February 20, 2012

Landscape of the Week: Eastern High Atlas, Morocco

Safeguarding World Agricultural Heritage Systems

By Jean Gault, Senior Officer of Natural Resources Management and Payment for Environmental Services
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy

Worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes have been created, shaped, and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices. In order to safeguard and support the world’s agri-cultural heritage systems, in 2002 FAO started an initiative for the conservation and adaptive management of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS).

This initiative aims to establish the basis for international recognition, dynamic conservation and adaptive management of GIAHS and their agricultural biodiversity, knowledge systems, food and livelihood security and cultures. It has so far identified 14 pilot sites throughout the world, such as oases in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia; traditional rice culture systems and rice-fish agriculture in China and the Philippines; pastoral and upland agro ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania; and ancestral practices to cultivate potatoes in Chile.

Oases are one of the systems targeted by the GIAHS initiative, and at the same time they are one of Morocco’s main national priorities (Pillar II of the Green Morocco Plan). Supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), FAO and the Moroccan authorities jointly identified a region in the Eastern High Atlas: Imilchil and Amellago communes, composed of “cold oases connected to community pastures (agdals)”.

Barbary sheep, Ammotragus lervia 

Imilchil and Amellago Communes, Eastern High Atlas, Morocco

This site is composed of valleys, two mountain lakes, plateaus and vast mountain ranges run through by gorges which are well known rock-climbing sites. Imilchil-Amellago may be briefly described as a group of small cold oases, connected to semi-desert and humid rangelands (Agdals). Traditional underground channels such as khettaras , as well as seguias, bring water to the (small) plots in the oases; land is managed on specific customary basis (for building as well as cultivation purposes); in particular these Agdals are collectively managed using a highly elaborate system, which has proven its worth across the centuries. But customary law is no longer being applied at the level of the Agdals, and a serious destabilisation of the pastoral balance is looming.

Agrobiodiversity and Associated Biodiversity

The local agrobiodiversity of the landscape is rich due to the diversity of its ecosystems, which range from mountain zones with harsh winters to arid zones bordering on the desert. Crops are durum wheat (with unique varieties like Aberioun or Ilks), barley, century tried and tested (non hybrid) corn varieties, onions, broad beans, and fruit trees like almonds, apricots or figs (no productive palm trees, as it is too cold). The associated biodiversity is exceptional, and is composed of an array of endemic species: 135 plants, or 4 mammals, 7 reptiles or amphibians, and 4 fishes.  (Unfortunately, the Atlas lion disappeared before World War II). Traditional knowledge of uses and rituals associated with the diverse aromatic and medicinal plants is preserved by women, however the younger generation prefers modern medicine, and the knowledge is rapidly being lost.

Cultural Heritage

Women in traditional dressing “ tahandirtes”

Distinct styles of music, poetry, dance, handicrafts and architecture characterize the local cultural heritage. Moreover, the customary land organization and water management systems form an essential part of the local culture.

Landscape Challenges

This site is home to 38,000 people, which have demonstrated considerable ingenious skills to cope with their harsh environment. Because the main constraint for farming is the limited amount of arable land (less than 2 percent of the whole area), communities cluster around a few arable communal lands that run along the wadis. The woodlands protecting the soils on numerous mountainsides have disappeared in the space of only two generations. As such, erosion is reaching horrendous proportions, resulting in losses of more than 90 ton/ha/year in some areas. Water, on the other hand, is comparatively plentiful, but the khettaras and the earthen canals (seguias) still require maintenance and diversification (drip irrigation) to meet new challenges as they arise.


The recommendations that came out of the characterisation phase (2011) envisage marshalling the synergies of all the stakeholders, municipalities, traditional institutions (Jmaa), and field associations (Akhyam) and cooperatives to achieve community development (including gender equality issues). These include:

  • customary law still has to be made compatible with Moroccan substantive law.
  • agro-biodiversity must be preserved and enhanced: value chains will be developed, regarding cereals and beekeeping (yellow bee), aromatic and medicinal plants, handicrafts and food processing ;
  • water and soil protection infrastructure facilities and small and middle size hydraulics demand sustained investment
  • tourism capacities should be implemented and enhanced around agri-cultural heritage, biodiversity, etc.;
  • alternative energy will be promoted.

The work was undertaken in association with the Moroccan National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) as national partner, and the ADRAR Association as focal point in the field, in view of its partnership with Oxfam Italia. The Tafilalt Regional Agricultural Development Office (ORMVAT) also skillfully contributed to the work performed.

Top photograph: The wild river (oued) cuts deep in the valley, and digs out the few arable soil; the fields (right on the picture) are very small, while the village (douar) is further high. Sheep and goats graze ‘outside’, on semi arid slopes. Some special humid areas are managed on a community, traditional basis.

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