Reversing land degradation in Ait Ben Yacoub, Morocco

An isolated tree on the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Augenstein (SEE-Intl)

In Ait Ben Yacoub, which is part of the Moulay Valley in northeastern Morocco, tribes have coveted the area since the Middle Ages, crossing it as they move towards the wetter central and Atlantic plains from the deserts of the Middle East and the Maghreb. The movement of pastoral communities, from the south-east of the country to the northwest, has been amplified by desertification, which is advancing in the same direction. The area is currently inhabited by Arab-Berber tribes, who come from the drier zones in the southeastern part of the country and move towards the greener pastures in the mountains and the plains. 

The forests of Ait Ben Yacoub are populated with around 10,000 hectares of holm oak, thuya (Tetraclinis articulata) and cedar (property of the State); 7,500 hectares of collective stoney pastures predominated by alfa grass (Stipa tenacissima) and Moroccan mugwort (Artemesia herba alba); and 6,000 hectares of private land. Around 19,500 heads of sheep and goats graze in Ait Ben Yacoub, with around 12,000 of these belonging to those tribes from other regions, who are increasingly coming to the area and settling down, causing conflict with the 5,000 or so original inhabitants. 

In recent years, the forests have gradually been stripped for livestock fodder and firewood. Alfa grass is degraded, and the Moroccan mugwort has disappeared and been replaced by harmel (Peganum harmala), which can cause livestock to fall sick or die. The soils are impoverished and water has become a critical issue. This has made livestock production ineffective. With around 200 mm of rain per year and a low and randomly distributed water table, agriculture is difficult to sustain. As a result, many locals have migrated to other regions and/or cities to try and make a living in another way.

In order to reverse this degradation and rehabilitate land cover and its productivity, there is an urgent need for investment in soil and water conservation, reseeding, replanting and most importantly, improved land management. The responsibility of this management should sit with the local population of pastoralists, who will require support to strengthen their collective institutions and develop and implement sustainable management plans. A more enabling policy and legislative environment will also be required to facilitate this effort. Local organisations, such as the Association Pastorale Ait Ben Yacoub (APABY) are lobbying for such changes.