High Atlas Cultural Landscapes

Currently, the geographical focus of GDF’s Mediterranean Programme is on the cultural landscapes of the High Atlas of Morocco. Similarly to many Mediterranean landscapes, those of the High Atlas have been shaped by the cultural practices of rural communities. These practices include traditional water management, seasonal short distance transhumance, communal management of high elevation pasturelands, maintenance of culturally-managed trees, protection of sacred sites, soil conservation through terracing and other techniques, smallholder agriculture and agroforestry, and harvesting of wild medicinal and aromatic plants. All of these traditions contribute to diversified use of elevational gradients and ecological niches of the High Atlas.

These practices, which not only maintain an ecological mosaic but also sustain local livelihoods, are vibrant living traditions that are increasingly threatened by changing climatic, economic and social realities. The rural exodus of young people, increasingly severe and prolonged drought and low monetary rewards of traditional agriculture contribute to a general loss of cultural values and a change in social relations. Some high mountain pasturelands are being privatised, and there is an increasing commodification of cultural and natural resources. Decreasing local religious-spiritual authority and weakening of community institutions can foment inter- and intra-community conflict. All of these factors result in abandonment of practices that maintain the distinctive cultural landscapes of the High Atlas.

Our vision is for the strengthening of these traditional practices for the conservation of unique High Atlas biodiversity, and enhanced wellbeing of the communities that have managed and maintained these beautiful landscapes for millennia.

Through our Mediterranean programme, we collaborate with local authorities and rural communities, as well as Moroccan government agencies, NGOs, academics and and professionals, to implement our integrated biodiversity-hydrology-agreocology strategy that sustains communal and customary systems of decision-making, provides employment opportunities and promotes ecological restoration. Our initiatives include:

  • Practical actions, such as rebuilding traditional water canals with community labour and new materials, restoring local water reservoirs; enrichment planting in private and communally-managed lands; organic certification of fruit and nut trees; planting of fruit, firewood and fodder trees; facilitating water flow to important plant areas; and establishing community seed banks and plant nurseries;
  • Action research on sustainable land use practices, traditional ethnobotanical knowledge, plant and habitat conservation status, the impacts of climate change, and High Atlas ecology and flora amongst others;
  • Public information campaigns targeted at local authorities and the general public to impact policy and practice;
  • Promoting national recognition of agdals and other communal management systems;
  • Supporting new and old community governance systems and institutions;
  • Diversification of agricultural production and income;
  • Adding value and marketing of community produce through community-based enterprises; and
  • Capacity building and exchange of knowledge and expertise amongst communities, locally, nationally and regionally.

If you have any questions about the GDF Mediterranean programme, please contact:

Hassan Rankou, Mediterranean Conservation Programme Director:

Ugo D’Ambrosio, Mediterranean Ethnobiology Programme Director:

Emily Caruso, Director of GDF U.K.:



The High Atlas Cultural Landscapes Programme is funded by the MAVA Foundation, the UK Government Darwin Initiative and donations through Global Giving.

The Mediterranean region boasts a unique combination of mountains, rivers, deserts, forests, thousands of islands, heterogeneous coastline and of course the semi-enclosed Mediterranean sea itself. This geographical complexity is paralleled by an incredible diversity of cultures and languages, intertwined histories and some of the most influential human civilisations our planet has known. The Mediterranean climate is very propitious for plant diversity, making it a centre for endemism and species richness. The Mediterranean region is therefore one of the most bioculturally diverse areas on the planet, as well as one of its biodiversity hotspots.

The region is also plagued by significant environmental degradation, human deprivation and inequality. On the Mediterranean’s northern shores, intensive tourism and agriculture, pollution and the rural exodus are major issues, whereas on its southern shores, extreme poverty, migration and water scarcity take centre stage. Exacerbated by climate change and unsustainable development, these factors put the region’s rich patterns of biocultural diversity, ecological knowledge systems and resource management practices at risk. In times of social strife, the sea itself becomes the stage for human tragedy, as it becomes the escape route – and the graveyard – of thousands fleeing war, famine and oppression in Africa and the Middle East.

Mediterranean region


Lying between the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean sea and the Sahara desert, and divided from the rest of Northern Africa by the vast Atlas Mountain range, Morocco’s unique biogeography has resulted in high levels of biological diversity and endemism, particularly in the plant kingdom. A large number of Morocco’s Important Plant Areas are found in the High Atlas, which include more than half of the Moroccan flora (1913 species and subspecies of plants in 448 genera and 89 families). The high level of plant endemism in the High Atlas is evidenced by the approximately 500 endemic species (65% of Morocco’s total endemic flora) – as well as 250 rare species – that are found in this high mountain landscape. While exceptional in many respects, the High Atlas is typical of high mountain systems of the Mediterranean region in terms of its elevation range, general aridity, cycle of winter precipitation and summer drought, high biodiversity and presence of local communities that engage in agro-silvo-pastoral subsistence systems.

