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Women and Trees – Simplicity for the Sake of the Planet

By Mark Apel, Former Peace Corps Volunteer

This spring, I had the privilege of volunteering in Morocco for the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a US 501(c)(3) and Moroccan non-profit organization that focuses on disadvantaged rural and urban communities through participatory development. This small but mighty organization, based in Marrakech, was founded by former Peace Corps Volunteers in 2000 and is now headed up by former volunteer Yossef Ben Meir – a dynamic and inspiring 21st century leader for helping others realize their greatest potential.  HAF has implemented projects in sustainable agriculture, namely tree and plant nurseries, organic certification, processing, technical training and commercialization. They have also been successful in addressing other development issues in education, clean water systems, and the empowerment of women and youth.

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer myself who served in fisheries and wildlife in Morocco from 1982 to 1986, I have been keenly aware of the challenges facing rural communities there, and even more acutely because of climate change. My current position as an Extension Agent with the University of Arizona made me a good candidate to return to Morocco as a volunteer through the Farmer to Farmer program administered by another US-based non-profit, Land O’Lakes International Development. It had been nearly twenty years since I last visited Morocco and the infrastructural changes since that time have been remarkable.  Morocco seems to be prospering as evidenced by the growth in new housing, new roads and technology, at least in the larger cities.  My job this time around was to help perform assessments on some of HAF’s projects in some rural communities to see how they were comporting with the foundations of sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social relationships. In addition, I provided some training to staff and field personnel  on project planning. What I took away from my work with HAF was far greater than what I could contribute.

HAF’s main office is located in the heart of Marrakech’s downtown area in a residential  apartment building and serves as the heartbeat of their operations. HAF is made up of a small group of young university men and women staff, interns and volunteers. HAF is also fortunate to draw the interest of interns from foreign universities and organizations as well.  The organization’s success stories are well-publicized through social media and throughout the world thanks to these young interns, and in editorial pages by contributions from HAF president Dr. Yossef Ben Meir. The staff’s dedication to the mission of HAF is unwavering and inspirational. I enjoyed the day to day hubbub of working in this office where we shared morning mint tea, soup and bread. And, like clockwork, we all gathered around in the main salon and shared a wonderful lunch of couscous, tagine, beans or some other Moroccan favorite. Yossef used this time everyday to check in with his staff on their projects in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), intermittently injecting a quick song or story or a question about someone’s welfare. There was no shortage of laughter, morale-building and goodwill at these staff gatherings, imbuing everyone with a sense of common purpose and camaraderie.

When I visited several projects in the mountains outside of Marrakech, I was accompanied by young men and women staffers who were fluent in Tashelheet (Amazigh) to help facilitate and translate my questions to the groups of women in cooperatives that I had the privilege of speaking with.  As a young Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1980’s, I never had the opportunity to speak with groups of women like this.  Nor did rural Berber women in the 1980’s have the opportunity to come together on a regular basis other than weddings or at the local bathhouse.  Now, the advent of women’s cooperatives, whether working in a nursery cultivating medicinal plants, passing along the tradition of making couscous grain to younger women, or processing walnuts and almonds, has lifted Morocco’s women to new levels of social engagement and economic opportunity. HAF is to be credited with the passion, resources, training and participatory approach they have contributed to women’s empowerment here. The insights and feedback I received from these empowered women about their work and HAF left me heartened and hopeful.

Another piece of the development puzzle that HAF has built its reputation around is the distribution of trees throughout the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. They do this by establishing tree nurseries in impoverished areas with the express purpose of providing family farmers and local communities the tools and resources to improve their status through increased income generation. In a highly overgrazed, deforested and eroded country like Morocco, trees are providing much needed soil protection and carbon sequestration. HAF took 11 years to plant their first million trees – a benchmark reached in 2014. Building on this momentum, they were able to plant more than one million fruit seeds and saplings in twelve community nurseries and with 120 schools, in 15 provinces of Morocco in the first part of this year alone.  HAF’s reputation and expertise in establishing nurseries is in high demand and only growing.

My month-long stint volunteering with HAF opened my eyes to many things, but it really brought to light what is important – not just in developing countries, like Morocco, but in the world as a whole.  HAF’s focus on two distinct development tracks, empowering women and planting trees, could very well be a model for the salvation of our planet.  It may seem like an over-simplistic ideal, especially to those who may be jaded by their humanitarian work around the world.  But if one thinks about it, the beauty of it reveals itself. Development and humanitarian agencies around the world demonstrate that anywhere efforts are successful in lifting up, educating and empowering women, a whole host of other of social problems begin to improve such as increased economic opportunities, decreases in teen pregnancy, and declines in domestic abuse – all of which lead to more stable, healthy communities and society.

Likewise, deforestation is the number one contributor to greenhouse gases in the world.  Reforestation efforts, like those undertaken by HAF, can help reverse this trend if taken to scale. Yes, many organizations to their credit are focused on one or the other of these two development tracks, empowering women or reforestation. The unique quality of HAF is its compassionate combination of both of these programs and using the participatory approach. HAF’s underpinnings of promoting civil society and facilitating decentralized decision-making serve to validate these two initiatives, because it’s the communities, themselves, that decide on their projects and their future.  Simplistic? Perhaps. Pragmatic and doable? Absolutely.

Mark Apel is an Area Extension Agent in Community Resource Development with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension in the southwest United States, where he is implementing programs in land use planning, sustainable development, small acreage landowner assistance and renewable energy education. He has over 28 years of environmental and planning experience and his work has taken him to Morocco, Madagascar, Honduras and Mexico. Mr. Apel volunteered with the High Atlas Foundation in May and April, 2016 while on sabbatical. 

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