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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Vice / Economist: African Migrants in Morocco Face Systemic Violence

Sub-Saharan migrants living on a university campus in Oujda, Morocco.

I spent my first few days back in Morocco meeting African migrants living in tents in the forest or in shacks on a university campus in Oujda.

Moroccan security forces commonly beat, otherwise abuse, and sometimes steal from sub-Saharan migrants in the northeastern part of the country, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Monday. The Spanish authorities are not much friendlier. Most of the migrants I met – young guys from Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea and Mali – have been beaten by police at least once. I tell some of their stories in this article for Vice UK 

Last Thursday, seven migrants drowned in Spanish waters around Ceuta as they tried to reach the enclave. But while getting to Europe entails mortal risks, most of the migrants see no way back either. Many are too poor to go home, or risk their lives if they do. The risk of being beaten is not enough to make them give up the dream of reaching Europe, as I argued in this blog post for The Economist.

Brussels puts enormous pressure on Rabat to stem the flow of migrants, particularly into Ceuta and Melilla, two Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s northern coast. But it’s clear that longer term solutions are required that mean people will not have to take these incredibly dangerous journeys.

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Lunch with Mondy

Yesterday I had lunch with a Nigerian beggar in Morocco. Not just any lunch, either. Snails, à la Marocaine.

Mondy Osarabo joined me and some friends as we sat at a pavement table in a drab street in the northern port city of Tangiers. We each had a bowl of little black-and-white escargots in front of us, and we were using toothpicks to extract their fleshy insides.

It was the first time I’d eaten snails. They were surprisingly good – a new culinary experience. But Mondy’s story was far more interesting than chillied snails.

In 2009, Mondy and his wife set off from Lagos and headed north. They crossed Niger, Mali, Algerian and finally arrived in Al Wajda, in the northeast corner of Morocco. They were hoping to reach Europe and seek out a better life.

“There was no work in Nigeria because the government is letting foreign companies come and do business without employing local people,” he said. “I do building and plastering, but I couldn’t find a job.”

Mondy ate his snails like a hungry man, depositing the shells on a plate in the middle of the table. He was short but well-built, with broad West African features and a red baseball cap. On his forehead were a couple of what seemed to be old scars. He’d been living in Morocco for four years, and like hundreds, maybe thousands of sub-Saharan Africans here, he’s waiting for his chance to get into Europe.

Mondy and his wife left their fifteen year old girl with the family in Lagos and set off with a bag each and 500 euros between them. The journey took them two months. They had to bribe the police at checkpoints in Mali. They managed to avoid being ambushed by Touareg mafiamen in the Algerian desert. Some of their friends were not so lucky.

Once they had slipped across the border into Morocco, the couple found themselves a place in the bush near Al Oujda and set up their tent. They would spend the next two years living in the forest, visiting the nearby towns to beg and try to find work.

There are hundreds of sub-saharan Africans living in the forests of Morocco. Many are clustered around the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast. Periodically the migrants try to slip across the border, hoping that once they reach “Spanish” soil they will be given asylum.

“We tried to get across the border at night time,” said Mondy “There were 40 people. We tried to rush towards the border, but the Moroccan police came and threw rocks at us. There was no shooting. Some people were injured, they had broken legs. I was carrying clothes, money and my phone. Everything was lost.”

Mondy and his wife decided to head to Tangiers, a large port town overlooking the Gibralter Straights.

“When I came to Tangiers I had no job – sometime I had work, sometime no work, sometime I beg. Sometime I have food, sometime no food. I eat with my hand, like a Moroccan,” he smiled.

He and his wife share a one-room flat that costs 70 euros a month, and beg or do odd jobs for money. When he works, usually on construction sites, he earns about 7 euros a day.

But he still hopes to reach Europe – perhaps to join a friend in Manchester, UK.

“If I had help, I’d go to Europe. I have a baby, I need money to provide for my baby and my wife.”

I’m now in Nador, researching the legal limbo of sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco and the situation of those in the nearby forests. More reporting soon – watch this space and @Paul_A_Raymond

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