by Irene Teixidor Toneu
Isafarn nudrar means “medicinal plants from the mountains” in Tashelhit, one of the three Berber languages spoken in Morocco. Recently, in collaboration with the Global Diversity Foundation, I spent six months documenting medicinal plant use in the High Atlas and understanding the environmental and cultural landscapes in which plants are used. Once there, I became aware that climate change on the one hand, and new social narratives on the other, are forces threatening local plant conservation and traditional sustainable livelihoods. How can both human and ecosystem conditions in the High Atlas improve? The answer: flowerpots. In my search for ways to find locally sound solutions, I fell in love with what is called “participatory methods in development”: establishing a dialogue between locals, scientists, and the administration. And through these conversations, a project for small-scale cultivation of medicinal plants arose.
A shared taxi can drop you off at the rural commune of Imegdale, after a one-and-a-half-hour drive south of the commercial hub of Marrakech. By then you are probably dusty and your joints are complaining from sitting in an awkward position, piled in the taxi with another six people. But you are in the midst of the beautiful High Atlas Mountains, on the border of Toubkal National Park. Look around and it will not take you long to realize that subsistence agriculture and pastoralism are the backbone of the community’s economy. As in most of the High Atlas, in Imegdale barley, almonds, and walnuts are grown in terraces along steep slopes. Women trek for hours in search of fuelwood for cooking and fodder for the family cows because the animals cannot walk the precipitous trails to the patchy grazing areas by the streams. Men herd their goats and sheep across the mountains in a seasonal pattern of transhumance or migrate for wage labor.
These communities are experiencing environmental degradation that is both the cause and the consequence of rural poverty. Precipitation in North Africa is likely to decrease between 10 and 20 percent, while temperatures are likely to rise between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius by 2050. Decreased precipitation has an impact on local livelihoods, with shepherds abandoning traditional transhumance pastoralism, which increases pressure on available arable land and groundwater resources. Alternative crops have recently begun to be grown. In some valleys, apples are now cultivated, and people face new problems related to the use of chemicals in non-native fruit agriculture.
However, overgrazing is still a major threat to plant biodiversity, along with desertification and soil erosion, since big herds continue to graze alpine landscapes. Moreover, some traditional agricultural practices, such as barley cultivation on high-altitude plains, are currently only maintained in the most isolated mountain enclaves. High-altitude zones are public areas managed by the government, which for some time in the last decade stopped issuing cultivation permits because of reforestation plans. Reforestation, however, never happened. Meanwhile, people stopped spending their summers in temporary homes above 2,000 meters. The fields were abandoned, and the areas subsequently became available for herds to pasture. Lacking their natural vegetation cover, these plains were vulnerable to erosion during seasonal rains. Once the permits became available again, the alpine expanses were not as suitable for agriculture anymore, and people had already found alternative ways of “earning their bread.” Younger generations, who would have normally contributed substantially to alpine barley cultivation, are now looking towards the city rather than uphill.
Different attitudes across generations of Ishelhin, the Tashelhit-speaking Berbers of southern Morocco, are observed not only regarding agricultural practices but also around medicinal plant use. Young mothers do not know as much about plants as their mothers. Most of them gave birth to their children in hospitals, where they were exposed to public narratives on the danger of using medicinal plants. One of the local elders said: “Medicinal plants are better than pills. Pills cure you of one disease but give you another one. Also, women cannot read, so we don’t understand the instructions provided with medication and then don’t use them properly. But young women prefer to go to the hospital even though sometimes you get there and it is closed or the doctor is not there” (field notes, May 18, 2015, village of Ighrm Tknt).
Overgrazing is still a major threat to plant biodiversity, along with desertification and soil erosion.
Medicinal plant use is being replaced by public health that still does not provide satisfactory service. And this is just one part of the bigger picture. Ishelhin are people in transition: urbanization, international migration, increased consumption of market commodities, the mass media revolution, and state education are reshaping the lives of rural residents who stay behind as family members migrate. However, while they are increasingly being exposed to “globalization,” traditional ecological knowledge still plays a key role in their daily lives.
Studying medicinal plant use allowed for discussion of harvesting and conservation of wild plant populations. Wild harvesting of medicinal plants provides cheap and readily available medicines, as well as an opportunity for the poorest to make some cash income, however minimal. The resource is open to everybody, which creates a challenge in regulating collection and maintaining harvest sustainability. Medicinal plants are collected in the field margins and along the villages and field paths, as well as from the high mountains. The roots of some alpine plants are popular remedies, and shepherds bring the plants into villages when people need them. Medicinal roots are a key element of local pharmacopoeias, since all underground plant organs, particularly those from cold environments, are believed to be “hot.”
Women sometimes collect them too, when they travel uphill to gather auri (Stipa tenacissima) used as fodder. Fadma, my research assistant, told me that the last time she visited Tirardin (one of the commune’s old alpine barley cultivation expanses), she could see many holes in the ground where medicinal roots had been extracted. When the root is used, plant populations become very vulnerable, since harvesting is destructive: “At some point, Rachid mentioned that roots regrow after being picked, because there is always a bit of the root left behind, otherwise they would be extinct by now. But Mohamed clarified that this is only true for igudi (Pterocephalus depressus) because it has a very long root, but not for the other plants, where the whole root is extracted from the ground” (field notes, May 5, 2015, village of Semgourd). Climate change and longer drought periods increase the destructive effect of the harvesting of alpine medicinal roots; plants have greater difficulty in maintaining their populations.
