Working at the intersection of local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation in the Moroccan High Atlas

Friday July 15, 2016

The collaborative project titled Medicinal root trade, plant conservation and local livelihoods in Morocco ended in March 2016. It helped improve local livelihoods and the management of vulnerable plant species, particularly medicinal and aromatic plants, contributing to the conservation of Important Plant Areas in the unique High Atlas Moroccan landscape. The project focused on Ait M’hamed and Imegdale, two rural communes of the Moroccan High Atlas that collectively cover 634 km2 and are home to significant plant biodiversity, much of it endemic, as well as to a culturally diverse indigenous population.

Ait M'hamed landscapeAt slightly lower altitudes, the Ait M’hamet landscape is a classic Atlas landscape of dryland shrubs, aromatic plants and Mediterranean oak.


Ait M’hamed and Imegdale

The Important Plant Areas in these rural communes constitute micro-hotspots that are major contributors to the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot in terms of habitat diversity, plant richness and endemism. With their mountainous features, and arid Mediterranean climates, characterised by hot-dry summers, wet-cold winters and low annual rainfall, these micro-hotspots contain a high density and diversity of vegetation including numerous medicinal and useful species, many of which are harvested for subsistence use and sale on the Marrakech, national and even international markets. In these fragile ecosystems – increasingly impacted by climate change (principally droughts and floods) – overharvesting and overgrazing are having significant impacts on plant biodiversity. This creates a vicious cycle whereby plant harvesters, whose families’ wellbeing depends on the sale of wild harvests, have the choice between continued impoverishment or continued overharvesting of populations they know to be threatened.


Over the three-year project, we produced floristic and ecological studies in Ait M’hamed and Imegdale. These floristic studies resulted in the production of 2,500 herbarium specimen vouchers, which allowed the creation of two community herbaria and the growth of the national herbarium in Rabat and the regional MARK herbarium, and the creation of a database for both communities with distribution maps and web access.

Local herbaria in 2 communities

The local herbaria in both communities are now housed in the central village school. In this picture Hassan Rankou shows mid-term evaluator Alain Cuerier the Ait M’hamed herbarium in June 2015 (temporarily housed in the commune offices at the time), with Gary Martin looking on.

Ongoing community organising, income-generation and capacity-building activities allowed us to accompany this research process with in situ and ex situ participatory conservation actions. In participating townships, at least 2000 households now have the means to substantially increase their annual income, as a result of the distribution of walnuts and almonds and medicinal and aromatic plants that were produced in the community nurseries. Community members have received much-needed capacity-building and the cooperative and association involved in the project have been substantially strengthened, ensuring better prices for produce sold at markets.

The research on conservation status, diversity, abundance and distribution of key plant species throughout the territories of both communes not only created a baseline by which to measure the impact of our livelihoods strategy but also contributes to Morocco’s ability to implement the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) and to contribute to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. The online database and digital plant distribution map resulting from these efforts can be viewed here.

We were successful in creating a network of specialists in Moroccan plant conservation and local livelihoods that has been recognised by the IUCN and that is beginning to join forces to consolidate approaches in Morocco. Another significant project output is the creation of the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association, a national non-profit that gathers emerging practitioners and professionals who are developing a concerted approach to integrating biodiversity conservation and local livelihoods in rural areas in Morocco. Overall, the project – followed up by networking and communications efforts – has demonstrated the fundamental connection between plant conservation and local livelihoods, opening up the opportunity to provide input and advice to relevant national agencies and research institutes as they develop policies and actions for rural conservation and development projects.

 
Next steps

With co-funding from MAVA Foundation, and through future projects, we continue our ecological monitoring and conservation assessments and livelihoods support work while expanding and diversifying our efforts. New activities include: evaluating the impact of climate change on High Atlas flora and examining the potential for climate change refugia to support endangered plant populations; expanding and re-designing the community nurseries according to permaculture principles; cultivating and enrichment planting of more endangered wild species, including useful and commercial species; supporting communities to develop their marketing and value-adding skills and establish sustainable commercial activities; and enhancing efficiency of irrigation practices to ensure greater water flows to ecological areas.