From mining to sharing groundwater resources:

The case of the Draa Valley, South of Morocco

By Lisa Bossenbroek[1], Hind Ftouhi[2] and Zakaria Kadiri[3]

“Before there used to be big foreign farmers (barrani[4]). It's only during the last three or four years that it has become forbidden for foreigners to farm in our region. They deplete the groundwater resources (forcha lma2ia) with their large irrigated lands. They dig several wells and pump up groundwater while the small farmer can no longer find water. This is why our tribe agreed to prevent foreign farmers to farm here, only the farmers from the “bled” [originally from the area] still work here.” (interview with Ahmed[5], 16/05/2020).

Ahmed is a young farmer of 25 years who lives in the Draa Valley, in the South East of Morocco. He started in 2012 with one hectare of water melons, and gradually expanded over the years to five hectares. According to Ahmed, water melons were introduced in the region in 2006 and attracted both foreign investors and young local farmers. Whereas the young farmers usually cultivate a couple of hectares of watermelons, which they sometimes combine with vegetables used for the family consumption, foreign investors often cultivate large land plots, and only produce water melons. Once they have pumped up the groundwater and exhausted the fertile soil they can easily move to another land plot. While observing dropping groundwater levels, the tribe to which Ahmed belongs decided in 2016 to ban the settlement of foreign investors in the region. This essay is a first attempt to explore and describe this action. To do so, we rely on various field visits which were carried out over 2019 and early 2020. These insights were combined with multiple in-depth phone interviews with three young farmers who are part of this collective action and 20 phone interviews with water melon farmers and laborers who are from other villages in the region. All farmers and laborer’s we talked to are men. When asking if there are also young female farmers, we were told that they rare in the region. The various answers of the interviewees lead us to focus in this essay on the motivations, perceptions and values, which led to this ban and related new practices of groundwater management.

Producing water melons in a desert environment: the Draa Valley and its surrounding rangelands.

The valley is characterized by a belt of ±200 km of six oases, which provide a green stripe of palm trees in a desert environment. The main water source for the oases comes from the High Atlas Mountains and is stored in the El Mansour Eddahbi dam near the city of Ouarzazate, which was built in 1972. To irrigate, farmers rely on dam releases and on groundwater. 

Subsistence farming is essential for fulfilling the livelihoods of the small-scale farming families in the valley. However, over the last decade, new types of crops (like water melons) foremost aimed for the national and international markets, are increasingly being cultivated on the rangelands outside the traditional oases. These lands are foremost communal lands and owned by local tribes. Originally, these lands were used for grazing purposes. 

In our case-study, the watermelons were introduced in 2006 by local small-scale farmers, who cultivated a couple of hectares of water melons. But it’s relative short production cycle (from December to May) and its financial benefits, as the water melons arrive on the market before other regions are able to produce, quickly started to attract large “mostatmirin” (investors) from outside of the region. The watermelon farms of foreign investors could reach up to 20 hectares. According to Driss, a local farmer of 25 years who cultivates three hectares of water melons, “they have the means to cultivate large land parcels of watermelons... They come and dig several wells. If they don’t find any water they move to the next plot…”. To access the land, foreign investors either rent the land or rely on arrangements with members of the tribe. For example, such an arrangement may consist of local farmers providing land and labor. The drilling of a tubewell, the seeds, and the farming materials may then be financed by the investor. For some young local farmers this is an opportunity to learn about producing water melons and the ways of marketing them. Parallel to the settlement of these new farmers, young farmers from the area were also attracted by this quickly developing farm model, as it comes along with the use of new technologies, like drip irrigation, water basins in which groundwater is stored, and fertigation. These farming techniques were until recently rare to the region. They can access the land because they belong to the tribe. As such, an eligible right holder should be 18 years, have a national identity card, and should be a “son of the tribe (weld lkbila)”. The tribe decided to provide each right holder with the ambition to farm a land plot of four hectares. In practice however, through local arrangements, young farmers may farm larger land plots. Yet, because of limited financial means they usually only plant a couple of hectares with water melons. Moreover, in contrast to the large investors, local young farmers usually engage in mixed cropping practices, combining a couple of hectares of water melons with some vegetables used for the family consumption.

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The unfolding watermelon boom became gradually overshadowed by groundwater shortages, experienced in particular by the local young farmers. Therefore, according to Driss, “the youngsters of the region (chabab lminta9a)” proposed in 2016 to ban foreign investors to farm on their lands, “as they [the young farmers] are mostly affected by it”.  Driss explained that they did so, because “we want to  conserve this water resource that the investors are depleting”. To initiate this collaborative action, the young farmers organized several meetings to discuss the problem and possible solutions. Firstly, they agreed on who to ban and how to define a “barrani”. As such, Ahmed, aged 25 with four hectares of water melon, explained that a foreigner is identified “as somebody who is not from our tribe”. Second, once they developed a common understanding of the collaborative action, they sought to formalize it. They did so by contacting the Naib and the Cheikh. The Cheikh encouraged the initiative and informed the local authorities to prevent foreign investors to settle in the region. 

Nonetheless, the young farmers from the valley also explain that the ban is not always respected and that both local farmers and foreign investors try to circumvent it. On the other hand, according to Driss “before, foreign investors invaded our region” and that “today, the groundwater level is not declining anymore whereas before the groundwater level used to decrease rapidly over the years”. Young local farmers seem to be at the heart of such initiatives.

 

The stories brought forward in this essay illustrate that the strong concurrence between different farmers in the valley could easily lead to the rapid depletion of the aquifer. Yet, the initiative of the young farmers hampering this from happening illustrates a process of “commoning” groundwater resources performed through new rules, new practices, and subjectivities. In this initiative, identity, local roots and origins play an important role, as it defines who is included and who is excluded from accessing land and abstracting groundwater. These practices establish new relations between people as well as between people and the resource, or socio-natural relations. Building on this first essay, our future work aims to focus on how these relations evolve, and to better understand the values that give sense to the relationship these young people have to the resource. Thereby, we also aim to incorporate and question the unheard voices of the “community” (e.g. what is the role of the young local women in this activity; how is their access to land and water defined; how is this collective action perhaps also creating new exclusions and inequalities…).   

[1] Researcher at the University Kolbenz-Landau and member of the projects SaliDraa جوج and T2GS project.

[2] Project leader of “Farming in times of crises: experiences, responses and needs of smallholder farmers during the COVID19 pandemic” and member of T2GS project.

[3] Researcher at the University Hassan II, Casablanca and member of T2GS project.

[4] Barrani literarily means outsider in Darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic). Interviewees used it to refer to the foreign farmers. Throughout the text more citations of the interviewees will be used. To stay close to the local meaning we sometimes provide the original expressions in Darija as used by the interviewees.

[5] The names of interviewees throughout the text have been changed and are pseudonyms.

[6] Due to the lockdown following the corona crisis, and thus the difficulty to do fieldwork, we adapted our research methods and conducted phone interviews. These were conducted by Hind Ftouhi in Arabic and were transcribed and translated to French by Abir Benfares, Nawal Taaime and Imane Agga. We are very thankful for their efforts and precise work.

[7] Representative of the tribe who manages the collective lands.

[8] Local representative of the Ministry of Interior.