The landscapes of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco have been shaped by millennial relationships between humans and nature. Rural communities still maintain ancient practices, including seasonal transhumance, traditional irrigation systems and communal management of pastures and plants, which sustain the unique biodiversity of this extraordinary cultural landscape.
Global Diversity Foundation supports High Atlas rural communities to maintain and restore their traditional practices while enhancing their livelihoods and sustainably managing their lands and resources in the context of rapid change. Our primary partners are the Amazigh communities we collaborate with in the High Atlas communes of Ait M’hamed, Imegdal, Oukaimeden and Ourika.
Rapidly changing climatic, economic and social realities increasingly threaten traditional knowledge and practices, alongside the landscapes they relate to. Increasingly severe droughts, decreasing monetary rewards from traditional agriculture and pastoralism, and massive rural exodus contribute to the erosion of cultural values and community cohesion. The difficulties of making a living in the harsh High Atlas environment contribute to unsustainable resource use, reduction of biodiversity and a loss of interest amount the younger generation in traditional knowledge and practices.
Through our work, we aim for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem function, and enhanced and sustainable land-based economies and community wellbeing.
Through our local product commercialisation programme, we carry out market analyses, develop business plans, and build connections for the equitable trade of community-based, biocultural products in niche markets in Marrakech.
We document, assess and monitor biodiversity in the High Atlas and implement in situ and ex situ conservation actions to halt loss of biodiversity.
We identify, document and promote cultural practices that maintain High Atlas biodiversity. Understanding these practices is fundamental to of the collaborative development of socially and ecologically appropriate biodiversity conservation and landscape management approaches.
Through a participatory approach, we assess and improve agronomic parameters (soil quality, agricultural productivity, nutrient cycles, water flows, micro climatic conditions, etc.) to enhance agricultural productivity, livelihoods and community wellbeing.
We actively engage students in local biodiversity conservation efforts and to learn and use Amazigh indigenous plant knowledge and practices.
We collaborate with community representatives from all over Morocco to analyse and identify challenges related to community governance systems.
The High Atlas Cultural Landscapes Programme is funded by the MAVA Foundation, the UK Government Darwin Initiative, Open Society Foundations and donations through GlobalGiving.
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.
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.
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.
Building on the project Cultural landscape management in the Moroccan High Atlas, we launched a third project funded by the MAVA Foundation in August 2020, which aims to conserve iconic cultural landscapes in the Moroccan High Atlas that harbour significant biological and cultural diversity.
Funded by the UK Darwin Initiative, this project supports local Amazigh farmers in the High Atlas rural communes of Ait M’hamed, Imegdal and Oukaïmeden and government agencies engaged in solidarity agriculture, to improve agricultural productivity and income from diverse crop landraces of key cereals and leguminous plants cultivated by these communities.
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.
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.
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.
Over three years, beginning April 2017, efforts focused on conserving 12 threatened and culturally-important plant species in the High Atlas Mountains through community action and capacity building. Conservation actions were 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.
Through a three-year project, launched in April 2017, project collaborators assessed and monitored the status of biodiversity in the context of environmental change, documented sustainable land-use practices and how these are changing, and analysed the ability of traditional governance systems to be maintained in a shifting political landscape.
In October 2019, GDF hosted 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.
This three-year project, launched early 2016, focused on integrating the three strands of GDF’s work in the High Atlas – agroecology, biodiversity conservation and water management. The project supported sustainable livelihoods and plant conservation while deepening community-based conservation knowledge and practices in the region.
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. The model ethobotanical garden at Dar Taliba is a useful platform to educate students about Amazigh indigenous plant knowledge from their communities, located in the High Atlas mountains.
Through this project, we supported two rural communities in the High Atlas as they enhanced their watershed management by reinvigorating traditional water management systems and engaging culturally-appropriate innovative techniques. The project addressed severe water scarcity and quality problems, while conserving biodiversity and improving people’s livelihoods.
This project addressed livelihood improvement and threats to the sustainable harvesting of medicinal roots, focusing 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.
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.
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.