IMIDER IN “On the Backroads of Morocco”

BY BRUCE MADDY-WEITZMAN

“…But let us now go to Imider as promised, the site of the most sustained grassroots protest against the authorities. The protest centers around an extremely valuable and profitable silver mine in the vicinity of Imider, which is a collection of seven small villages, total population 7,000, in southeast Morocco about 130 km northeast of Ouarzazate. The mine is owned by a subsidiary of Managem, the mining branch of the Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), a massive holding company whose largest shareholder is the Moroccan royal family. Established in 1969, the mine produces 240 tons of silver annually, and had a turnover in 2010 of €74 million, making it one of the most important silver mines in Africa. For villagers, the mine is a symbol of how the state authorities and allied elites extract enormous wealth from their traditional lands, literally the ground beneath their feet, while leaving them struggling to eke out an impoverished existence. Moreover, the mine’s operations require an enormous amount of water. And in the summer of 2011, it became clear that pumping ground water into the mine for silver extraction depleted the supply upon which local inhabitants depended.

45Earlier that summer, university students returning home following the end of the academic year found that their traditional seasonal jobs working at the mine were no longer available, which only added to the general sense of embitterment and discrimination. 

 Then, as Ramadan approached, the faucets bringing drinking water to the village began to run dry, and the water that did occasionally emerge had an increasingly foul smell.

The young people of the villages decided to act. They hiked up the 1,400-meter Mont Alban, where stood a water tower serving the mine. There they established what has become a permanent encampment and took control of one of the water pumps serving the mine. First they shut it down, and then they redirected the water to the village. Four years later they are still at it, organized under the banner of what they call “Movement on Road 96 Imider.”

More than that, the organizers have succeeded in mobilizing sufficient numbers of local inhabitants to maintain the encampment and periodically conduct marches along the roads in the area. Tents have been replaced by stone structures decorated gaily with graffiti, and bear inspirational inscriptions from people like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Among their global-oriented activities has been a special march by hundreds of women organized to mark International Women’s Day. They have also linked their struggle to global environmental concerns, pointing to the environmental degradation caused by the widespread use of poisonous substances such as mercury and cyanide in the mine’s operation. According to villagers, the damage to people’s health, crops, and livestock has been great. Ironically, perhaps, the villagers want both the jobs that the mine provides and an alteration of its basic operations so as to be protected from its harmful effects.

They have achieved a measure of attention, including a lengthy article in the New York Times in which the Amazigh flag was displayed on a hilltop. In examining the ways in which the protest is articulated, it is clear that the activists view theirAmazighité as integral to their identity, and instrumental for mobilizing support.

The regime’s response has been moderate. The authorities crushed a similar, though smaller, protest back in 1996, with one fatality. The “new” Morocco uses more sophisticated methods to maintain order. 

 The makhzen’s heavy hand is certainly present, but for the most part it is gloved. The security forces try to ensure that outsiders do not visit the site. Thirty protestors were imprisoned for a few months, and three of the activists, who had been subjected to a brutal arrest in March 2014, were convicted of disturbing public order and sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 60,000 dirhams each—sentences which were confirmed in July 2014 by a court of appeals. Their crimes included “establishment of a criminal gang”, “embezzlement”, “assembly without permit”, “disorderly conduct”, and ” premeditated aggression.” Freeing them has now become part of the movement’s agenda.

In the midst of the crackdown on activists and the strong security presence in the area, the mine’s operators conducted year-long negotiations with the elected representatives of the Imider rural commune and a number of associations, producing what the management said was an agreement to promote human development in the region. This included the opening of summer camps and academic support programs for 720 children, and the provision of 2,000 school kits to students. “For us”, said a company representative, “the page is turned.” According to a spokesman, the company spends $1 billion in development projects for the region; the activists claim that nothing much has changed. The company also spent heavily in trying to burnish its image in the Moroccan and European media, and even helped served as a sponsor of the second World Human Rights Forum held in Marrakesh in late November 2014.

Studies of social movements generally focus on three elements: grievances, political opportunity, and resource mobilization. In the case of Imider, one can certainly locate the grievances that triggered and focused the protests; one can also point to the increased opportunities for political expression that have evolved during the 15-year reign of Muhammad VI, and particularly the ferment that characterized Morocco’s public sphere during the first half of 2011 when the Imider protests first began. The protests are also part of a larger pattern of increasing anger about socio-economic issues in small towns over the previous decade. Koenraad Bogaert has cogently written about this phenomenon, emphasizing the contemporary form of global capitalism, class politics, and the relations of power and exploitation that produce food insecurity, poverty, and inequality.

With regard to resource mobilization, however, the picture is more clouded, which perhaps helps us understand why the Amazigh movement has not become a mass movement in Morocco in the conventional sense. By way of comparison, it may be useful to look at the highly successful Movement of Rural Landless Workers in Brazil, which has won land for over 300,000 families since it first began organizing in 1984. One of its central pillars was the official support of the Catholic Church, which provided a crucial means of organizing movement activities throughout rural Brazil. No such comparable support from the state-controlled Moroccan religious establishment exists in the Imider case, or regarding Amazigh grievances in general. It should be noted, too, that much of the Amazigh movement’s discourse is broadly secular/modernist in character, and is often accused by its opponents of being anti-Islam.

