What is an agdal?
By Pommelien da Silva Cosme, Ugo D’Ambrosio, Pablo Domínguez and Soufiane M’sou
28 April 2020
In our High Atlas Cultural Landscapes Programme, we talk about agdals a lot, but many of you may wonder, what is an agdal?
The word agdal derives from the Amazigh root (letters) GDL, meaning ‘to prohibit’ or ‘to protect’. Agdals are extended all over the Maghreb, from southern Tunisia to the western Sahara and from Mauritania to the north of Algeria. In Morocco, agdals refer to a great variety of different natural resource governance systems. Global Diversity Foundation’s work focuses on pastoral agdals, a traditional land management practice that governs access to communal pastoral lands and resources, mainly by fixing opening and closing dates, as well as other regulations and complexities regarding access rights (Dominguez et al., 2012).
These large tracts of land are generally abundant in water compared to their surrounding areas and are used for grazing or foraging during specific periods of time throughout the year. The main purpose of agdals is to serve as fodder reservoirs in critical periods of need while allowing for the regeneration of natural resources. They are collectively managed by several communities with specific regulations on access rights, which are strongly based on customary law (laorf) and with traditional ways of enforcing them such as electing agdal guardians (aaessass/ait rbain) and payments of fines to the community in case of violation. Payments are in the form of cash, with a lamb, butter, etc. It can also be forbidden to build, plant or cut trees within grazing areas.
Agdals have shaped the cultural landscape of the High Atlas mountains through centuries and most probably millenia, maintaining the rangeland and forest resources, while also conserving its biodiversity. The key feature of pastoral agdals is the timing of the opening and closing dates of the pasture in order to allow the vegetation to complete its full reproductive cycle before grazing is opened to herds of animals as varied as goats, sheep, cows, horses and even dromedaries. This herding prohibition usually takes place in a key moment of the vegetal cycle (e.g. spring), and therefore guarantees specially high plant and biomass growth, accompanied by the flowering, pollination and consequent production of seeds. Consequently, this practice maximizes fodder production (see model below), while supporting the sustainability of these ecosystems and maintaining and encouraging a very specific pastorally-favored plant diversity.
The summer pastures of the Ait Atta tribe, for example, are located within one of our project sites, called agdal Igourdane. Since 2016, GDF has been carrying out ethnographic research in Igourdane on communal governance systems, traditional cultural practices, and local plant use. We have also carried out long-term ecological monitoring in Igourdane and artificial enclosures (control sites) to study and compare plant species habitats and diversity. Our research shows that agdals make it possible for both vegetation cover and biodiversity within the agdals to recover from one year to the next. In the case of Igourdane, species diversity and vegetation cover is much higher than in the control sites. Unfortunately, in line with the overall trend in Morocco, the number of mobile pastoralist families utilizing agdal Igourdane and maintaining their traditional livelihoods has been in sharp decline. While 100 families migrated in 1984, only 10 did so in 2019.
These agdal practices linked to mobile pastoralism not only help conserve the high biodiversity and ecological values of the High Atlas, but also the cultural integrity of local indigenous communities. More recently and on a much larger scale, several Moroccan agdals have been included in the International ICCA Registry, affirming their roles as Territories of Life and Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs). Agdals have also been considered as Important Plant Areas (IPAs) and Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), for their significance in favouring and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem’s health.
In collaboration with our local partner Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association and with the support of the MAVA Foundation, our research focuses on embracing this cultural practice of land use and to highlight the role agdals play in local biodiversity conservation. We are currently documenting the annual transhumance journey of the Aït Atta tribe in agdal Igourdane. Stay tuned for the full documentary coming soon.