In January 2017, the VLIR project Renforcement de l’offre scientifique de l’Université Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah en matière de Transition énergétique et promotion des Energies renouvelables partagées dans la région Fès-Meknès, started. This project is led by professor Bernard Vanheusden of the Law Faculty. The Environmental Research group participates in this project as a research partner (2 PhD students, Hajar and Nabil) and as a teaching partner for Environmental and Natural Resource Economics in the newly developed master of Sutainable development within the Faculty of Legal, Economic and Social Sciences.
It is for the latter that I went to Morocco in June 2018. Here is the summary of my experience with my students:
“My” 25 Moroccan students were selected out of 1400 (!) candidates, for which they had to go through 2 selection rounds. And you could tell. They were extremely motivated (2h travel one way per day to come to university), intelligent, eager to learn, very interactive and most of all: genuinely interested in safeguarding the environment of their beloved country.
We spent 3 days learning and discussing about environmental policies, and how these could improve the environment of Morocco. We talked about air pollution by cars, soil degradation caused by agriculture, and municipal waste burning. There are many many many old cars driving in Morocco. Cars are still considered a symbol of status in Morocco, so simply making cities car-free is not an option, yet. The students came up with alternative solutions such as putting filters to reduce the exhaust gases, and greening the cities in order to make sure that the remaining exhaust gases have less impact on human health. The students realized that changing agricultural practices in Morocco is difficult. You should know, 80% of people in the Meknes region are farmers. Most of them live in (extreme) poverty. Standards on fertilizer use, and restricting the use of sewage water for irrigation will only be accepted when the government can guarantee that the same level of productivity can be achieved. We also had a great laugh when I suggested to start recycling municipal waste at home instead of at landfills where it is now done (10% of laborers being kids btw), using different plastic bags for the different waste types, for which one would have to pay of course. Little did I know that since a few years there is a complete ban on all plastic bags in Morocco, with financial penalties and even imprisonment as a means to enforce this rule. The students
The overall conclusion of the students though was that the main reason for the lack of environmental progress in Morocco is that people in Morocco are simply not informed about the detrimental effects of particulate matter in cities, of metals being taken up by their food crops, of chemicals being emitted when burning municipal waste, etc. And for several reasons: there is no data available, people are illiterate, and the old generation does not seem to be interested in change.
Aside from witnessing the environmental degradation, I also experienced Morocco as a beautiful and welcoming country, where guests are spoiled with delicious tajines, with kind care, and with the sweetest mint tea. And with the group of young enthusiasts I had in the past week, I am pretty sure the environmental future of Morocco could look bright as well.