Perspectives 9 - On the Perspective of Ruling Classes and the Elite in Morocco on Global Environmental Issues

The dominant neo-colonial thinking represents the biggest hardship that we face in this country. We were a colony controlled by the French state that left behind some traditions: achieving success and happiness in life is embodied in the attempt to live as in France, as the richest people of France do. The diffusion of this idea in the minds hinders and sets a limit to the changes that we want to make.[1]

Thomas Sankara (1949-1987)

Morocco, as with the other non-oil producing countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, is a symbol of climate injustice. While its own participation in world greenhouse gas emissions is largely insignificant with 1.74 metric tons per capita in 2011 (see Graph 1.1), Morocco (along with the rest of the MENA region) is among the most vulnerable regions in the world to the impacts of climate change, especially as concerns water resources and agriculture. In addition, most countries in the region, especially the poorest, such as Morocco, are the least capable of adapting to climate change, and its ongoing and expected impacts. This is due to the lack of democracy, economic and human development, along with widespread corruption and poverty that these countries are already suffering from. For Gilbert Achcar, ‘Of all the regions still referred to as the third world, the MENA region is the one facing the most severe development crisis’.[2]

This article argues that the Moroccan state does not have a real independent position on the global environmental crisis and climate change issues; thus, it has failed to develop its own strategy in the negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Does the Moroccan regime have a real independent perspective on global environmental issues?

The Moroccan regime does not base its environmental policies on its position as a country which has been a victim of climate injustice. It has not joined in alliance with other countries of the South to claim its right to environmental justice, to claim its ecological debt – a historical ecological debt that northern countries and their big corporations owe to all poor southern countries. Instead of developing its own approach in collaboration with similar Southern countries, the Moroccan regime continues to adopt the same, or similar, positions to those advocated by the major world powers such as France and the USA - countries whose interests are often in conflict with Moroccan national interests.

Furthermore, the alignment of the Moroccan regime with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, is even more confounding for the Moroccan negotiators’ position in the climate negotiations - given the very conservative position of Saudi Arabia in these negotiations. Said Reem Al Mealla, Co-Founder of the Arab Youth Climate Movement, explained that before COP21 in Paris:

 Arab civil society is pressuring the Arab countries to take a stronger collective position at the COP21 talks but it is difficult, especially for the oil producing states. Saudi Arabia is being very uncooperative and opaque at the moment. They have hired a PR team to handle all their communication and we are finding it very difficult to reach out to them.[3]

Even though Morocco has taken part in all the Conferences of Parties (COPs) since their launch in 1995, it is difficult to identify any autonomous strategy or a clear political position on behalf of the Moroccan negotiators. It is also difficult to identify Morocco’s allies: Arab countries? African countries? The ‘Group of 77’+ China? [4] Due to this lack of a clear vision, ‘our’ negotiators are lost among more than 20 negotiating pressure groups.

As such, the Moroccan participation in these negotiations is no more than symbolic. This is how a Moroccan negotiator, who took part in the COP negotiations over many years and who declined to be identified, describes his experience:

Climate change involves a great number of meetings and a lot of travel. …. One can’t help but question the usefulness of such meetings. Even when a deal is reached, like in Kyoto in 1997, the agreement has never been fully applied and the objectives never totally attained.[5]

Additionally he claims that,

… these meetings are becoming a real waste of time and energy. From my experience, I know that nothing happens before the very last minute of the two weeks of negotiations. I know that there will be disappointing decisions, made in hidden rooms between a few delegates from important countries and announced very early the next morning.

On the other hand and given the absence of a clear vision and the failure of our representatives to participate and act independently, the role of Morocco in holding such international conferences becomes limited to logistics; that is, a ‘party planner’ who is in charge of preparing the ceremony venue, decorating it, providing the band and catering to the guests….

 “Moroccan Green Capitalism”

The fact that the Moroccan ruling classes have no clear autonomous standpoint on the climate crisis does not prevent them from looking for new opportunities to accumulate additional profit in the name of protecting the environment.

Most companies involved in green development projects, domestic as well as foreign, have historically been responsible for the pollution of many local ecosystems.

One example of such an actor is the Société Nationale d'Investissement (SNI) holding company, whose largest shareholder is the Moroccan royal family. It is branded today as a leader in sustainable development in Morocco, especially in wind energy. However, not only has its sugar producing company Cosumar been involved in pollution disasters but its mining branch Managem in its ‘Imider’ silver mine, located in the south of Morocco, has seen the contamination of aquifers and there is still an ongoing conflict with the local population over water resources.[6]

The participation of some of the dominant classes in today’s ‘green’ projects is no more than a continuation of the operations of ‘legitimized’ robbery, in which they have been involved since Morocco’s formal ‘independence’. As Frantz Fanon (1961) wrote in The Wretched of the Earth:

When decolonization occurs in regions where the liberation struggle has not yet made its impact sufficiently felt, here are the same smart alecks, the sly, shrewd intellectuals whose behavior and ways of thinking, picked up from their rubbing shoulders with the colonialist bourgeoisie, have remained intact. Spoiled children of yesterday's colonialism and today's governing powers, they oversee the looting of the few national resources.[…]They insist on the nationalization of business transactions, i.e., reserving contracts and business deals for nationals. Their doctrine is to proclaim the absolute need for nationalizing the theft of the nation. [7]

 In our local context, this amounts to the ‘Moroccanization’ of the robbery of Moroccan resources.