Indeed, the authorities are keen to prevent any linkage between religion and the Imider activists. This year, they banned a local Imam from conducting a prayer service at the protesters’ mountain encampment during the Eid celebrations; the activists did manage, however, to sneak in an Imam from a remote area to do the job, in the presence of 3,000 people. The strikers have received support from an Italian NGO and Italian and Spanish labor unions, which speaks to the ways in which local activists in peripheral regions can “go global” these days. However, the ground is apparently not ripe for the Imider strike to develop into a larger action. Even the various Amazigh associations that exist in neighboring towns and villages have largely kept their distance from the Imider protests due to a combination of fear of the authorities and a still-entrenched localism that inhibits the growth of a broader-based movement.

More recent research on social movements seeks to understand the motivations of the participants, the ways in which they are personally affected and even transformed, and the attendant social dynamics of the protest groups. Why do people join, or not join, as the case may be? Are the social ties strong enough to make protest associations stick? How is it sustained? Is there a strategy besides just waiting for grievances to be addressed?

The personal accounts of three of the male participants in the Imider protests interviewed for this study—one of whom has resumed his studies in Agadir after three years of on-site activity; another who, like the first, is in his mid-twenties, but suspended his studies for the time being, and a third, who is 31-years old and unemployed—add depth to the story and get at some of the answers to the foregoing questions. To be sure, their answers are themselves a part of their struggle to get their story out, and thus cannot be accepted uncritically; neither can they be dismissed, however.

In general, they display a high degree of commitment and determination, and describe a degree of solidarity among the local population that cuts across age, gender, and the seven villages in the district. Their families are supportive, and indeed participate in the ongoing protest actions and marches themselves

when I asked about the “fear factor”, one of them was defiant: “There’s a time to live and a time to die, and it’s better to die in a fight for truth than to live lies.”Another acknowledged awareness of the long arm of the authorities, “which never forgets”, and can reach all the way to the university in Agadir, creating a climate of fear which does inhibit behavior.

All three describe the evolution of the confrontation with the mining company going back decades, and which reached a state of desperation in 2011. One also emphasized that their initial actions were taken in the context of Morocco’s “Democracy Spring” protests, and a similar protest in recent years against the national phosphate company in Khouribja, near Khenifra. They describe a regularized weekly consultation and decision-making process—a general assembly (Agraw) in which anyone can participate and vote, and specialized committees, regular marches on the adjacent roads to call attention to their struggle, and an encampment that has been transformed into permanent structures, in which the number of inhabitants varies according to circumstances.

I asked them what they think they have achieved thus far, and they speak proudly of having raised the consciousness and determination of the population, of their self-reliance in collecting donations of funds and supplies, and of the partial improvement to the state of their water supply. Yet they remain both defiant and cynical over the bad faith of the company and the authorities, which want to end the protests but not to do justice in the process.

Most impressively, perhaps, they display an intimate knowledge of local history, while framing their grievances within the larger context of the struggle of the Ait Atta tribal confederation against French colonial conquest, and the subsequent expropriation of collective lands—a policy that was continued by the independent Moroccan state after independence in 1956. This is, of course, part of the larger Amazigh narrative. They also refer to a specific ethnic grievance: the authorities bringing in Arab workers from another regions to replace local labor.

While one of them emphasized that theirs was a social protest, and not a political movement as such, he acknowledged that, for him, the movement was inseparable from the larger themes of promoting both Amazigh identity and democracy. Outside support—mostly moral—comes from sympathetic Europeans and Amazigh associations such as Tamaynut, but the degree of interaction and coordination with other civil society groups has actually declined since 2011, they said, owing to preventative actions taken by the authorities.1 Recent actions include preventing a delegation of the French branch of Tamaynut from visiting the site, and the arrest of two activists who had left the encampment to seek medical attention in the town of Tinghir, 30 kilometers away.

In late November 2014, the heaviest storms to hit Morocco in decades resulted in sudden massive floods in the south of the country, in the foothills of the Anti Atlas Mountains. Over 50 people perished, hundreds of homes were destroyed or heavily damaged, livestock was lost and numerous roads were washed away. Although the authorities undertook rescue and relief operations, they were generally deemed insufficient and part of a larger pattern of neglect. People were particularly angered by the use of a garbage truck to remove many of the dead bodies. One month afterwards in downtown Casablanca, approximately 200 Amazigh activists from around the country, male and female together, demonstrated in solidarity with the victims of the floods and denounced the authorities’ treatment of them. Their chants included the following: “We are not Arab”, and “Men and Women are equal”; they had signs that read, “Billions go to Palestine and we seek sugar so we can eat”, and, “We are the natives to the land, we want our rights.”2 The demonstrators were met by a large number of policemen, who roughed some of them up and arrested a few more.

Overall, it appears that the Amazigh movement’s efforts to address the very real insecurity facing the Amazigh population in the Moroccan periphery, and to do so in ways that will support the movement’s overall goals, remain Sisyphean. The activists are held back by both exogenous and endogenous factors. Still, given the increasingly contested public space of today’s Morocco, the state’s partial legitimation of Amazigh identity, and the very real issues of insecurity in the mostly Amazigh periphery, it would be foolish to assume that local protests will remain limited and easily containable in the future. That, after all, is what a lot of people said about another non-Arab, fissiparous mountain folk just a few years ago: the Kurds.

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On the Backroads of MoroccoBRUCE MADDY

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