Feature Story

Harnessing traditional knowledge and innovation in Morocco, conservation and livelihoods flourish

June 5, 2019

Although the Amazighe have been able to maintain Imegdale’s ecological balance through ingenious socio-ecological management systems, there are threats that render this delicate balance precarious.
Although the Amazighe have been able to maintain Imegdale’s ecological balance through ingenious socio-ecological management systems, there are threats that render this delicate balance precarious.

In Morocco, conserving unique biodiversity relies on the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities who live in direct contact with nature.

The VIPs of the plant world

Located in southern Morocco, the Imegdale territory is located in the Western High Atlas range. The oldest section of the range, the High Atlas has a wide variety of natural and cultural assets, which cohere as a unique (and uniquely important) landscape and ecosystem.

Home to a number of Important Plant Areas, including Imegdale, the High Atlas is one of the ‘hot spot’ areas of the Mediterranean mountains.

Imegdale’s abundant biodiversity is perpetuated by the rich cultural Amazighe heritage.

Protected plants in Morocco
Imegdale is a micro- hotspot in the High Atlas, with high endemism rates and a varied flora of 123 genera and 39 families currently documented. This flora is also very rich in aromatic and medicinal plants, with 159 botanical species grouped into 14 categories of biomedical use.

Where community meets conservation

The Amazighe are the sole inhabitants of Imegdale --- indigenous mountain communities comprised of 1,156 households and 5,467 inhabitants, including 2,722 women, spread over 28 small villages.

Regulated by customary law, their traditional conservation practices allow for ecological regeneration and promote balance. These include Azayn - field closure during fruit maturation period; Tagdalt – closure of private lands until the end of vegetation development cycles, and prohibiting access to Agdals (mainly pasturelands) and Azibs (graze lands) for three months in the spring.  

Security and resilience

Although the Amazighe have been able to maintain Imegdale’s ecological balance through ingenious socio-ecological management systems, there are threats that render this delicate balance precarious.

The major threats include limited farming options (since Imegdale’s mountains are 80% covered by forest); over-exploitation of medicinal plants; a high rate of youth exodus in search of better opportunities; and lack of awareness and recognition of customary management by institutional actors.

Climate change exacerbates these existing threats.

Mountain village in Morocco

Amplifying solutions

Reconciling bio-cultural conservation with sustainable livelihood options to address these various threats is the focus of the Protection and Sustainable Management of a Natural and Cultural Landscape of the Western High Atlas project.

Implemented by the communities themselves, in close collaboration with the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association (MBLA), Global Diversity Foundation and Znaga cooperative, the project is an exemplar of the Global Support Initiative to Indigenous Peoples and Community Conserved Territories and Areas (ICCA-GSI).

Formed in 2014 to broaden the diversity and quality of governance types in recognizing ICCAs, the ICCA-GSI is a multi-partnership initiative delivered by the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) in 26 countries, with funding from the Government of Germany, through its Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

Building on the Amazighe’s traditional knowledge, the project facilitates a “self-strengthening” process, enabling the indigenous communities to preserve their heritage and be recognised as the guardians of their ICCA.

The project has strengthened the community's role in maintaining biocultural practices. In particular, the application of the ICCA Resilience and Security Index equipped them to make meaningful decisions over their natural resources and changing social landscapes. The community-developed management plan includes improved livelihood sources and governance, the documentation of customary rules and practices to protect traditional knowledge and promote inter-generational transfer. 

Children learning about plants in Morocco
To characterise Imegdale’s ICCA in terms of biodiversity conservation, a series of studies were undertaken, including: floristic and ecological surveys, species and habitat conservation assessments, ecological monitoring, and a study of the effects of climate change on the flora.

Regenerating and rehabilitating

The population of Imegdale makes their livelihood from sedentary and livestock farming. Most of the production from market gardening, cereals, and fodder crops is used for home consumption.

To diversify livelihood sources, community incubators were set up. One incubator initiative is a nursery, which is an effective way to reduce the pressure on useful and/or threatened wild plants.

The species grown in the nursery have been selected by the communities for their high economic and/or ecological value. A seedling distribution program has been carried out, domesticating important plants to reduce pressures on the natural environment by improving livelihoods, regenerating forests and helping to rehabilitate the Imegdale Important Plant Areas.

In 2018 and 2019, a total of 31,094 aromatic and medicinal plants were introduced with the help of farmers in 20 villages, representing 482 beneficiary households. 

Through an intense capacity-building program, the Imegdale Community Nursery is now managed by two community researchers, with the support of a local co-operative for the production of medicinal and aromatic plants and fruit trees.

Banking on seeds

In addition to the nursery, an important aspect of the project is the establishment of a community seed bank and regional herbarium. The High Atlas Seed Bank Protocol was developed in 2016 with key stakeholders (including the Regional Directorate of Water and Forests, Cadi Ayyad University, and local communities), and was continued in 2017 and 2018 with project support. As a result, the research team and community researchers were able to collect, identify and store seeds from 100 endemic, useful and flagship species.

To support the sustainable commercialisation of plants, the project began laboratory plant quality tests, involving comparative analyses between plants grown in the nursery, to define the composition of essential oils and quality differences for 12 plant species.

Mapping the future

To identify the most valuable seeds to populate the seed banks with, a participatory mapping exercise was carried out by the communities. Based on their collective consensus, this exercise was also valuable in drafting a joint management plan for the Imegdale ICCA.

The map outlines the different zones and lists the areas subject to different types of management: plant collection areas, agricultural areas, sacred sites, forests in the Toukbal National Park, tagdaltes, Azibs, as well as conflict zones.

Innovative partnerships

ICCA-GSI's objective is to improve the recognition and overall effectiveness for biodiversity conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and resilience to climate change effects in territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities.

This global initiative is also working to achieve CBD Aichi 2020 Targets relating to increasing the coverage of protected areas (Target 11), improving ecosystems that provide essential services (Target 14), and respecting and protecting traditional knowledge (Target 18); and is contributing to the Post-2020 Aichi Target Framework. 

Following this, the ICCA-GSI portfolio of projects in Morocco integrates the contribution of indigenous peoples and local communities towards achieving these Aichi targets. The creation of a national ICCA network continues to bring together various stakeholders committed to ICCAs ---promoting community values, bio-cultural heritage and solidarity for global benefits.

Butterfly in Morocco

This story was originally published on Exposure by UNDP Ecosystems & Biodiversity. Photos: SGP Morocco and Moroccan Biodiversity & Livelihoods Association.