Anti-pastoral discourse

The ruling classes in Morocco inherited a colonial environmental discourse that systematically presented traditional ways of using land and forests, particularly for cattle breeding, as not only ineffective but even destructive for the environment. This discourse was first used by the French colonialists in Algeria with the aim of dispossessing local people of land and resources, and changing existing forms of land tenure in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Davis (2006) explains:

[This narrative] was utilized widely to help appropriate collective lands, a classic instance of enclosing the commons so emblematic of the changing social relations with nature during that period of classical liberalism and the rise of the global economy. The current use of this neocolonialist narrative by the Moroccan monarchy and international financial actors has facilitated a contemporary enclosing of the commons; …the utilization of this narrative has also cast Moroccan pastoralists and subsistence farmers as double eco-outlaws….. The narrative was also used to change and rewrite numerous laws and policies over the course of the colonial period. In the process, the traditional uses of the forest and other lands by the Algerians were systematically criminalized and the majority of the indigenous population was marginalized and impoverished. The same environmental narrative was carried to Tunisia in 1881 and to Morocco in 1912, with much the same effect.[8]

These same discourses have been promoted during recent decades by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary fund (IMF), and also United States Agency for International Development (USAID) who,

…. has been utilizing the narrative to encourage reforms in rangeland management for 30 years. Invoking Garret Hardin's liberal 'tragedy of the commons' thesis, which claims that all common land will necessarily be overexploited and thus should be privatized, USAID has strongly recommended that in Morocco 'the collective pastures must first be enclosed' (Gow et al. 1985b, 1). USAID claims that enclosing the collective pastures is necessary due to severe degradation, although it admits that 'there are no reliable data on the degree of present degradation' (Gow et al. 1985a, 11; 1985b). Despite this disturbing lack of data demonstrating overgrazing and land degradation, USAID has been advising Morocco to privatize rangeland since the 1960s.[9]

Unfortunately, this narrative is still used today in circles that profess to be progressive. At the same time, in the academic world, the question of political ecology is almost entirely absent from Moroccan universities. Moreover, academic publishing -not limited to the field of the environment-remains very low in Moroccan universities. ‘In 2009, the number of Moroccan scientific publications did not exceed 3,100, far behind South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Algeria.’[10]

What does Moroccan civil society have to say about environmental issues?

If the rulers and the dominant classes are incapable of developing an independent, alternative perspective on the problem of climate change and the global environmental crisis, then the question that arises is: Is there another actor within the country that can come up with that alternative perspective, and more precisely, is ‘civil society’ capable of doing so?

Recently, Morocco has witnessed the emergence of thousands of so-called civil society associations focused on environmental issues. The quantity and activities of these associations are expected to increase as Morocco prepares to hold COP22. The result is the expansion of ‘mercenaries’ taking hold of the subject of environmental protection to benefit from and receive subsidies. Furthermore, the state is working hard to keep them away from major environmental issues considered politically sensitive, and to limit their spaces of intervention to merely collecting garbage and planting trees, as seen in the campaign of ‘Bou-ndif’ concerned with cleaning beaches.[11]

In addition, some environmental organizations are tasked with compensating for the State's negligence in various arenas, and its failure to provide basic infrastructure such as supplying water to villages, building roads, or helping local residents organize themselves into cooperatives to produce and distribute local products.

Beyond a lack of knowledge about global environmental issues, a number of activists consider debate about such topics to be an intellectual luxury, given the poverty and lack of democracy that currently exist in Morocco. This group takes a ‘practical’ perspective which can be summed up as follows: We have to strive to establish democracy and claim political and economic rights first. When these conditions are fulfilled, we can talk about striving for the environment's protection and discussing the climate crisis. This was obvious in the protests of the February 20th Movement, which did not include any clear demands on the issue of the environment, except for some slogans related to the distribution of natural wealth. (See photo 1.1)

A hopeful path: Towards an eco-socialist development model

In 2009, I attended the World Social Forum (WSF) in Belem, the capital and largest city of the state of Para in northern Brazil at the gateway to the Amazon River. The Belem Forum was one of the most successful WSFs thanks to the direct involvement of Brazilians, with more than 140,000 participants, especially indigenous peoples.[12] This year, the WSF has focused, primarily on the global environmental crisis, considering it to be one side of the ‘systemic crisis’ and ‘crisis of civilization’ that the world faces today.

