Geopolitics and goats that climb trees

TOUFALAZT, ATLAS MOUNTAINS, Morocco – Here’s a conflict I bet you’ve never heard of. There’s no reason you should have, unless you live in the parched, infertile hills where the Atlas Mountains tumble into the desert. But for the people who live here, scratching a living out of the barren earth, this struggle is existential.

It’s about making a livelihood in a land that gives you almost nothing to work with. It also touches on global issues that are likely to become increasingly acute in the coming decades: personal security, climate change and struggles over scarce resources.

The area around Toufalazt is a land of barren soil which sees little rain. As a result, it’s so bare of vegetation that most of the locals – Berbers who speak their own shilha dialect of Amazigh rather than Arabic – don’t even bother keeping livestock. There’s almost nothing for goats, the standard herding animal around here, to eat – the few shoots of green that push their way out of the gravelly earth in January are scorched by March. The only crops are almonds, prickly pears and Argan, a tree that produces an oil that is used as a cosmetic. Moroccan goats, which are quite capable of climbing trees, happily munch on the foliage of all three.

The Anti-Atlas hills are barren even in mid-winter (Photo: PAR).

The Anti-Atlas hills are barren even in mid-winter (Photo: PAR).

But around 4 years ago, groups of ruhhal, Arab tribesmen from the desert to the south, started moving in with their animals. They came at the height of the summer, heading to the hills to look for pasture and water. At first they asked if they could buy water from the storage tanks that the locals had dug to collect scarce rainwater. But locals say the herders then threatened them: “either you sell us your water, or we’ll take it anyway.”

Each season, more herders came, staying for longer each time, until they became a year-round presence. When I visited the area in January, we came across several herds of their goats. We saw a herder from a distance, but didn’t approach. The locals I was with were nervous.

“They have slingshots. They threaten us, if we go near them they beat us,” said a shopkeeper from Ait Abu Yusef, a tiny village in the hills. Several people told me that if a local had an argument with a herder, ruhhal across the area would come and join the fight. One man of 70 told me the herders had got hold of his phone number, and had been calling him in the night and threatening to kill him.

This year, the tension spilled over into violence. Yusef Riyadi, who runs a local development NGO, showed me a picture of a blind man in his late 60s who had been beaten by ruhhal youths a few months previously. We later met the same man on a terrace in his village. He told me he had 13,736 almond trees. The ruhhal‘s goats had stripped every single one of its leaves and blossom, and they would not produce a crop this year.

“They emptied 6 wells we had dug ourselves, with our own money. They came and drank all the water,” he said.

Morocco's climbing goats might be a tourist attraction, but they're also a nuisance to almond farmers (Photo: PAR)

Morocco’s climbing goats might be a tourist attraction, but they’re also a nuisance to almond farmers (Photo: PAR)

Sadly, I didn’t have the time or funds to head into the desert, track down members of the ruhhal and hear their side of the story. Hence this remains a blog post, based on what I saw and heard on a day trip with a local NGO. One suspects the nomads have their reasons for heading into these hills and taking whatever they find. The western edge of the Sahara desert is an unforgiving place, and pasture is almost non-existent.

It’s also worth mentioning that this land doesn’t legally belong to anyone. A remote area that never really came under the control of the pre-colonial Moroccan state, locals had their own customary, tribe-based land ownership systems. The French didn’t interfere, and since independence, the Moroccan state has both neglected the area and refrained from formalising land ownership here. So the ruhhal are not trespassing in any legal sense. Indeed, like the Roma of Europe, they are victims of an inflexible economic and administrative system that is unsympathetic to nomadic lifestyles.

Yet I found myself naturally sympathising with the farmers of Toufalazt. They struck me as a proud group of people caught between an unwelcoming climate, unfriendly neighbours and a state that couldn’t give a damn about their welfare. They’d fiercely resisted European domination: these hills were only conquered in 1934, over two decades after the French declared their “protectorate” in Morocco. Following independence, the Arab elites who governed the country neglected the area. Even now, two dozen villages in the area I visited have not a single paved road connecting them. They only got hooked up to the electricity network in 2013.

“People started emigrating from this area in the 1970s because of the lack of resources,” Yusef told me. He reckoned 60% of the original population now live elsewhere. It’s time the state intervened to protect locals and deliver proper services that would make living here economically viable.

You can read more about the Amazighs in my post on The Economist’s Pomegranate blog.

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Almond blossom is a precious resource here - the nuts sell for around €2.60/kg. But getting them to market is expensive (Photo: PAR).

Almond blossom is a precious resource here – the nuts sell for around €2.60/kg. But getting them to market is expensive (Photo: PAR).

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