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Young Moroccan activists rally for climate action

Morocco is already taking big steps to combat climate change, but young people want their country to do more, starting with addressing the local problems that limit public engagement.

They came in school uniforms, bee costumes and T-shirts with fiery slogans, buzzing with energy. As they arranged into marching order, they chanted, “Who are we? Students! What do we want? Strong action!” 

Last Friday, Sept. 27, this patchwork platoon of Moroccan students and volunteers gathered next to a Casablanca movie theater under the glaring afternoon sun. The 600 or so young activists were there for one of the kingdom’s first-ever youth climate marches, joining their peers leading climate strikes worldwide.

“Like Greta, we want our voice to be heard by the decision-makers and leaders of communities,” said Ismail Chaaouf, a coordinator for Greenpeace Morocco, referring to the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. “It’s time. Tomorrow is too late.”

Morocco, like Thunberg’s motherland, is already taking big steps to combat climate change, earning second place on a 2019 ranking of countries’ efforts. (Sweden came in first.) The honor was largely thanks to Morocco’s ambitious sustainable development plans and big-ticket renewable energy projects like Noor, the largest concentrated solar energy plant in the world.

Still, young people want their country to do more. In contrast to Sweden, climate activism in Morocco is shaped by low public engagement, political limitations and a developing economy. 

When Morocco hosted the 2016 UN Climate Change Conference, known as the COP22, environmental organizations bloomed, plastic bags were banned and electric buses and solar bicycles came to Marrakech. “But we need to keep working, not just during the COP22,” Chaaouf urged. 

The Association for Earth and Life Science Teachers (AESVT), Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations that coordinated the marches last week demanded action from both the state and its citizens. 

For all Morocco’s top-down climate plans, the public seems to be largely uninvolved. According to Afrobarometer, only 29% of Moroccans are fully aware of the dangers and causes of climate change and only a fraction believe that individuals can make an impact. 

Mohamed Amnaiy, a young communications officer with AESVT, was born and raised in France to Moroccan parents. His father keeps an olive farm in a small desert town in Morocco, powering the house and irrigation system with only solar energy. “It’s something I grew up around, this kind of thinking,” he said. 

But not many young Moroccans share that experience. Jostled between chanting students and a drum corps was a group of four spirited 17-year-olds who were striking from school to attend the march. 

“We heard Greta Thunberg was organizing a climate strike, so we searched on Facebook to see if we could find one in Casablanca,” Yassine Naoui said. His friends carried signs and he lugged a giant, colorful cardboard ice cream cone that said in French, "When it’s melted, we’re screwed."

“My parents don’t talk about environmental issues,” Naoui said, “So I had to research about it myself.” The older generation wasn’t raised to think about the environment, he said. 

The local media only reports on the simmering climate crisis when it boils over into natural disasters, protests or big events, said Chaaouf. “People need it in their daily lives. At 6 p.m., all Morocco is looking at the television, so send them those messages then.” Likewise, imams should work the issue into Friday sermons, he suggested. 

The climate crisis tends to take a backseat to more immediate issues like unemployment, which affects some 22% of Moroccan youth. “People are poor,” said Mohammed, a community leader attending the march. “They’re trying to make ends meet, so the last thing they want to think about is the environment.” For him, climate action also means providing education and jobs. “Feed them first, then talk about the problem,” he said. 

Classrooms can also bring change: 85% of university-educated Moroccans surveyed by Afrobarometer were aware of climate change, compared with 17% of those with no formal education. 

While some schools wouldn’t let organizers even hang posters in their hallways, others — all of them public — brought their students to the march. 

Children are poised to be the catalysts for climate action in Morocco. “We focus on the youth,” Chaaouf said. “They are more willing to fight for something because they are fighting for their future. When you change a child, he can change his family.”

When Radia Debbagh, another striker, learned “how the beef industry destroys our planet with methane,” she went pescetarian and convinced her mom to do the same. 

Still, distrust of the state discourages participation. Malak El Mastour, another of the strikers, has friends who refused to march, saying, “The Moroccan government never does anything anyway, so it’s pointless. It will be one day; we’ll strike and everybody will forget about it.” But El Mastour herself isn’t fazed: “We can’t just complain all day and then, when we have the opportunity to do something together, say it’s pointless anyway,” she huffed. 

Fear also keeps people from getting involved due to the state’s history of repressing protests. Things have gotten better, Chaaouf said, but people still think that “when you are making a march, you are against the government and when you are against the government, the police will take you.”

Broad-strokes climate activism nevertheless seems to occupy a safe zone. “It’s not national or political,” Amnaiy said. “They know it’s something the whole world is looking at.” If anything, it polishes the state’s proud image as a climate leader. Morocco’s delegation to the recent UN conference featured activist Hajar Khamlichi of the Mediterranean Youth Climate Network.

Yet, Chaaouf said, the radical actions Greenpeace takes elsewhere aren’t possible here. “We can’t do things without permission.” He demanded that the state protect environmental activists, even those fighting state-owned polluters

At the end of their route, the marchers filed into a sunny oceanside park squeezed between a chic cafe and an aging concrete apartment building. Bubbling with excitement and fury, young activists took the microphone, delivering speeches in Arabic, English, French and Tamazight. 

One girl, her voice ragged from chanting, echoed the shouts heard worldwide, demanding that the government act: “You say to hope but you leave no hope for us! We’re all going to die if you don’t take urgent measures soon!” 

Abdelghani Boucham, who directs the Energy Ministry's climate change department, demurred, insisting that Morocco is already following the measures required by the Paris Agreement in proportion to its economic power, earmarking 15% of its investment budget to adapt to climate change. 

“But we want our efforts be compensated,” he added, explaining that the agreement requires wealthy, high-emitting countries to fund efforts in the Global South, but some have yet to contribute their share. Morocco’s emissions plan depends on $24 billion from those countries.

Though they have a global message, the activists’ demands were hyperlocal. “Transportation is the biggest issue for us here in Casablanca,” Amnaiy said, lamenting that he can’t bike to work. The four-million-person city’s streets brim over with a chaotic clatter of cars, a haze of exhaust and no bicycle lanes. The tram network remains marginal. 

Debbagh suggested getting new electric public buses — the current exhaust-spewing ones look like they’ve weathered several wars, hanging together with tape and prayers. Naoui added that Morocco could copy a Turkish policy that lowers bus fares in exchange for used plastic bottles. They also want the state to institute compulsory recycling to ease up on the oceans and Casablanca’s overflowing landfills

But any top-down plans would also need a “huge investment in education,” Debbagh said.

Full of ideas, outrage and cautious hope, the young Moroccans behind their country’s climate movement show no signs of slowing. “Maybe it will be better the next time you see us,” Naoui said as he and his friends turned back into the bustling march. “Maybe.”

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