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Life on the Edge
Women and climate change in Morocco

Written by Will

Naima Faouzi is a very patient woman. She is standing in the midday heat of Rabat whilst we try and attach a microphone to her collar. She is a very busy woman and we are lucky to have caught her with a spare moment. Having my sweaty hand fiddling with her neatly ironed shirt is perhaps an indignation too far.

The vulnerability of women to climate change is a topic that receives less attention than it perhaps should. Gender roles are often subsumed within a larger category of ‘community vulnerability’, and the issue of specific sex based ‘adaptive capacities’ is soemtimes overlooked. In northern Morocco, gender has huge influence in determining people’s activities, their role in society and ultimately their ability to adapt to the challenges presented by climate change. Naima’s work has been conducted in small rural communities near the Mediterranean coast, where she has focussed on exploring how climate change is exacerbating the problems these women already face in a conservative (male dominated) community. Due to time constraints we have been unable to visit the area, but were keen to hear her thoughts on how women in these areas are experiencing and reacting to a changing world.

A life of service

A woman’s day begins before dawn. Her realm is the household and her responsibilities are to provide for all who dwell within. The children must be woken and readied for school; her husband must be fed and his lunch prepared. Fuel and water must be gathered and the house must be tidied. These tasks Naima calls ‘the activities of domestic reproduction’ – ensuring that the family survives and thrives. Each is a daily chore and each puts women at the whimsical mercy of the natural environment. If there is no firewood, then she must travel further in search of it. If the well is dry, then another must be found. If the road is flooded then she must find another way to get the children to school. And a woman’s work does not stop there. They are also engaged in what Naima neatly terms ‘the activities of domestic production’. Women often have sole responsibility for raising animals and taking care of the young flock, as well as producing honey and other tradeable goods. These supplement her husband’s income, allowing the children to go to school and giving men the means men to buy new fishing nets and tools.

But women’s presence in the markets and soukhs, where these wears are traded is noticeably lacking. The Dirham notes that are exchanged in return for well bred sheep and goats are kept firmly in the pockets of men, and are often spent according to men’s wishes without counsel from their wives. Furthermore women are excluded from the decision making processes that determines the long term future of the family. Their lives are focussed on the short term – the daily challenges of life and the subjugation of the self for the benefit of the family unit. From dawn until dusk, their days are spent gathering, preparing, supporting and providing, in a constant struggle to obtain enough to get by to the next day.

Helpless in the face of change?

Naima’s research explores how women’s daily reliance on natural resources increases their vulnerability to climate change. The main problem that women face relates to water. One the one hand they have increasingly long periods without water, followed by short periods of intensive rainfall that result in intensive flooding. The intensity of these floods has increased in recent years, as has the distance women have to travel to get their water in the dry season.

“During dry periods, the problem is one of a greater uncertainty over the sources and quality of water. Many of the normal sources become unavailable, whilst those that remain often have an increased level of salt. For women responsible for maintaining the household, this means spending increasing amounts of time searching for water, whilst also having to deal with greater sickness within the household,”

At the other end of the spectrum, flooding isolates households, keeps children at home and pollutes established sources of water. Women are unable to take sick children to hospital and a greater strain is placed on them trying to fulfil their domestic duties. Whilst these issues make life difficult for women, Naima argues that the main problem – and her main concern looking to the future - lies in women’s inability to do anything about them. Despite being pivotal to the organisation and success of the domestic realm, women are marginalised and excluded from the public realm. Without access to the means by which they can improve their situation, women are only able to react to the situations rather than pro-actively act against them.

“When I talk to them about climate change, they are aware of the problem even if they can’t understand it in particularly scientific language. However, their solutions to the challenges presented are only ever focussed on remedying the immediate problem – where can I go to get more wood, how can I find water for tomorrow – rather than trying searching for a longer term solution” …….“What women lack is the ability to choose. Most of their knowledge has come from their mothers and neighbours, which in turn has been passed down from previous generations. None of this encourages them to enquire or to think of new ways of tackling old problems.”

This process of marginalisation begins at an early age. Access to education is heavily skewed towards boys with many girls leaving at the age of twelve. Instead of school, they stay at home with their mothers to learn the skills of the household in preparation for marriage. ‘The consequence of this is a very limited world view amongst women”.

It is a dangerous combination. Women are the most vulnerable to climate change but lack the understanding to confront it on their own terms and the agency within the public sphere to enact change wider structural change. They are the helpless barometers of climate change - found on the frontline but stripped of any tools to help fight against it.

A long term goal

So is there a community of women desperate to break free from the tyranny of their husbands? Naima’s response is unusually curt. The problem is not just one of agency or lack of self-determination it is a deeper rooted issue which demands a fundamental shift in social organisation. The key lies in integrating women into local governance structures, giving them the space to discuss and take action on their problems. Women themselves need to change their behaviours, being more pro-active in addressing their daily difficulties and engaging in dialogue with each other to share problems and discuss possible solutions. Perhaps underlying all of this is a general discussion that recognises the value of women in both the public and private realms and prioritizes their needs accordingly. There is no quick fix to the problem and Naima was keen to point out a solution cannot be fostered on them from the outside. It has to be found from within, with carefully managed external support and the co-operation of men within the community.

Naima had been explicit in saying that these structural problems were unique to the area she had been studying. But along with Professor Abdullatif Khattabi at the Ecole Forestiere, they recommended that we visit some of the women’s co-operatives who are producing Argan Oil to get a picture of a different case study of women’s adaptation to climate change.

