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Reilly Thomson & Lisa Bossenbroek

The Class and Gender Dynamics of Groundwater Usage in Morocco

Reilly Thomson is a sophomore studying Literature and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 


In 2006, Morocco grew one step closer in its mission for intensive agrarian development through the government’s privatization of 93 state-cooperatives. These state cooperatives, which were originally compensations of redistributed land for the French Protectorate’s formal colonization until 1956, swelled the market in a sudden influx of opportunity. 


Sociological and ecological researcher, Lisa Bossenbroek, investigates the sociological effects of growing intensive agriculture in the particularly marginalized region of Morocco’s southern Oasis. The prospects of this new agricultural land has attracted entrepreneurial and urban investor interests, transforming the contemporary landscape of the Moroccan agribusiness into a highly nuanced display of farming styles ranging from small, family-owned farms supplying the either the national market or small scale subsistence farming to large water-intensive agricultural fields exporting to the global market. While both groundwater and surface water resources are utilized to sustain the agricultural production of Morocco, farms positioned further downstream must depend on a higher proportion of groundwater to irrigate their fields. Thus groundwater wells, and the especially invasive deep-tubewells, have become ever more prevalent throughout the Oasis. While certain farms are coping with the effects of saltwater intrusion due to worsening conditions of groundwater overdraft, government legislation prohibits the construction of wells on private land, of which many small-family farmers do not possess. In the cases where small-family farms do own private land, the exorbitant budgets needed to implement a well and acquire a motor pump is remarkably difficult to muster. In the face of these problems of water accessibility and lack of government support, Bossenbroek observes that many small-scale farmers are creating networks of support. By exchanging groundwater for “compensations in fuel used to pump the well, a portion of their harvest, or monetary transactions,” small-family farms are finding creative means to survive. 


In the midst of small, family-owned agricultural fields struggling to acquire groundwater, Bossenbroek notes that large agricultural businesses demonstrate far more mobility. In the particular region of the Oasis, a location of focus in Bossenbroek’s research under the T2GS project, interests in exportation have purchased much of the region’s land for the water-intensive production of watermelons. Despite plans to make considerable financial profit from the watermelon production, the market abruptly crashed. While families in the Oasis were struggling to obtain small quantities of water to nourish their practice of subsistence farming, “watermelons were rotting in the neighboring fields” (11:50). 


Bossenbroek is especially interested in the demographic of women working in the agricultural fields and how they are often rendered posterior by the modernizing lens of national efforts such as the 2008 Green Morocco Plan. While women have been integral to the Morocco’s agribusiness, new sociocultural norms for men and women are arising. Applying Judith Butler’s feminist theory of gender as a sociocultural product that one must perform, Bossenbroek observes an emerging polarization of “clean” and “dirty” farmwork, which bares unique implications upon the perfromance of the man and woman. 


Inspired by the nation’s introduction of the modernizing technology- chiefly deep-well tubes and intensive irrigation- is a new culture of “cleanliness.” Entrepreneurial male owners presiding over the management of the farms no longer have to muddy themselves in the fields, but can turn water valves with efficacy and attend to other managerial tasks. Likewise, their spouses are not required to assist in the fields and can carry out ‘effeminate’ housework within the walls of the household. This is not the case for less financially secure Moroccan farmers. Women continue to work in the fields in order to financially support their families just as they have been for decades. Bossenbroek states, “when compared to the old peasant farm, the new farm is increasingly defined as a masculine space, with farming re-defined as a masculine a masculine activity” (Bossenbroek, Zwarteveen 338). The identities of female wage-workers are thus obstructed and denied by this modernizing culture’s strict assignation of gender to the domestic and work spaces. Female farm work has not only come to be connoted as an encroachment upon the male partner’s chauvinistic pride as patriarchal breadwinner of the household, but is also considered a stain upon women’s virtuosity, which is demonstrated through one’s devoted service to the family through the private and domestic sphere. 


Despite the social constraints imposed by these emerging definitions of gender, Bossenbroek is careful to note that women participating in both the “clean” and the “dirty” spheres of work still “consciously attempt to give a positive interpretation to what it means to be a rural farm woman” (Bossenbroek, Zwarteveen 340). Bossenbroek has observed several women living within the domestic space participating “subtle forms of rebellion” through the entrepreneurial innovation of virtuous housecrafts. Several women have generated food, weaving, and carpet businesses from their homes as a means to contribute to their household income. Alternatively, some women farm workers have reported their appreciation for the much-sought-after chance to earn an independent income, while also gaining the opportunity to meet other women through the social concourse of the farm. Considering farm work’s ability to provide women certain financial liberties and freedom to leave the confines of the home, Bossenbroek describes the female wage-workers’ experience as a reality which “combines feelings of happiness and satisfaction with feelings of distress and confusion” (Bossenbroek, Zwarteveen 341).


Simultaneous to Bossenbroek’s research focalizing the voices of rural farmers, particularly female wage-workers, implicated in the agricultural practices of Morocco’s Oasis region, is her sober intent in ensuring these stories transcend the bubble of academia and are heard by a larger audience. Bossenbroek states, 


“I am keen on creating more political noise. In Morocco there is a discourse on agrarian development, which is modern, productive and heavily relies on groundwater. I am interested in contributing to the counter-discourse, which concerns itself not only with alternative pathways for alternative futures that are more inclusive and just, but creates noise about what is happening in the present and what impact it has on local populations and groundwater uses.” (38:3) 


Bossenbroek’s recent generation of “political noise” within public, ecological, and social justice platforms include her interview with the French radio station, Yabiladi, and a published blog entry on the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Her research on the social effects of agrarian change in Morocco have been published in the French scientific journal of world farming systems, Cahiers Agriculture, and Cambridge Press publication, Water Justice, edited by Rutgerd Boelens, Tom Perreault, and Jeroen Vos. But the form of social influence Bossenbroek holds paramount is the engagement and education of young minds. Through the Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development, Bossenbroek recently led a group of graduate students on a tour through both the small-family farms and intensive agriculture locations of Morocco’s Oasis. 


Works Cited: 

“Chapter 18: New Spaces for Water Justice? Groundwater Extraction And Changing Gendered Subjects in Morocco’s Saiss Region.” Water Justice, by Rutgerd Boelens et al., Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 330–345. 

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