The Al Fayda Project

This is our major project at the moment. It involves two small communities on Morocco’s Atlantic coast just north of Essaouira, Al Fayda and Azrou Issa: thirty-nine families scraping a living from just over 100 hectares of land and from the beach below.  It’s a beautiful place but diminishing rainfall patterns are turning it into a desert and life is increasingly tough.

It’s a fantastic project for FRF to show the benefits of permaculture because the challenges are so huge and varied. If we can make it work here it will show others in the country that this is the way forward and we will have a lot more projects to work with.

But to the casual onlooker there might not seem to be any hope at all for this place: the ground is all but dead and lies bare and naked for most of the year, losing it’s precious topsoil to the relentless wind. The ocean is very close so there’s a salty mist at times and so much salt in the rain that it strips the leaves off certain trees. But it’s the lack of rain that really bites.  It used to be that Al Fayda and Azrou Issa enjoyed on average 420mm of rain a year, and only two years out of ten were drought years.  That’s not a lot of water. In the UK that would be a national disaster, but to many around the world it’s a workable, semi arid situation with a few heavy showers a year to keep the land and the cisterns topped up.  Every drop of water is precious and used carefully.  Nobody has ever, ever had a long hot shower here.

With a couple of good storms a year it’s possible to grow a small amount of wheat, and certain vegetables that can handle the alkalinity of the soil: peas, onions, potatoes and beans. These crops help them to feed themselves and in a good year there might be some surplus to sell. The real cash, however, comes from goats for those who have enough land, or for those who don’t, from the beach where they fish and harvest the seaweed.

But it’s all changing now. Global warming is taking away that precious rain. Six of the last eight years have been drought years; between 2012 and 2015 the average was around 180mm and in the winter of 2013-14 less than 150mm fell.  That’s 6 inches to last all the year. And worse still, there was only one brief shower heavy enough to put any water at all into the big underground cisterns that every family has to water their animals.  So those were empty at the start of the summer and the crops had failed.  Many families had to set their animals free to fend for themselves because they had no water or food to give them, nor the money to buy any with. The road into town was littered with donkeys getting thinner and thinner and most would be dead before it rained again.

This winter (2015-16), after a terrible start all over the country and three national prayer days asking Allah for rain, has finally improved with over 200mm by the end of March.  Everywhere there is fresh green growth and we hope there will be more to come.

But if it is a relatively good year it’s a rarity that does not fundamentally change the situation on this stretch of coast.  If it wasn’t for the beach below life would be impossible here for most families. And now disaster looms there too: the Moroccan Government has announced the formation of three new marine coastal reserves, and their beach lies inside of one of them.  This means that seaweed harvesting here will soon become illegal.  The writing is on the wall for many families and there is open talk of abandoning the land and moving into town.  It’s a worrying time for them, for who will buy their land? What will they do in Essaouira?  Unemployment is high there already. Where will they live?

Enter the Fertile Roots Foundation and Permaculture.  There’s huge potential here and it lies locked up the in the forested hillside just above the two communities.  When it rains hard there is a massive water run-off from this slope, but at the moment almost every drop runs straight through all the farmland in 5 wadis (normally dry riverbeds) until it gets to the beach and the ocean.  With it goes a year’s worth of bird poo, mouse poo, goat poo, wild boar poo, top soil and dust snatched by the trees from the summer wind; a dark brown flood of nutrient-laden water totally wasted.

The project here is still in embryonic stages.  Efforts to encourage the locals into forming a cooperative have failed because it’s actually quite a complicated process in Morocco and many different government departments are involved.  The community leaders here are illiterate and dealing with authorities and their paperwork is very scary for them.  But from these efforts has risen an alternative: the Chicht Association for Durable Development.  The association model is much easier to set up and the idea has spread from our little area into the wider community of Douar Chicht. We thought to have just 39 families involved but now there are several hundred families represented. It’s an encouraging development in itself, but all are now waiting, waiting to see what will happen next.

As to what to do with the land and how to regenerate the soil?  Well, we’ve now had one of the world’s most renowned regenerative agriculturalists, Darren Doherty, here for 2 weeks, teaching our first PDC (Permaculture Design Certificate course) and consulting on the project area.  We thought he was going to tell us that very little improvement would be possible until we had managed to utilise some of the run off from the hillside, and that the next step would be to get hold of a JCB digger and start major earthworks.  But no, he was far from dismayed at the landscape here, even in October after 6 months of no rain and 3 drought years.  He saw promising signs everywhere: bermuda grass growing against all odds, retama self-seeding everywhere and our two casuarina thriving without any input.  Major earthworks cannot be risked without proper engineering and there is much we can do first to start rebuilding the soil and protecting it from the wind and sun.

Only a handful of local farmers attended the course, which was expected.  The people here know they could be doing things in another way but they want to see it work first, with their own eyes, in this place. One man, however, Si Mohamed, has offered up a hectare of his arable land for use as a demonstration site.  It’s a very unpromising patch of sand just 200m from the sea cliffs but in a wet year it is possible to grow wheat there.  We have fenced it off so that it is not grazed by sheep and goats during the summer and in the workshop we have built our own donkey-drawn seed drill.  With this we plan to plant crops without damaging the perennial bermuda grass that grows naturally there. Once again, there’s not a lot we can do until there is a windbreak, and we cannot grow a windbreak until we have a cistern for irrigation over the first summer. For that we need money and that’s where we are right now (Mar ’16)