I witnessed and I was impressed by how social and environmental NGOs drew their strength from their people and tried to develop alternatives based on their own histories and traditions, without importing readymade solutions from the West. Inspired by this, I believe that a fundamental challenge facing sincere activists and NGOs in the MENA region is; how do we build a real environmental and social justice movement, connected to the international movement, but not reproducing the same neo-colonial relationship with the Western powers that our governments still maintain?

If the path to building a genuine environmental justice movement in Morocco will be long and rough, it is also a path that has today become both unavoidable and necessary.

The first step towards building such a large movement is to thoroughly comprehend the errors that current interventions generate in environmental systems. This can be done by providing critical analyses from an environmental justice perspective of the strategic economic plans currently ongoing in Morocco; and also by offering practical alternatives with the aim of building a progressive developmental model, i.e. an eco-socialist model.

The most important point to be stressed here is the structural contrast between the country’s limited natural resources and the strategic choices adopted by Morocco’s rulers. Most of the plans implemented in this area, such as the Azur Plan for Tourism, the Moroccan Green Plan for agriculture and the Halieutis Plan for fisheries not only deny the people access to the limited natural resources that Morocco possesses, but reinforce their depletion by encouraging their overexploitation. The already existing and potential further consequences of these plans on the country’s natural resources, combined with the neo-liberal economic approach and structural adjustment plans that have been in place for decades, added to the present and expected future impacts of climate change, lead to this impending ‘catastrophic convergence’,[13] and constitute a real environmental threat to human and non-human nature in Morocco.

The second challenge in building a large environmental justice movement is to foster connections and solidarities among the real victims of global and local environment injustice who are fighting everyday all over Morocco to protect their rights and their territories.  

To cite some examples:

In Ouarzazate/Imider, local communities have been fighting since 2011 against a mining company’s overexploitation and pollution of their water, as well as for their historic rights and sovereignty over their own resources;

In Bensmim, villagers led a spectacular struggle that lasted for over 10 years to defend their water rights against a bottling company owned by a multinational corporation backed by central authorities;

In Mohamedia, local inhabitants stood up against a powerful private real estate lobby that wanted to ’enclose’ and destroy their beaches, beaches already altered by local industries especially by a breakwater wall for la Samir Refinery. We must remember that this same refinery, the only one in Morocco that was privatized in the nineties, went bankrupt in early 2016 under its new private owners.

In Saadia, a coalition of local NGOs led by a local agronomic engineer revealed the catastrophic impact of an unwise touristic mega-project that was harming the coastal ecosystem and excluded and marginalized local communities.

In Agadir/Ait melloul, small NGOs led by former members of the Moroccan unemployed graduates organization succeeded in stopping a very harmful and polluting plant involved in recycling used cooking oil.

These struggles are, for me, a source of hope.  A hope that we can construct a large and effective grass roots environmental justice movement in Morocco. A movement acting not only for real protection of local ecosystems but also for real and total sovereignty for citizens and local communities over their natural resources, and their legitimate right to decide on the appropriate uses of water, lands, forests, sea and sun.


[1] Gakunzinom, D.(1988) Oser Inventer L'avenir : La parole de Sankara (1983 - 1987). Atlanta : Pathfinder Press.  p. 13

[2] Achar, G. (2013) The people want : A Radical Exploration of Arab Uprising.  London: University of California Press. P.10  

[3] Pari, T. Here’s why Saudi Arabia is highly unpopular at Paris climate conference. [Online] Updated: December 10, 2015 4:53 pm. Available:… [28 May 2016] 

[4] ‘The Group of 77 is the largest intergovernmental organization of developing countries in the United Nations, which provides the means for the countries of the South to articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the United Nations system, and promote South-South cooperation for development.’ For more details visit :

[5] This statement was written by the negotiator in a text presentation of his personal experience in these negotiations to benefit students from a US university in 2014.

[6] Bouhmouh, N & Bailey, K.D. A Moroccan village's long fight for water rights For four years, residents of Imider have held a sit-in against a mine they say is ruining their livelihoods. [Online]. Available:… [28 May 2016]

[7] Fanon, F. (2004) ‘On violence’. In : The wretched of the earth. New York:  Grove Press. P. 47

[8] Davis, D.K. (2006). Neoliberalism, environmentalism, and agricultural restructuring in Morocco. The Geographical Journal, 172(2), p.93.

[9] Ibid, p.94.

[10] Hicham, H. Recherche scientifique : des cerveaux mais des moyens dérisoires. Lavieco newspaper [online]. Available:… [28 May 2016]

[11] A campaign organized each year by ‘Mohammed VI Foundation for Environmental Protection’ chaired by the Royal princess. See:

[12] Conway, J. Belém 2009: Indigenizing the Global at the World Social Forum [Online]. Available: [28 May 2016] 

[13] Parenti, C. (2012) Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, p.7.