Morocco has a rich mix of Mediterranean, Arab, sub-Saharan, Jewish and Berber cultural histories and identities. Prior to the ninth century spread of Arab communities in North Africa, the geographic area that covered modern day Morocco was largely Amazigh (Berber) speaking. There are three main Berber languages: Tarifit is spoken in the northeast; Tamazight in the central Atlas, northern high Atlas and southeast; and Tachelhit in the southern high Atlas and southwest of the country. Although the Arab population and language dominate most of the linguistic and cultural landscape, Berber culture and language is very present and continues to contribute greatly to Moroccan culture and identity.


Global Diversity Foundation in  Morocco

GDF focuses on a central to eastern arc in the High Atlas that extends from the Al Haouz Province in the Marrakech-Safi Region to the adjacent Azilal Province in the Béni Mellal-Khénifra Region. This area includes two rural municipalities – Imegdale in Al Haouz Province and Ait M’hamed in Azilal Province – where we have conducted intensive field projects on plant conservation, cultural practices and livelihoods since 2013. We plan to extend our activities to additional rural municipalities, including Oukeimeden and Tighdouine in Al Haouz Province, both sites of impressive pasture agdals.

Enhancing the resilience of High Atlas agroecosystems in Morocco

This two-year project, beginning January 2019, aims to enhance the resilience of High Atlas agroecosystems in Morocco by strengthening local seed systems in three Amazigh rural communes, contributing to the creation of a favourable national policy environment, and supporting local institutions to ensure the long-term sustainability of our actions.


Preserving local cultural heritage through capacity building for girls

The ethnobotanical garden at the Dar Taliba boarding house is currently serving as a platform for training on traditional plant uses, plant conservation and permaculture techniques. Students in residence are actively engaged in local biodiversity conservation efforts and rediscovering their local cultural heritage relating to plants, which is in need of preservation for future generations.


Mobilising useful plant conservation to enhance Atlas Mountain community livelihoods

This three-year project, beginning April 2017, seeks to conserve 12 threatened and culturally-important plant species in the High Atlas Mountains through community action and capacity building. Conservation will be accompanied by enhanced livelihoods through the sustainable commercialisation of plant resources to help diversify and improve income sources, water resource rehabilitation and improved access to medical care and secondary education for Amazigh girls.


Cultural landscape management in the Moroccan High Atlas

This three-year project, launched in April 2017, will assess and monitor the status of biodiversity in the context of environmental change, document sustainable land use practices and how these are changing, and analyse the ability of traditional governance systems to be maintained in a shifting political landscape.


Educating individuals for meaningful engagement in the global community

In October 2019, GDF will host a four-day field programme for 25 Semester at Sea voyage students designed to inform them of our work with indigenous Amazigh communities in the High Atlas while actively engaging them through a series of practical activities in the field.


We are currently expanding our Mediterranean programme through projects that address the conservation and sustainable use of wild useful plants, cultural practices of conservation and community conserved areas both in the Moroccan High Atlas and possibly further afield in Italy and Spain.

Integrated approach to plant conservation in the Moroccan High Atlas 

This three-year project, launched early 2016, focuses on integrating the three strands of GDF’s work in the High Atlas – agroecology, biodiversity conservation and water management. The project aims to support sustainable livelihoods and plant conservation while deepening knowledge of community-based conservation knowledge and practices in the region.


School gardens project

Model ethnobotanical garden at Dar Taliba boarding house

This project builds on our school gardens project at Dar Taliba and in other locations throughout Morocco that rehabilitates degraded and unused school spaces into thriving school gardens. A model ethobotanical garden at Dar Taliba will educate students at the boarding house about Amazigh indigenous plant knowledge from their communities, located in the High Atlas mountains.

Integrated River Basin Management in Ait M’hamed and Imegdale Rural Communes

This project supports two rural communities in the High Atlas as they enhance their watershed management by reinvigorating traditional water management systems and engaging culturally appropriate innovative techniques. The project aims to address severe water scarcity and quality problems, help conserve biodiversity and improve people’s livelihoods.


Pulicaria odora 600Medicinal Root Trade, Plant Conservation and Local Livelihoods in Southern Morocco

This project addresses livelihood improvement and threats to the sustainable harvesting of medicinal roots. Our focus is on wild-crafted medicinal roots that are intensively harvested in two rural townships of the High Atlas mountains – Ait M’hamed rural commune in the Azilal province and Imegdale rural commune in the Al Haouz province.


Identifying rare & endangered species commercialised in Moroccan markets

In collaboration with Cadi Ayyad University and the University of Uppsala’s Department of Evolution, Genomics and Systematics, GDF conducted research in 2003 to identify species traded in Marrakech markets and the surrounding regions, identifying, documenting and cataloguing commercialised rare and endangered plant species.


Rehabilitating school gardens in Marrakech and its environs

Drawing on rural and urban farming traditions, students learned about horticulture while creating school gardens that exemplify the garden culture of Marrakech. School gardens were transformed into educational and recreational spaces, providing fresh organic produce for young Moroccan students and conducive learning environments.