By Liam Stewart, HAF intern
28 December, 2015
Working alongside the High Atlas Foundation (HAF) has been an amazing experience. In the past three months I have had the opportunity to contribute to the vital sustainable development work being carried out by the organisation, develop my own personal skills and explore different regions of the beautiful country that is Morocco.
I studied Environmental Engineering at the University of Southampton where I learned a lot about sustainable development in the engineering and construction sector and upon graduation I spent 9 months working with maps using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for Ordnance Survey in the UK. Building on this experience, the High Atlas Foundation tasked me with laying the foundation for a GIS database detailing all the important infrastructure and sustainable development projects in the Tifnoute Valley where many of HAF’s current projects are based. The Tifnoute Valley is part of the Toubkal Commune which falls within the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The location within the mountains means this rural area is also very isolated and therefore one of the most disadvantaged regions in Morocco.
I spent the first few weeks of my internship working in the High Atlas Foundation office in Marrakech in preparation for my departure to the Toubkal Commune. There is no internet in the commune so I had to make sure I had all the materials and information I required before I left. I was able to learn about the different projects the organisation oversees all across Morocco while helping out where I could with the daily operation of the foundation.
One of HAFs most important projects is the organic certification of organically growing walnuts and almonds readily available in the rural areas of Morocco and overseeing their export to America. This project aims to reinvest the increased revenue gained from organic certification into sustainable development projects back into these rural regions and increase the annual incomes of the local farmers. A new factory for the processing of organic almonds was opening in the Tifnoute Valley where I would be staying and so another of my roles as an intern was to devise a business plan for this new factory. I travelled to a town called Asni with an employee of the High Atlas Foundation named Amina, who showed me around an existing walnut processing factory which forms part of this initiative in order to help me with the almond factory business plan
I left Marrakech for Tifnoute in the third week of my internship. It took approximately 7 hours to get from Marrakech to the commune travelling along winding roads through the amazing scenery of the High Atlas Mountains. When I arrived I met Fatima, HAF’s project co-ordinator for the region, who I would be working with during my stay in the region. She studied Biology at university and has been working in the commune for the past 3 years. Throughout this time she has built up a lot of trust with the local community and is essentially the face of the foundation in this region. I would be living in a village named Amsouzart with a Berber family with a man named Mahjoub at the head of the household. The house is divided between the men and the women with the men living downstairs and the women and children living upstairs. Each night I joined the men for dinner and they would often try and teach me some words of ‘Talshehit’, the language spoken in the region.
A typical day working in the commune involved trekking through the valley to reach a school or a village and take the GPS co-ordinates along with photographs and try to identify any existing problems and how the foundation could address them. I was fortunate to attend community meetings to gather information on the priorities of the local population using the participatory approach. This grass roots method of collecting information ensures that all projects carried out by the foundation have been identified by the local people themselves and enables everyone to get their opinions on each issue across to the foundation. I was also able to meet with the elected president of the commune, the leaders of the public associations for each of the villages and local teachers to further discuss these issues and gather more information.
Even though I was in a strange place with very few people who also spoke English I never felt lonely or unsafe. Not only was the family I was living with always very concerned with my safety, everywhere I went strangers would come up and talk to me to make sure I was okay. Are you lost? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Do you need somewhere to stay? One man I met while out trekking by myself even gave me his mobile number so I could contact him if I had any problems. It was a nice feeling knowing that there was always someone looking out for me.
Late September was when the people in the villages began harvesting their walnut crops from the trees. They use a technique called caning were they essentially hit the branches with a big stick to dislodge the walnuts and collect them. There was an air of excitement in the villages during this time and the whole family would get together to help even with young children carrying their own little sacks of walnuts. Everywhere I went people would give me handfuls of freshly harvested organic walnuts still in their shells.
I hope the GIS database I am creating can help the organisation track development projects in the region while also helping Fatima carry out her own work. The map tracks a number of HAF development projects such as clean drinking water projects and the organic sapling nurseries but also shows areas where help exporting organic saffron is needed, where improved irrigation is needed, areas at risk from landslides, problems associated with schools etc. to help the foundation keep track of the projects they are currently implementing as well as help prioritise where to reinvest the revenue gained from the organic walnut and almond export scheme.
The database can also be useful for quickly producing a variety of different maps which can be tailored to show only the information needed at the time. It can be used by staff members and interns to help familiarise themselves with the area if they are unable to visit. By painting a picture of the area and the people who live there the map can be shown to potential investors to better demonstrate how the foundation and community are making real progress in the region.
Overall working for the High Atlas Foundation has been an amazing experience and I am very sad it is coming to an end. The people of the Tifnoute Valley are very happy and hardworking people and it was a pleasure to spend time with them. The staff and interns at the foundation have been very helpful and supportive and I would love to return to Morocco in the future to work on other projects with them.
Liam Stewart studied Environmental Engineering at the University of Southampton and worked for Ordnance Survey UK using GIS.