I have been exploring the countryside around Essaouira. In some places, enterprising people have opened up their farms and houses to tourists. However, last month I was kindly invited to visit a friend’s extended family in a village where tourists seldom set foot. During my visit I was able to get a glimpse into the precarious nature of life in rural Morocco.
There are two roads from Essaouira north towards Safi and on to Casablanca. Land has been sold along the coastal road and the area is slowly developing into a zone of weekend and holiday villas. We took the inland road, which leads past Had Dra market. Once out of Essaouira on our clapped-out bus, it became quickly obvious how arid the surrounding land had become. It is normal to see the odd cow in town at night as they roam in from the villages seeking food in residential rubbish bins, but when I saw an un-tethered donkey in the street one day, a friend explained that the heat and drought this summer meant farmers were having to set free animals they could not afford to feed.
The agricultural sector provides employment for around half of all economically active Moroccans. The fate of the land is also intrinsically linked to the welfare of the cities: low rainfall means higher prices for staple commodities such as wheat or meat and increased pressure for housing and jobs as young people migrate to urban centres in search of work.
When I visited the village on the border of the Essaouira and Safi regions in September, the locals were still waiting for salvation from the drought. The village was scattered around a set of dry, dusty hilltops. It was supplied with electricity and a recent initiative had provided for communal wells. Although most dwellings – usually a set of basic rooms around a central courtyard and surrounded by a high, windowless wall – had satellite dishes, the mobile phone signal was weak. The village is a good few kilometres from the main road and with its own school and mosque is pretty self-contained and almost entirely dedicated to agriculture. However, the Barbary figs, which grow on a hardy cactus-like plant, were withering without ripening and the livestock were unable to find asucculent leaf to eat.
Presumably, the village developed on the hill under the protective oversight of the ‘mokadem’ (village leader) who controlled all he surveyed. However, repeated sub-division of land among heirs and economic trends such as rural depopulation have left a few subsistence farmers scraping a living on a dry hill overlooking sea of plastic poly-tunnels.
After our visit, lacking any transport other than a borrowed donkey, we walked back downhill out of the village to the main road, where we hoped to flag down a taxi to take us back to the ‘big village’ (at a junction where we could catch a bus back to Essaouira). As we descended, the rise of the water table towards the surface in the valley was clearly remarkable. The same plants which withered on top of the hill were bearing green leaves and fruit only a couple of kilometres along the road and only a few metres nearer sea level.
The land in the valley – in the extended catchment of the Tensift River as it reaches the Atlantic – is very fertile. When a taxi finally arrived (already containing 5 passengers plus the driver), we shared it with a woman travelling to work at Safiland. This is a 2,000 hectare Moroccan/Spanish agri-enterprise producing around 6,000 tons of cherry tomatoes, 2,000 tons of green beans and 1,000 tons of red peppers exclusively for the European market every year. Crop conditions are closely controlled in the poly-tunnels meaning that – unlike your average Moroccan farmer – these yields are guaranteed come sun, more sun, or rain and fit EU consumer’s expectations and norms. Such businesses provide employment in rural Morocco – particularly for local women, who would otherwise have limited economic opportunity. Given the rising prices of commodities, the opportunity for a family member to gain paid employment is very welcome.
As we travelled past the huge gated enclosure of Safiland in our cramped and battered Mercedes, I reflected on the uncertain nature of rural life – made all the more so by climate change and increased fuel and fertiliser prices. Long-awaited rain fell here at the start of October. Although the tourists were disappointed, the farmers were jubilant. Next time you bite into a winter season cherry tomato from a British, German or Spanish supermarket, maybe you will consider the sunny Moroccan valley from which it came and the lives of those on the over-looking hills….