Argan oil – the taste of success?
It was not difficult to find the women’s co-operative around Agadir. Their brightly coloured signs crowd the roadside and there is a regular queue of tour buses outside each workshop. Argan oil is a booming business, not just for visiting tourists, but also for the international market that ships Argan based cosmetics, cooking products and raw oil all around the world. It is high end stuff, with a 500ml bottle of Argan cooking oil selling locally for $15 and almost double that when it hits the shops in New York. However what makes Argan oil particularly interesting for us is that it was started (and continues to be run) by local women. They are the main stakeholders and (as far as we could establish) the main beneficiaries of the project.

Oil has been produced for hundreds of years by Berber women, lovingly extracting small quantities to spice up the family meal. Kernels could either be found in the dung of goats (who would eat the nuts from the trees) or picked directly from plantations that surrounded the villages. All this changed about 30 years ago when (so the rumours go) an enterprising group of French scientists noticed that Berber women had extremely soft hands and good skin. Samples of oil were sent to laboratories in france and it was quickly discovered that the oil was extremely rich in Vitamin E and essential fatty acids whilst also having ameliorative affects on skin conditions such as psoriasis. This dovetailed neatly with a growing demand amongst Western consumers for provenance and exoticism in their food. Decades later and there are over 50 co-operatives supporting the local and international markets.

Welcome tourists!

We joined the queue of people outside the Assaise Ouzeka Co-operative. They had all come from Agadir to witness the process before gobbling up bottles, pastes and putties of Argan produce. Production of the oil is an excruciating process that involves extracting shells, smashing nut casings, de-pithing shells, roasting kermels, grinding nuts, sieving sediment, before you finally have something resembling a finished product. 40kg of nuts produces just one litre of oil. Even then it has go off to be refined and purified before it can get on the shelves.

The women themselves sit on a raised platform like performers, chatting and working throughout the day. They say that they are happy, that the co-operative has given them financial independence and the chance to take a share in the profits of the business. Some of them even earn more than their husbands who are struggling to farm in areas with limited access to irrigation.

So far, so good. Profits from the co-operative are ploughed back into the business and the women take home a regular wage. The EU is currently co-financing a Œ12 million plantation scheme to increase the size of the Argan forests and the first co-operative supermarket has opened in Mohamadia. But how will this industry react to the changes it is inducing within the Berber communities?

The reason that these women do this job is because they come from a generation where formal education was the preserve of boys not girls. They are illiterate and if they weren’t working in the co-operative they would be producing oil at home. The first thing that they have done with the profits from the co-op is invest it in their chidren’s education. ‘I want my sons and daughters to be lawyers, engineers and doctors’ said one member of the co-operative who had been widowed two years previously ‘I don’t want them to come and work here’. For these women the value lies not in the process,but in the product (i.e money). This is not considered a skilful job – there is no artisanal heritage that people seek to preserve – it is a sweaty, exhaustive process that causes muscles to scream and backs to ache.

Our guides were of a similar frame of mind. They were young, bright, multi-lingual and fiercely ambitious. Fatima (see photo below), who showed us around the Afous Argan co-operative was training to be a nurse and spoke English and French. She had only got the job because another girl had qualified as a lawyer and had to leave the post. None of these girls would ever consider working on the shop floor, but they could wax lyrical in several tongues about the history and socio-economic benefits of the co-operative.

Is the future bright?

The question then is how can the industry ensure a continuous supply of labour. The international market relishes the basic mode of production (the Amal Co-operative won the Slow Food Movement Award in 2001 and websites are full of the jargon of tradition and history), but this mode of production depends upon a ready supply of unskilled illiterate women. If the co-operatives continue to benefit women as they have done, will this supply of women dry up as the next generation head off to jobs in the law courts, factories and hospitals of Morocco? Will the success of Argan oil be its own undoing?

Nobody that we spoke to had a definitive answer. Fatima said that there will always be a supply of women who fall through the net and need the opportunity to work. Some rural areas are still extremely conservative and it would be several generations before women and men are on a par. Another option is that the job itself becomes more highly valued – either through monetary returns or because it is accompanied by additional training in other areas. The third (and least attractive) option is that the process of production changes and co-operatives start using mechanical processes. Some co-operatives are already heading down that route as it increases the speed of production, however the jury is still out as to whether it affects the quality of the oil. The danger of this is that women become more marginalised in the production process – men currently pick the nuts and would likely have greater control over the industrial process – whilst those women who continue to produce (manually) for the small local soukhs would be priced out of market.

The Argan oil industry has undoubedtly been a success in increasing the social and economic mobility of marginalised women in Berber communities. It has been extremely slickly marketed, with demand continuing to grow at the same rate as the range of products increases (you can now even buy Argan oil honey and perfume). In contrast to the research carried out by Naima, it seems to represent a case study where female empowerment has happened without causing too many shock waves amongst the community. We can only hope that it can continue to adapt to embrace the social and economic improvements that it has created.

Better access to education and the success of co-operatives are leading to a growing economic emancipation of women in rural Morocco, however there is still some way to go in some areas. The concern is that those regions often most at risk from climate change (the desert interior and the coastal regions of the Mediterranean) are also the most conservative, and it is these women who are most at risk. There is no fix-all solution to these problems, and things must be tackled at a local level. I hope that I can add to this (long winded) introduction later in the year when we have had a chance to visit other projects around the Atlantic and hear more stories of women’s fight against climate change.

See more photos of Morocco here.

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The vulnerable: Women and climate change in Morocco

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