North African pastoralism, an agricultural method used for centuries by nomadic populations of the high steppe plateaus, is in decline. Faced with limited pastures due to overexploitation and drought, pastoral nomads favor more sedentary farming methods such as growing fruit or nut trees and crops.
Nonprofit development organizations in the region have started working with communities facing limited economic prospects in the face of âextremeâ climatic events like drought, which occur in Morocco every two years. The High Atlas Foundation (HAF), working in part with Farmer-to-Farmer, a USAID program, is establishing nurseries in areas of low mountain regions. Some high pasture communities have expressed interest in these projects. This follows a trend over the past two decades of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists seeking additional or alternative forms of agriculture.
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Since 2004, the number of nomads in the Maghreb region has decreased by more than 60%. In 2014, there were only 25,300 left. Morocco is home to one of the largest pastoral regions in the Maghreb. These routes represent about 40% of the land territory, or 20 million hectares, in Morocco and Algeria. In Morocco, the majority of nomadic pastoralists live in the western coastal plains. Their pastures include the Rif and Tell mountains, where the altitudes of some summer pastures reach 3000 meters above sea level. There, the air is dry and the pressure is lower, which limits the type of agriculture the area can support. Along these roads, pastoralists raise camels, sheep and goats, producing sheep and valuable products like wool (to be used for local crafts) and manure, an alternative to chemical fertilizers.
Pastoralism is a process rooted in Moroccan history and heritage. Until the last century, semi-nomadic pastoralists occupied the regions of the Middle Atlas, traveling with herds during the grazing season and cultivating crops like cereals for home consumption. Breeders still use native breeds and veterinary medicine developed over the centuries.
However, some pastoral communities are beginning to favor more sedentary farming methods. Part of the reason is the rising cost and devaluation of mutton as a primary source of meat, now associated with poor health due to its high cholesterol content. However, the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture suggests that the reason is that pastoralists are suffering from rangeland degradation, making it difficult to maintain livelihoods.
Overexploitation, without overgrazing, degrades pastures
Moroccan pastoralism is changing for a wide range of reasons. Viable pastures are affected by the amount of rain per season, the availability of shrubs for grazing, and regional policy or poverty – all of which are subject to change. The main factors that make pastoralism difficult for many, and may be a reason for some to switch to sedentary agriculture, include changing social values, environmental change, and population increase in urban and rural areas. . But the most pressing problem for pastoralists is land degradation.
Many generally point to overgrazing as a reason for the degradation of pastoral ranges. This is often blamed on the pastoralists themselves, whose herds graze the vegetation. Yet variable rainfall, especially in arid climates, results in periods of drought, and the shrubs that typically cover steppe lands are not as abundant.
The Maghreb region’s rangelands lose 1,557 hectares per year due to drought and degradation, and in nearly three decades, more than 8.3 million hectares of land have been “severely degraded”. This is one of the reasons why there has been a recent movement of pastoral nomads moving north, particularly to the Souss region in Morocco. But this kind of movement leads to regional conflicts like land disputes and tensions, especially in the Souss region which is home to a large population of Amazighs, who now have to compete with newcomers for land and natural resources.
Overexploitation, rather than overgrazing, more precisely explains the desiccation of pastoral lands. Overexploitation, or human-induced degradation, stems from inappropriate agricultural practices such as heavy machinery plowing and over-irrigation, soil erosion through deforestation and, to some extent, overgrazing. Agricultural researchers have suggested that overexploitation, coupled with a growing rural population and a harsh climate, is wearing down the land, so pastoralists must either move to more viable pastures or build an economic cushion by engaging. in irrigated agriculture and growing crops, fruits or nuts. trees.
Land formerly used for pastoral purposes is being converted into sedentary agricultural areas. Fruit and nut trees provide various income as grass for animal husbandry becomes more difficult to find. Land used for forestry and animal husbandry has decreased by 21% since the early 1980s, while agricultural land used for non-forestry and non-pastoral purposes has increased by 7.7%.
At the same time, as more and more people migrate to cities, rural areas face low population densities. Modernization policies have tended to favor the expansion and development of agriculture in the most populous areas, leaving pastoral societies – far from city centers – politically marginalized. This has reduced their access to some services, such as privatized veterinary services, making it difficult for pastoralists to pay for veterinary care.
A semi-nomadic majority
Many pastoralists in the region, in part because of changing social norms and development in the region, are only semi-nomadic and are likely to remain so. This means that they can have both farmland and herds, which they send with a shepherd for the grazing season. As advances in education expand access to rural areas, pastoral families appreciate sending their children to school for more formal education, forcing them to stay in one place. Yet despite changing trends and declining numbers, pastoral systems will remain important as the population increases and the demand for meat increases.
As rural life changes, development must also change, so it is important to work with rather than against existing changes. The High Atlas Foundation works with communities to address these agricultural changes by adopting a participatory approach to development. HAF takes note of communities seeking to grow fruits, nuts or medicinal plants, thereby determining trends and producing a plan for the community to approve for implementation.
This process took root in HAF’s House of Life program, through which 12 nurseries were built across Morocco. Trees are planted each year in January where they grow for two years, contributing around 30,000 trees a year to donate to local farmers and schools to reduce environmental damage and improve local livelihoods. As communities continue to show interest in sedentary agriculture, projects like this face new levels of expansion.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.