one of gratitude for what the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), communities, and partners have accomplished in rural Morocco, and at the same time a longing for what could be and will in time become, or so we are dedicated, step-by-step. The stunning potential for agricultural and human development and the sense of urgency in our time in the region, and belief in our Moroccan participatory approach, keep us infinitely motivated with a sense of enormity of purpose.
We planted 235,000 fruit seeds, saplings, and trees – more than any year since HAF’s first tree project in 2003, and we’ve now achieved four consecutive record breaking years. All combined, we are approaching 700,000 planted (about 18 times the number of trees in New York City’s Central Park), impacting about 5,000 marginalized rural families. These projects not only tell the story of how Morocco can most cost effectively produce the billions of trees and plants it needs (according to its own projection, to break subsistence agriculture), but indeed overcome the existential challenges that also other nations of the region and world face – pervasive rural poverty, gender and youth marginalization, and land degradation.
In one project, 100,000 walnut seeds and 15,000 almond were planted in a community nursery near Mount Toubkal of the High Atlas Mountains, where HAF works with local farmers to certify organic their product and connect them with purchasers. Global organic prices are more than double of what these farming families currently receive, and nut oils which we are partnering with the Ministry of Agriculture and the governorship to produce, is another future income niche of the people. The High Atlas produces 35 percent of the nation’s walnuts, and Morocco is one of only a half dozen countries worldwide that produce almonds. Yet, this mountain area has among the highest rural poverty rates. In Morocco, 75 percent of people below the poverty line are rural, which is also the case globally. No doubt this need not be so.
When projects are the people’s – from design to benefits – sustainable development rises. Indeed, local participation is as great a determining factor of sustainability as finance. At HAF, we are committed to a number of project types; we also build clean drinking water systems, schools, and women’s coops, provide experiential training programs, and support cultural preservation. Our commitment is to the people’s will (which thankfully Morocco requires); and our expertise is in bringing community members together and assisting them in defining their shared project priorities (yes, self-reliant development often requires an external catalyst and facilitator of dialogue) and building partnerships for implementation. Sustainable development is also a factor of available facilitators of community planning. We trained 133 people this year in facilitating participatory development, including university students, locally elected women to municipal councils, and civil society members. Tens of thousands of facilitators are needed in Morocco for transformative social change, and training by way of learning-by-doing can lead to community projects and the federation of civil associations to achieve broader goals.
Planting billions of trees and herbs takes many fronts and strategic pilot initiatives. We planted 50,000 fruit saplings in a nursery at the historic cultural site of Akraich on land lent by the Moroccan Jewish Community of Marrakech, to benefit twelve neighboring Muslim villages and to create a symbol of Morocco’s natural state – a place of unity and diversity. (The HAF’s preservation of the cemeteries of the three religions in Essaouira, and engaging 400 youth in discovering their past, reflects the King of Morocco’s own national project in this regard – and bears lessons for bridge-building in conflict areas in the region.) Land for community nurseries is an essential project input that gives the people confidence, and a feeling of reduced risk, to let go of subsistence practices. Morocco’s High Commission of Waters and Forests also lends land for HAF-community nurseries, and we planted with them 40,000 last year and will plant 150,000 more walnut next season. With hundreds of such parcels nationally, going to scale could mean hundreds of millions of trees and plants. Now we’re talking!
In the arid Rhamna province, 12,000 olive trees irrigated with pressure-drip systems were completed, and 70,000 cactus were planted, as we work with a women’s association to establish a cactus oil factory – all planned to be organic certified. We’ve planted and distributed an additional 4,000 trees with rural children at their schools, with some to take home and plant in their family orchards, incorporating also lessons to build their role as stewards of the earth.
Looking ahead, we are planting tens of thousands of wild medicinal herbs in greenhouses with women and youth, which will be harvested and commercialized for income and planted on terribly eroding mountains and plains that have forced homes and villages to be abandoned. Once such nursery is in Ouaouizerth, where the Ambassador Chris Stevens served in the Peace Corps thirty years ago, from where he went on to continue to serve until he lost his life in Libya. Projects are gateways to other projects, deeper meaning, and messages to the global public.
Finally, I want to thank those agencies and individuals who have made these initiatives possible – sincere appreciation for its own sake, but to also convey a broader point about sustainable development. HAF partners with the Moroccan and U.S. governments (National Initiative for Human Development, Middle East Partnership Initiative, and Ambassadors Cultural Empowerment Fund); corporations (OCP Group and G4S North and West Africa); civil organizations (National Endowment for Democracy, U.N. Development Program, Alliance for Global Good, Agency of Partnership for Progress, Organization of the Moroccan Community in the U.S., Darwin Initiative, Lodestar Foundation, and Fondation OCP); and individuals (husband and wife Wahiba Estergard and Michael Gilliland of Lucky’s Farmers Market Foundation, and others).
Even when local people contribute their labor in-kind to implement projects, transformative change still takes many donors, from all sectors. To affect greater change, HAF and communities seek to create a new revenue stream from the profits of organic product to reinvest into people’s projects, and bring these opportunities to new places. Sustainable self-generating finance needs more partners to pull together. During this month of Ramadan and all moments when we purposefully seek to feel the suffering of humanity, in a time in the region where mayhem appears outright and lurks, I only hope we are inspired to act so that all planting seasons will know complete fulfillment.
Dr. Yossef Ben-Meir, a sociologist and a former Peace Corps volunteer, is president of the High Atlas Foundation.