Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Morocco: An Amazigh community’s long wait for water rights
The environmental impacts of mining are a major cause of displacement for minorities and indigenous peoples across the world, with many unable to secure compensation or protections due to discrimination. But in Morocco, a community of Amazigh struggling with the depletion of their water reserves by the nearby Imider silver mine have fought back with peaceful protests that have, until now, ensured their ability to remain in their homes – despite increasing pressure from the government to capitulate.
On a remote foothill in the Atlas mountains, 200 miles from Marrakesh and above Morocco’s largest silver mine, a group of Amazigh activists live in basic conditions in tiny huts. They come from the nearby village of Imider, home to a community of Amazigh, an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa. The activists rarely leave their outpost in the mountains, for they are staging one of the country’s longest running protests against environmental harm caused by the mine, in the hope they can continue to live in their homes.
‘Since the silver mine was established a couple of decades ago, access to water for Imider residents has been severely reduced,’ says Linda Fouad, an Amazigh activist who supports the protest. ‘The land has deteriorated significantly, destroying agriculture and livelihoods. Pollution has tremendously increased, and health and water were affected by the toxic waste from the mine. Moreover, the mine has had a deep negative impact on the traditional underground water system in Imider called khettarat.’
Amazigh have long faced marginalization in Morocco. The village lacks basic infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and if Amazigh children want to continue their studies beyond primary education they have to travel miles to do so. Yet on their doorstep is the Imider silver mine, owned by Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), a private holding company belonging to the Moroccan royal family. The mine is the most productive in Africa, a fact that places a heavy strain on local resources: according to a 2015 report by the Global Amazigh Congress, the mine uses 1,555 tonnes of water per day – 12 times the daily consumption of the village.
The people of Imider therefore decided, seven years ago, to protest against the reduced access to water and environmental degradation by setting up a camp and closing a pipeline supplying water to the mine. Since then, with campaigners so far having stopped some 3 million tonnes of water from reaching the mine, agricultural production has improved and water in the khettarats has risen again. This is why the activists in the mountains do not leave the outpost: they need to keep the valve closed.
The movement, known as the Movement on the Road ’96 (referring to a similar protest that took place in 1996), is larger than the small group of activists who live permanently in the mountains. This group is often joined by many more supporters: Imider residents stage regular marches and assemblies (called agraw) at the camp, to show solidarity and discuss strategies for the campaign. And in recent years, as the movement has gained international attention, journalists, activists and academics from abroad have also spent time at the camp.
But within Morocco, the plight of Imider’s Amazigh community is not discussed. ‘It’s also a delicate issue because the company is private but it’s also owned by the ruling family so the media refrain from reporting on the situation,’ says Fouad. ‘No one dares to speak about it.’
In response to the peaceful protest the authorities have arrested and imprisoned activists. According to Fouad, between 2011 and 2017, 33 activists have been arrested on ‘groundless and fabricated charges’, and the three last detainees were only released in December 2017.
‘Activists are being imprisoned, just for demanding clean water, no pollution, and for the company to respect international environmental standards,’ says Fouad. ‘We’re not asking the company to close the mine, we simply want them to respect their corporate social responsibility. If they have taken all the silver, at least they can give something back to the village – helping with the infrastructure, building up schools, stopping the arrests of the activists and respecting the environmental conditions.’
To date, despite years of protests, the community’s demands have been ignored. Recently the arrests have ceased, but the community has received no response from the government or the mining company to their campaign. Closing the valve has been rendered symbolic as the company has found other ways to access water, so continuing to degrade the land.
Nevertheless, despite the threat of being displaced because of the environmental effects of the mine, the community stands firm. In recent years, the community has begun to take their demands to the international community and has been building solidarity with foreign academics, journalists and NGOs. The activists brought their concerns to the UN Climate Change Convention’s annual conference (‘COP 22’), held in Marrakesh in 2016, which helped raise the international profile of the situation.
Fouad says that, despite the lack of will on the part of the state to help, the activists will not give up. ‘The company is still draining water, and the fields are no longer as green as they were 30 years ago. Yet, the Amazigh activists go on. Every time I go to the protest camp you see how powerful people are. Many activists want to go there and deliver “empowerment training” but they soon realize that the protesters don’t need it. They are the ones who empower us. They don’t need any strength because they are already very strong.’
Header photo: Amazigh residents of Imider gather for a meeting and protest. Credit: Linda Fouad.