Planting trees in Marocco

Bor Borren permaculture

In the spring of 2019, I received a spontaneous call from Aziz. He is, together with other Moroccans, occupied with recovering the soil of Morocco. They created an institution for this action, namely  Riforest. Many Moroccans have estate within the family that is not being used. This is mainly due to the fact that many Moroccans leave the countryside to move to big cities or abroad. Besides this, there is a climate change active in Morocco. The climate is developing into a dry climate. Many trees disappeared and due to the regular agriculture, the soil is exhausted. The dry periods last longer and when it rains, it rains a lot. This causes a problem: the excess of water makes the soil infertile, which causes soil erosion. The problems keep adding up and the soil is clearly changing. 

Aziz wants to spread the message of permaculture to the Dutch Moroccan society and to the people in Morocco. The idea is to plant trees in the Rif, a mountainous region of northern Morocco. But, if you know much about Permacultuur, then you know more is required. For example, water storage, swales, irrigation, compost, mulching and controlling overgrazing.

Workshop 

My purpose in this project, is to give a workshop about permaculture. Last May, I gave a workshop of a day to 20 Moroccans, called ‘introduction to permaculture’. In my workshop, I also included the climate of Morocco. It was located in a mosque in Zeist and during the day, I noticed an engaged atmosphere. Local problems in Morocco were discussed, for example the lack of rain, the dryness, Moroccans who move to the cities, less income etc. Especially the story of Latifa, representative of the Perma Atlas institution, was special to hear. Perma Atlas can be compared to Riforest, they have the same goals, but focus on a different location. Latifa has been active for a longer time than Riforest and she already carried out excavation work. This included dams, swales and gabions. She also planted trees. After a time with much rain, it was clear that the permaculture system functioned well. The water was stored and distributed in the right way. The special part about her story was that the sceptical, local citizens saw the system works. Suddenly the village next to them applied the same excavation work. The message spreads itself!

Training in Marokko

Riforest is supported by the foundation Wilde Ganzen. This way, they have a budget to establish professional targets. Everything is being filmed for a documentary, including interviews with the people who are involved with the project. The next step is organising a training of three days in Morocco. This training will be given by the permaculture specialist Omar Hajji. He has a permaculture farm in Morocco. The training is meant for the local citizens and is given in Arabic.

Aziz asked me to join the training to see the situation in Morocco and to make a contribution. Together with Aziz, Mohammed, Abderrahim, Mustapha and Kamal we visited multiple locations in the last week of October.

Morocco is a big country with different vegetation and situations. In the north, there is a Mediterranean climate with fertile soil (just like in southern Europe). There are two big mountain ranges: Atlas and Rif. These expand from the southwest to the northeast. The mountains are also the border of the desert, which expands to the north.

On the way to the destination. Donkeys and mules are still widely used as pack animals.

Travelling through Morocco

Our first destination was Fez, and from there we travelled to the northeast. During this car ride, you get a good view of the vegetation. There are, of course, many olive trees, wild olive trees and production trees. The wild olive trees are not being pruned, so they are much bigger than pruned olive trees. However, you cannot harvest many olives from a wild olive tree. Besides olive trees, there are almond trees, fig trees, cacti and cypress trees. During this car ride, I thought: ‘there can grow so much more here!’. The landscape is beautiful, big and mountainous, but it is bare. There are many rocks and few plants that cover the soil.

However, it was not always like this. The landscape changed due to deforestation and agriculture. Because of the climate change, the changes in a dry climate become extra visible. During the road trip, we also visited some family members in Irahhoten, who own estate in a small valley. There only live a few people and they live in very old houses. The houses are made of natural stones and they have thick walls. So, in the winter it is warm and in the summer it is cool. Modern houses made of concrete and cheap bricks do not have these qualities. Unfortunately, most (decayed) houses have no residents.

View over the Irahhoten valley.

Special valley

It is surprising that there is a feeling of peace in the valley. You can hear many birds singing and there is a little stream. There is also much more vegetation, so trees, bushes, climbing plants and plants that cover the soil. Vegetation that originates from decades ago is still intact, also the edible plants: olive, almond, walnut, persimmon, plum, quince, strawberry, fig, blackberry, white mulberry, cherry, cactus fruit, aloe vera, pomegranate, lemon, orange, grape, mastic, carob tree, common smilax and the sentry plant. Besides this, there are multiple herbs present, like thyme, rosemary and mint. Lastly, you can see old terraces, irrigation channels and wells.

It is beautiful to see and to experience how an old system is still active, even though no one maintains it. It shows the diversity and potential of the country. The soil became more fertile because no artificial manure or pesticides were used. The fertile soil contains much life, like insects. When there are insects, there are also birds. So, the base is present to make the system productive again.

View in Masaouda at the training location.

The countryside

Our next destination is Masaouda, where the training will be given. We had to leave the asphalt road and travel through the Rif on an unpaved, winding road for 25 kilometres. Aziz was born in the Rif, an area with a few local, traditional farms. In other words: the countryside of Morocco. Our destination was at an altitude of 950 metres, with an amazing view. In the past, much grain was harvested here, but nowadays the agriculture is very inactive. They only harvest olives. The soil is bare, there are almost no plants that cover the ground and there is much erosion. The houses are simple and primitive. They have a flat roof and a courtyard. There is no heating and the sanitary is very basic. They have electricity since 2007 and the mobile connection is bad. When you are here, you really have left the modern world.

Even though people life in a primitive way, the hospitality is great. It is almost on honour that we visit them and a foreigner is special. Our presence the next three days is a party. Everyone comes together and drinks much tea and eats much food. All of the residents are invited to attend the permaculture training of Omar. He catches the attention of the 30 Moroccans, who vary much in age. At first, they are sceptical, but the demonstration on how to make a compost pile is a success. It is a surprise to them that it is so easy to make compost. The most important subjects that are discussed, are water storage and how to make a swale with an A-frame. This was extensively demonstrated and it was also shown how to dig a few metres deep just by hand. Omar also addresses the importance of plants that cover the soil and talks about how to create biomass to be able to mulch. Besides this, he explained the functions of trees, namely: recovering the soil, attracting rain, retaining rain, blocking wind and creating shadow. There was also a demonstration on how to mulch next to a tree using cardboard. The cardboard is placed on the mulch, so the mulch dehydrates less quickly and so it won’t be blown away by the wind. The story Omar tells, is very practical and focusses on the local situation. The resources and cheap solutions are taken into account. For example, the soil contains many stones and these can be used to build gabions, which brake running water. The stones can also be used to make swales stronger, because the soil has a loose structure.

Good results

After three intense days, the results exceeded our expectations. The training really affected the residents! There is still much that needs to happen, but it is just a matter of doing it. The family of Aziz already did much, like planting trees, building gabions and making swales. Besides this, there are many plants that cover the soil, like broad beans. These create nitrogen, grow easily and give much organic waste and, of course, food! The next step is to make more swales, plant acacia trees as wind catchers and to plant more vegetation that covers the soil.

The recovery of a landscape with a dry climate requires a different approach than with the Dutch climate. It requires more focus and care and the damage is bigger when it goes wrong. So, quite a challenge! But, with the principles of permaculture and with much patience, it is definitely possible to make a difference.

The purpose of Riforest is to stimulate the people to recover their estate. This is better for their economic interest and for their soil. Riforest helps them by teaching them the needed knowledge and by providing them trees. Do you also want to help? Donate a tree for 5 euros!

Read the report of Riforest about the visit here.