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  • Decolonizing Environmental Knowledge and Development in Morocco.

  • By : Diana K. Davis, DVM, PhD, University of California, Davis


    For decades Morocco has been following largely colonial plans for agricultural and rural development as well as mobilizing colonial environmental knowledge to do so. As a result of my field work and research in and on Morocco over a couple of decades, I would like to suggest that the decolonization of environmental knowledge and development practice in the country would likely lead to more sustainable development that is more socially inclusive and just. 

    Morocco inherited from colonial Algeria the story that the environment of the Maghreb had been badly deforested and degraded (desertified) over several centuries by indigenous groups - primarily nomads and other pastoralists - who were descended from the "Hillalian invasions." This false colonial environmental history was used from the mid-19th century to justify colonial goals in Algeria (and later Tunisia) including land expropriation from the local peoples, forest appropriation for the colonial state and various business ventures, changes in land tenure that resulted in the privatization of large sections of communal ("tribal") land, the criminalization of many traditional uses of the land including extensive grazing and the use of fire.[1] When the French conquered Morocco and made it a protectorate, this environmental history came with them and was operationalized in nearly identical ways as it had been in Algeria. Even the Moroccan forest code was derived from the colonial Algerian code of 1904.

    During the colonial period, this erroneous environmental history led to a variety of environmental programs including sedentarizing nomads and large reforestation schemes, as well as certain kinds of rural and agricultural development focused on European farming methods of intensive plant and animal agriculture.[2] Most appropriate for the more humid and fertile parts of the Maghreb, these methods were not appropriate for the dryland areas of the region, including Morocco. The post-colonial period has seen these practices continued for the most part without much questioning of the underlying knowledges that justify them.[3] It has led, in addition to afforestation and intensive agriculture, to efforts at "range-improvement" and to "halt desertification" that have largely been unsuccessful. 

    Ecological science has made great advances in understanding dryland environments - those parts of the world that are desert, arid and semi-arid over the last 25 years. These environments operate under different ecological dynamics than do the more humid, temperate parts of the world such as most of Europe and North America. Non-equilibrium dynamic most often hold in regions under about 350 mm average annual rainfall and with coefficients of interannual rainfall variability (CV) of around 30% and higher.[4] Large parts of such dryland regions are not "naturally" forested but are grasslands or shrublands or other varieties of dryland ecosystems. Understanding how to best "develop" them, then, requires new approaches such as have been detailed in a great deal of academic research over the last 2 decades. Unfortunately, policy development has not kept up with the ecological science for a variety of reasons I detail in my latest book on the arid lands.

    What is striking is how great the similarities are between the kinds of development this new arid lands ecology suggests and many "traditional, indigenous" management systems in the drylands, especially but not only in pastoral societies. In Morocco, this has been noted recently by some very interesting research on the Eastern High Plateaus - a primarily pastoral area that has been "under development" for decades with little success.[5] Earlier research pointed out how slim the evidence is for claims of desertification in Morocco and that indigenous systems of management might well offer a better path to sustainable development.[6] 

    More disturbingly, this false colonial environmental history, which has been nearly entirely incorporated into the post-colonial narratives and policy development of Morocco, has been mobilized to implement neoliberal restructuring of the agricultural sector which has had significant detrimental effects on the dryland regions of the Kingdom.[7] Using colonial strategies of dispossession, it has been used to privatize and expand state power over former rangelands that were communally ("tribally") owned. It has also been used to dispossess local peoples in order to build a very large solar installation in southern Morocco with questionable goals and outcomes.[8] 

    A more sustainable way forward with agricultural and rural development in Morocco would incorporate contemporary ecological science and dismantle the colonial and neoliberal biases against indigenous and local knowledges, especially in the drylands of the Kingdom, with constitute between 50%- 75% of the territory. This type of knowledge decolonization should be a fundamental part of the more general process of decolonization that is still unfolding in many formerly colonized countries including Morocco.[9] 

    [1] For details, see Diana K. Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome : Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa (Athens : Ohio University Press, 2007).

    [2] For details on how and why the colonial environmental history of Morocco and the Maghreb are false and exaggerated, see Davis, 2007.

    [3] For details on agricultural development in Morocco, especially in the crop-growing areas, see Will D. Swearingen, Moroccan Mirages : Agrarian Dreams and Deceptions, 1919-1986 (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1987).

    [4] For details on the new understandings of arid lands ecology and non-equilibrium ecology, see Diana K. Davis, The Arid Lands : History, Power, Knowledge (Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, 2016), especially chapter 1. 

    [5] See Korbinian Freier, Manfred Finckh, and Uwe Schneider, “Adaptation to New Climate by an Old Strategy ? Modeling Sedentary and Mobile Pastoralism in Semi-Arid Morocco,” Land 3, no. 3 (2014) : 917–940. 

    [6] For more details, see Diana K. Davis, “Indigenous Knowledge and the Desertification Debate : Problematising Expert Knowledge in North Africa,” Geoforum 36, no. 4 (2005) : 509–524. 

    [7] For details, see Diana K. Davis, “Neoliberalism, Environmentalism, and Agricultural Restructuring in Morocco,” Geographical Journal 172, no. 2 (2006) : 88–105.

    [8] Karen E. Rignall "Solar power, state power, and the politics of energy transition in pre-Saharan Morocco," Environment and Planning A 48, no. 3 (2016) : 540-557.

    [9] For an excellent discussion of decolonization and the complex implications of this continuing process, see Omnia El Shakry, “‘History without Documents’ : The Vexed Archives of Decolonization in the Middle East,” American Historical Review 120, no. 3 (2015) : 920–934.