Morocco: Rising tensions between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary communities over land and water

In recent years, nomadic pastoralists in Souss, southern Morocco, have been coming into increased conflict with settled communities there. Water and land are at the heart of the conflict.

Although the overall number of remaining nomads has decreased significantly, with official estimates suggesting a decline from around 68,500 in 2004 to 25,300 in 2014, at the same time more and more nomads have been moving north, particularly to the Souss region, in search of land. These groups now stay longer, sometimes settling on the agricultural land of the predominantly Amazigh communities there – a situation that has led to at times deadly confrontations, especially as some groups of nomads are reportedly armed. With Amazigh struggling to protect their ancestral lands from encroachment on the one hand, and an impoverished nomadic population with little support from the Moroccan government to handle water shortages or lack of access to grazing on the other, there are challenges for both settled populations and pastoralists alike.

For Abdesslam, a Soussi based in Casablanca, ‘what has led to the recent violent clashes in the Souss region is the strong presence of nomads attracted by the fertile land to graze their animals, but also to sell certain agricultural products they would steal.’ The inhabitants of Souss call this ‘wild pastoralism’. He adds that ‘the Drâa River, the main source of water in the region, has suffered since the war [with Polisario Front] in the Sahara. The rain became more sporadic and temperatures got hotter.’

These pressures have already contributed to the erosion of traditional nomadic communities, with many families forced to relocate to urban areas as a means of survival. At the same time, for those who remain, relations with sedentary communities have become increasingly strained.While for decades nomadic groups would settle in the Souss region, this was generally at well-de ned periods in the seasonal migration cycle and largely con ned to specific grazing areas. As water and pastures have become more scarce, however, access to land has become a source of confrontation between sedentary and nomadic populations.

With rising temperatures, reduced rainfall and longer spells of drought predicted as a result of climate change, these con icts could intensify in future. With this in mind, in April 2018 a draft decree on the creation, development and management of pastoral areas was approved by the Government Council in Morocco. This project is part of the implementation of the provisions of law 113.13, relating to transhumance and the governance of pastoral areas. Officially, this project aims to create a framework for the management and development of pastoral areas to ensure their security and sustainability.

However, some residents of Souss consider this law to be a simple extension of discriminatory laws that date back to the colonial era and an inadequate response to the urgent need to manage the conflict between local residents and nomadic groups. This is sharpened by the sense that Moroccan authorities are themselves seen as violating the indigenous land rights of Amazigh in the region through overgrazing, mine development and the spread of wild boar for foreign game hunts, without meaningful consultation with the communities in question.

Indeed, in the eyes of many Amazigh, in the decades since independence Morocco has continued the environmental despoliation carried out under French colonial rule, when laws were passed to ‘legalize’ the dispossession of tribal territory and resources by the state. All this has accentuated their feelings of marginalization and stoked widespread protests throughout the latter part of 2018 against the Moroccan government. In response, the Akal Coordination Group, an alliance of local NGOs focusing on land rights, has called for the abolition of ‘dahirs, laws and colonial decrees expropriating the indigenous peoples from their lands’, as well as a more participatory approach to decision-making in this area.

As environmental pressures become more pressing and competition for resources raises the risk of intercommunal violence, it will be more important than ever that a clear framework for collaboration and conflict mitigation is in place. This is not only a question of sound land and water management, but also the protection of indigenous peoples’ rights over their territory and the possibility for nomadic populations to continue to have access to land in order to graze their animals and preserve their way of life.

Nourredine Bessadi

* All the names of the interviewees have been changed. This case study is based on research funded by the National Science Centre, Poland as part of the project no 2014/13/D/HS4/03644 entitled ‘Environmental determinants of migration from countries of North Africa’.