Understanding cultural practices of conservation: an interactive workshop in Ait M’hamed

By Pommelien da Silva Cosme, Communications and Field Officer, Global Diversity Foundation

At the end of November 2017, Global Diversity Foundation and Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association (MBLA) staff packed our bags to spend the weekend in the mountains of Aït M’hamed (Azilal Province) for an inspiring two-day workshop as part of our wider High Atlas Cultural Landscapes programme. The programme aims at conserving the unique biocultural richness of the High Atlas: we engage in research and action on biodiversity conservation, community livelihoods and local cultural practices of conservation. We gathered following eighteen months of intensive participatory research. Workshop goals were to hold focus group discussions on current changes to local cultural conservation practices, and to use participatory approaches to develop recommendations for strengthening them. Sixteen men and 17 women, both young and old, participated in the workshop with our staff. Most were contributors to our previous research on local practices in Aït M’hamed; others were members and representatives of different associations and cooperatives.

A group picture of all the participants outside of the Dar Talib in Aït M’hamed.

The workshop kicked off on a Saturday afternoon in the Dar Talib (local boarding house) located at the heart of the commune. We introduced ourselves and our work with a short presentation, and later visited the community herbarium and seedbank which are being curated by community researchers as part of the GDF programme. During this visit, participants enthusiastically shared their plant-related knowledge with the rest of the group whenever they recognized a species in the catalogue – an excellent forecast of the lively and engaged discussions to come.

The next day, participants created a historical timeline and discussed how recent major events and changes had affected their ability to access and manage their lands. Working in groups they recalled times of severe drought and snowfall, the construction of schools, armed conflicts, and heavy wind and snow storms, amongst others. We concluded the session with an interactive process aimed at developing recommendations on how to preserve and strengthen local conservation practices. This resulted in useful suggestions such as training and technical support for local farmers, and the construction of small dams to support irrigation systems and supply drinking water. Interesting differences emerged between the recommendations provided by men and those provided by women.

Discussing recommendations to strengthen local practices.

These morning sessions also revealed that younger participants did not hold much knowledge of traditional practices of conservation, highlighting the fact these practices are at immediate risk of being lost. The space provided was therefore a great opportunity for them, as it was for us, to learn more about the traditional local practices of conservation and to reinforce intergenerational knowledge transmission. After the morning sessions, we enjoyed a delicious local lunch and prepared for the afternoon’s activity.

For this last session, three local experts joined to share their plant-related knowledge and crafting skills with the group. As men and women gathered around, Zahra (an expert weaver) started off the last session by recounting how her mother had taught her different ways to weave dried leaves of ‘doum’, also known as the Mediterranean dwarf palm (Chamaerops humilis). She carefully showed us how to weave the leaves, and brought out a beautiful handmade bag as a sample of her work. It didn’t take long for other participants (both men and women) to get their hands on some doum leaves and, following Zahra’s example, begin to weave their own creations.

Zahra weaving dried doum leaves.

Then, it was Aguojil’s turn to show us some of his wood work. He brought out a beautiful, half-worked piece of walnut wood which he has yet to complete to create the bowl he has in mind. With a flurry of hand gestures, he explained how his creations begin and take shape. Then he surprised us all by putting different pieces of his work on the table, one by one. Before we knew it, the table was filled with his beautiful handcrafted wooden bowls, teapots and boxes.

Aguojil and his collection of handmade wooden items.

Our last guest speaker was Nejma, who introduced us to three types of local plants (Abzazer, Tikeoute and lkhoukh) which she uses to treat illness. Nejma takes different parts of these plants and, following careful preparation, uses them to treat many ailments, including tumours, cancers and diabetes.

After concluding the workshop with a glass of sweet Moroccan tea and several plates of pastries, we left Aït M’hamed with a wealth of new knowledge and a much better understanding of what is driving changes in cultural practices of conservation. We also learned how we can use this information to support our next steps in developing strategies to strengthen them and, in turn, enhance community livelihoods and the rich biodiversity of the High Atlas. As we left, we were heartened by how many participants noted their delight in being part of a process that values their knowledge and practices, and are keen to continue working with us on this topic.