Delegates, politicians, hundreds of people are flooding to Marrakech, Morocco this month for the COP22 (22nd Conference of the Parties). The annual meeting follows the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and last year’s COP21, which took place in Paris, France. Yet, while many people are coming to pressure decision-makers in the COP space to make commitments that support a just world, an overwhelming number are participating in what they consider the #AntiCOP22. This includes turning the world’s attention to Imider, a town #300kmSouth of Marrakech.
An increasing amount of past and present COP participants have become disillusioned with the political process around UN climate negotiations. Instead of a space where people’s needs are heard and addressed, it has become a place where policies are drafted behind closed doors and countries tout their “green” plans that are usually not what they seem. In Morocco, this latter process – referred to as “greenwashing” – means the state passes laws and creates projects that appear eco-friendly, but which devastate indigenous communities.
Just as I and some fellow delegates were arriving to Marrakech for COP22 last week, a Moroccan fisherman was killed in the back of a garbage truck while retrieving swordfish the police that thrown away. Some of our delegation met in a shadowed café to discuss the reality behind this situation and how Morocco, pressured by the show it has to put on for COP, will attempt to hide these stories more than ever.
As an effort to see the #AntiCOP22 side of Morocco, I traveled with a small caravan to the seaside village of Safi. Meetings centered on the problems with COP and how the Moroccan state oppresses certain classes of citizens. We toured the beach where factories dump waste straight into the shores that were once home to several successful fisheries. Presentations under System Change, Not Climate Change also revealed the much celebrated Concentrated Solar Powerplants of Morocco actually devastate the water resources of indigenous small farmers of the region. These stories led me to Moroccan filmmaker Nadir Bouhmouch who invited me to join his #300kmSouth caravan to the Moroccan village of Imider.
#300kmSouth of COP22
In a small community just 300km away from Marrakech, people of the indigenous Amazigh confederation have held a sit-in for the last five years. For three decades, the villagers have faced exploitation by mining companies that have entered their valley on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Most recently, the people of Imider have fought against the Imider Mine, the most productive silver mine on the African continent.
In 2011, the community affected decided to take a stand to the devastation the mine was doing to their health and to their water supply. Atop of Mount Alebban, young activists located a key valve for delivering water from their aquifers to the mine. They shut the valve off and have occupied the space with an encampment ever since, building adobe huts and installing solar power around the now useless pipeline.
The people of the Imider region rely on a khettara system, underground canals their ancestors built nearly 800 years ago to provide the water needed to support their agriculture. A study by INNOVAR revealed that the wells the mine constructed in 2004 caused a 48% decline in water transported by three of these khettaras. The wells that farmers use also dropped by 1.25 meters in that year alone. The protestors estimated in 2015 that more than 3 million tons of water have been saved by shutting down the pipe and occupying the space around it.
The local people also fear the health consequences of the mines. With only a single tiny room and one nurse to operate the local health “clinic”, the Amazigh people around Imider are already underserved. In 2013, the Moroccan Association of Investigative Journalism (AMJI) found concentrations of such toxic elements as arsenic, cobalt, cadmium, and lead in the Imider region often exceeding the international standards.
To make matters worse, the mine in Imider highlights the Moroccan government’s denial of its classism and environmental injustices. As it touts its “green” policies at COP22, many participants are also visiting the people of Imider who are highlighting the King’s connection to the mine. The mine, while operated by La Societé Metallurgique d’Imider (SMI), is actually owned by the Societé Nationale d’Investissement (SNI) – a private holding company owned by the Moroccan royal family.
While sitting with the people of Imider, they explained to my group that there are no benefits for them from these mines – only negative consequences. Although they traditionally mined the silver accessible near the surface, they never participated in this kind of extractive industry. Now, the greed of the government is devastating their limited resources. What’s worse is the mine doesn’t even hire local people.
While the company Managem touts on its website how it contributes to the development of the region, the fact is the main beneficiaries are the mine workers brought in from cities who reside in Tinghir, the town just east of Imider. Instead, the villagers of Imider are faced with toxic waste from mines, a negative impact on their health, and the depletion in both their water and their agricultural successes.
A Call for Solidarity
Imider has been a beautiful experience for me: a gathering of loving people who care vehemently about their land, their culture, and their rights as Amazigh tribal peoples. The people there are alert and privy to the injustices of #NoDAPL and seek solidarity amongst the people of Standing Rock and the various tribal communities around the world. I had the privilege of speaking among these people, over hot cups of peppermint tea, about the uranium mines of Navajo and the tribal sovereignty battles that continue to be fought across the Americas.
Yesterday, my caravan joined the people of Imider in an agraw, a circle of men, women, and children that serves as part of their system of regular general assemblies. These agraws have been practiced since ancient times as part of the Amazigh democratic tribal process. The meeting concluded the various workshops we had been holding about environmental classism and racism, the connection between women and protecting the Earth, and how to stand in solidarity with one another. Nadir also conducted a miniature film festival where he played his #300kmSouth film to the people of Imider for the first time.
Sitting on that mountain, overlooking the villages and snowcapped Atlas peaks, there was such a strong sense of community.
However, the bright lights of the silver mine, nestled in the valley behind the encampment, was impossible to ignore. What was also impossible to ignore was the obvious intimidation attempt by the Moroccan police as we descended the mountain in our caravan. The women of the village warned us with tears in their eyes that the police had lined the exit, posed with guns across their chests. As we left the camp, we saw those police – and they photographed our vehicles.
It is not coincidences that, only several kilometers from Imider, all three vehicles in our caravan were pulled over. The police forced us to give them our passports and answer personal questions as they recorded our information. This was the first of several checkpoints we were stopped at during our eight-hour trip back to Marrakech. We were told this is a standard “tourist” check, but we knew this harassment was targeted as no other vehicles were stopped or even acknowledged.
The Moroccan government might think it will intimidate us from sharing Imider’s story with COP22 and the world, but in reality it has only inspired us to send more delegates to the camp. We need the world’s help now in sharing the story of these marginalized first peoples situated just #300kmSouth of Marrakech.
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