Long periods of ethnobotanical fieldwork are about patient observation and building relationships. They are about endless conversations about various topics, with every person that wants to talk to you. And this is how locals that had become friends, other Global Diversity Foundation collaborators, and I started discussing what could be done to enhance local traditional livelihoods and contribute to the conservation of the natural environment in Imegdale. Human decisions are a major influence on future pathways to conserve biological and cultural diversity. Through discussion and dialogue, we looked for creative solutions that would benefit both plants and people. One of the local initiatives in response to these challenges and opportunities is to develop the cultivation of selected medicinal plant species. Unlike apples, peaches, and other non-native crops, these plants are well adapted to local soils and climate and can be grown organically.
One might argue that restriction on grazing would be a more direct measure to improve the physical environment and preserve biodiversity in the High Atlas, but this would have a negative social impact and disrupt local politics of labor organization that are central to village life. In the High Atlas, customary social institutions organize labor across household boundaries. To be successful in the long term, plant conservation strategies must be accepted by these local institutions and managed by them. David Crawford, who studied change of rural livelihoods in the High Atlas under globalization pressures, wrote: “Human/environment interactions are always mediated through social groups, and at least in the High Atlas economic decisions cannot be understood outside of the households, lineages, villages and irrigation collectives in which they are embedded.”
Small-scale medicinal plant cultivation can be easily integrated into the social-agricultural organization fabric, and it contributes to plant conservation and local development in at least three ways. First, it provides an in situ conservation strategy for threatened medicinal plant species, adding to the already existing practice of cultivation of valued wild species in home gardens. When people dropped barley cultivation in alpine areas, some took tafleyout, a threatened endemic mint (Mentha gattefossei), with them and planted it in flowerpots around their homes. Second, cultivation also lowers the pressure on wild medicinal plant populations and makes the plant sources more accessible for home use, since these are remedies widely used to treat common ailments. Third, when cultivated, medicinal plants are sold in local markets—they provide an additional source of income for the commune.
The incorporation of medicinal plants into small-scale farming systems, such as those in the High Atlas, requires low economic inputs and is a steadier source of raw materials when compared to wild populations, where productivity is notoriously inconsistent. If we are successful in bringing some local species into trade, additional income could reduce the need for sheep and goat herding, and this is why we are working closely with shepherds. They are key players in all of this alpine medicinal plant business, both in terms of the threat posed by their trade and the ecological knowledge they hold about these plants. Besides tafleyout (Mentha gattefossei) and awgdmi (Armeria alliacea), we will start cultivating hmiku (Cistus laurifolius), whose seeds are extremely valuable: they are sold for a high price and make one of the best remedies against pain when ground and mixed with local honey.
Finally, this initiative will help revalorize local ecological knowledge, since local cultivation takes into account traditional practices and focuses on locally relevant plants. People like what is fancy, like pills for headaches. Or apples. But pills are expensive, and Fadma and her eight-year-old daughter in Ighrm Tknt were telling me how hard it is to breathe in the village when farmers are spraying the apple fields. Initiatives based on local ecological knowledge bring attention back to its value and importance in modern and modernizing societies. Sustainable development is achieved when both the human and the ecosystem conditions are improving, including both the social dimension and the relationship between environmental and economic factors.
Keith Basso expressed it beautifully: “wisdom sits in places.” Cultures are bound to those landscapes they call home. The commune of Imegdale is Ishelhin, with the Tashelhit language to talk about its mountains, its plants, and the knowledge and practices that are quickly lost when the younger generations disengage with agricultural practices or move away toward the cities. Initiatives such as the one described here aim to enhance local cultures and livelihoods while preserving the natural biodiversity. With committed locals and through basic, key actions, we help trigger alternative narratives about culture, language, and the relationship between people and land, helping to preserve biocultural diversity in this beautiful corner of the world.
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Irene Teixidor Toneu is a PhD student at the University of Reading, UK. She explored the transmission of knowledge about medicinal plant use among Tashelhit-speaking communities in the Moroccan High Atlas, in collaboration with the Global Diversity Foundation. Her studies are part of the European MedPlant project on the evolution and sustainable use of medicinal plant diversity.
Basso, K. H. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
Crawford, D. (2008). Moroccan Households in the World Economy: Labor and Inequality in a Berber Village. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.
Crawford, D., & Hoffman, K. E. (2000). Essentially Amazigh: Urban Berber in the global village. In K. Lacey (Ed.), The Arab-African and Islamic World: Interdisciplinary Studies. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Freier, K. P., Bruggermann, R., Scheffran, J., Finckh, M., & Schneider, U. A. (2012). Assessing the predictability of future livelihood strategies of pastoralists in semi-arid Morocco under climate change. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 79, 371–382.