Fayrouz Yousfi
Saturday 12 November 2016

As the world reels to the news of a Donald Trump presidency, you could be forgiven for missing the fact there is a party going on in Morocco, the Conference of Parties (COP22).

Morocco is hosting the annual environmental conference from 8–18 November in Marrakech held under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It is no coincidence that the same themes of the 2011 Arab revolutions – dignity and social justice – are the slogans at the heart of calls for equitable environmental policies

The invitation list includes world leaders, government officials, international organisations, experts and civil society groups, who are gathering to discuss climate finance and the green economy. Over these 10 days, member states of the UNFCCC will concentrate on action to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take global action on climate change.

Hence, Morocco is playing the role of a mascot for Western countries. In COP22, it has organised a conference to tackle issues that can only benefit the economies of the industrial countries while ignoring the main problems of the global south.

Emphasising its renewable-energy policies, Morocco is selling itself to the international community as a green actor and promoting a greenwashing discourse. Meanwhile, the environmental problems inside the country, from resource exploitation to land expropriation to water and air pollution, completely contradict that narrative.

Even worse, the regime is not only taking part in the environment’s destruction but also oppressing local efforts to resist.
Imider: five years of resistance

Three hundred kilometres away from the red carpets in Marrakech, you can find one of these pockets of resistance. Here in the southeastern commune of Imider, a movement called On The Road 96 is holding the first ever International Environmental Justice Film Festival alongside workshops at a protest camp.

Named after the year the community fought back when the Moroccan regime and army came to suppress their protest camp, On The Road 96 emerged in 2011 to challenge the negative environmental impact caused by silver mining in the area which has caused water, air and soil pollution, according to activists.

‘We are the ones who live with these problems and who suffer from it, not the UN or the parties of the convention of Marrakech’

– Moha Tawja, Moroccan activist

Moha Tawja, a member of the movement, insists that local people should be at the centre of discussions about environmental problems and solutions.

“We chose to organise diverse activities in Imider to tell the people that we are the one who shall think and act,” Tawja said. “We are the ones who live with these problems and who suffer from it, not the UN or the parties of the convention of Marrakech.”

One of the focuses of On The Road 96’s efforts is the work of Societe Metallurgique d’Imider (SMI), a subsidiary of the Casablanca-based company Managem, which extracts silver from the local mines.

“One of the points of our demands and aim is the right to a safe environment. We are fighting against the worsening of the pollution caused by the mining activity of SMI,” said Tawja. “This mafia plunders the water table, monopolises our land and kills our local economy based on agriculture.”

Since August 2011, when villagers in Imider occupied and blocked the main pumping station that supplies water to the mine, locals have been resisting the company’s mine exploitation.

“Five years already and five months, the resistance of the villagers of Imider continues in spite of the doggedness of the authorities which exhaust our energies,” he said.

Middle East Eye has reached out to SMI for comment.

The movement used the hashtag #300KmSouth to draw the attention of the international media and community, focusing on COP22, to their struggle. They also released a short video to explain how the toxic waste from Managem has affected their community:

Land grabbing

Imider is not the only case of environmental injustice in Morocco. At the heart of a chic neighbourhood in Rabat, members of the tribe of Douar Oulad Dlim are fighting the expropriation of their agricultural lands from a Rabat-based real estate company, Societe d’Amenagement Riad (SAR).

The inhabitants of the Douar Ouled Dlim once lived on 90 hectares of particularly fertile farmland. They lived mainly as peasant farmers and livestock breeders, and their plantations comprised numerous fruit orchards, including olive, banana and apricot trees. Their fruits and vegetables once supplied the capital city’s markets.

On the morning of 18 December 2014, the Moroccan police used tractors and bulldozers to entirely destroy the dwelling of the inhabitants of Douar Oulad Dlim, leaving 126 families homeless and without any compensation. In their place, one of Rabat’s wealthiest neighbourhoods was built.

Since then, the Douar Oulad Dlim tribe have organised rallies protesting against their explusion and campaigning for their rights to housing, while living in makeshift camps and plastic tarps on their lands.

“If they had not been monopolised and concreted, the lands of Guich Loudaya [the tribe that includes the village of Douar Ouled Dlim] would have been able in reality to propel the city of Rabat to become a model ecological city,” said Soraya El Kahlaoui, a sociologist who has been following the struggle of the tribe of Douar Ouled Dlim for the past three years.

This kind of land grabbing and tribal expulsion from farmlands has been just one of the impacts of the neoliberal policies adopted by the Morrocan government since the 1990s.

While it plays the role of an international environmental leader nowadays, Morocco has been privatising collective land and targeting indigenous communities for the benefit of real estate companies in this way for several decades, said El Kahlaoui.

“By welcoming the COP 22, Morocco wants to be an ecological leader in the African scale,” she said. “But behind this ecological marketing hides the incapacity of Morocco to guarantee to its citizens a fair right of access to the [country’s] resources. No policy of popular sovereignty is organised to guarantee in Moroccan the right to be able to benefit from their own wealth.”

Middle East Eye has reached out to SAR for comment, but had not heard back by the time of publication.

Moroccan activists boycott COP 22

In protest at the situation, Moroccan political organisations have decided to boycott this most important environmental conference.

Earlier this year, ATTAC and the Moroccan Association of Human Rights withdrew their participation from the Moroccan Coalition for Climate Justice, an alliance that gathers associations, trade unions and civil society working for the protection of the environment. Initially, the coalition’s first aim was to denounce environment injustice in Morocco, but later it became an unofficial body of the Moroccan state.

‘Climate change is at the heart of the daily lived reality of citizens who demand a rupture with the liberal policies that are causing the deterioration of our social and environmental conditions’

– Statement from ATTAC

So instead of attending COP22, ATTAC, along with other associations, human rights organisations, and trade unions created an alternative event – a Democratic Network to Accompany the COP22. The aim is “to build a democratic environmental movement that is independent of those who wield political and economic power in our country as well as from international lenders and donors,” according to a statement from ATTAC.

“The question of climate change is not an exclusively expert issue or a matter limited to negotiations between governments. For us, climate change is at the heart of the daily lived reality of citizens who demand a rupture with the liberal policies that are causing the deterioration of our social and environmental conditions.”
Fikri’s death lights the spark

Just over a week before COP22, the tragic death of Mohsin Fikri, who was crushed in a garbage truck as he tried to retrieve illegally fished swordfish the authorities had confiscated, was an incident that Moroccans were able to rally around.

Given recent events, it is no coincidence that the same themes carried by the Arab revolutions of 2011 – a call for dignity and social justice – are still the two slogans at the heart of calls for equitable environmental policies.

This makes the COP22 conference ever more astounding: although symbolically organised in the global South, its overall theme, namely climate finance, does not concern Morocco or other southern countries which are not big greenhouse gas emitters.

Once again, it shows us to what extent these gatherings, supposed to be the place of inter-state negotiations, are in reality just another charade pursuing neo-colonial policies that apply to the south.

If Marrakech was to be the place of real climate negotiation brought by southern voices, then the discussion should focus on reparations and the repayment of the ecological debt that the north owes to the south – and that the state owes to unprotected communities 300 kilometres further south.

– Fayrouz Yousfi is a Moroccan graduate student in the Department of Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @Fayrouz_yousfi

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.