May 03, 2011 01:34 AM (Last updated: May 03, 2011 01:34 AM)
By Omar Brousky
Agence France Press

AJDIR, Morocco: Revered as the “king of the forest” in Morocco, the native cedar tree is under increasing threat from illegal logging – a crime which also threatens the country’s main water reserve.

In the Ajdir forest, in the heart of the Middle Atlas mountain range, these imposing trees once covered every slope. Now their numbers are in rapid decline, to the bitter dismay of the local Berber-speaking population.

“Each year thousands of trees – some of them several centuries old – are illegally felled as many forest wardens turn a blind eye,” said human rights activist, Aziz Akkaoui.

A favorite of cabinetmakers, cedar is a symbol of power and opulence in Morocco’s stately homes and its natural oils have been known to act as an insect repellent.

Now the conifer, which covers about 134,000 hectares of the North African country, is at risk of disappearing.

Just a few meters from a forest warden’s hut, by a tree-lined lake, lies the stump of a freshly-felled cedar.

“This tree was felled with a saw whose noise the forest wardens could not help but hear,” said Akkaoui, who works for the Moroccan Association for Human Rights.

“There are the poachers who cut the cedar illegally; the carpenters who buy the wood; there are some corrupt Water and Forestry agents and some corrupt Justice Ministry officials,” Akkaoui said.

“So you can talk about a cedar mafia, an organized mafia.”

Within the forest, some inhabitants admit that they themselves have cut down cedars illegally in order to survive in this poor mountainous area.

A villager named Ahmad said: “We don’t have much choice. There’s nothing here.”

“But to cut down a tree you have to give bribes to the warden – between 2,000 and 3,000 dirhams [$270-$400]. It depends.”

“Each time a group of locals want to go cut down a tree they give a forest warden a fee,” he added.

Each cedar, which takes up to 30 years to reach maturity, can earn illegal loggers up to 800 euros. If lawfully traded, villagers can benefit from a sum three times that.

Every year communities hold wood auctions which bring in around one million euros. Furious locals say they no longer profit from the trade, however.

“Look around you, there’s nothing,” said Ahmad.

“Here we are dirt poor. Why don’t we benefit from the revenues of our village after the legal sales of the cedars?” he asked.

“There’s no work, no schools, no hospitals. We want jobs, facilities, projects to help us and improve our lives,” he added.

Those responsible for managing the area’s water and forest programs deny the villagers’ claims.

“When someone is caught, he’s obviously going to accuse a forest warden. But there’s no proof to say that he gave a warden money,” said Mohammad Chedid, who is from the Centre for Development and Protection of Forest Resources.

Observers have warned for many years about the effect of the illegal trade in cedars, which hold water and reduce erosion in an area regarded as Morocco’s main water reserve.

“Uncontrolled logging leads to erosion and desertification, which threatens the ecological balance of the region,” said academic Abdeslam Ouhejjou. “The Middle Atlas forests are Morocco’s main water reserve and any disruption there has repercussions for the rest of the country.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 03, 2011, on page 12.

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