Misery of Morocco's small-scale farmers

Fluctuations in climate and a lack of state support has made life difficult for many of Morocco's small-scale farmers.

al-monitor A woman and her son work in a field near the Todra oasis, near Tinerhir, March 11, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Rafael Marchante.

Topics covered

women, trade, morocco, land ownership, climate, business, agriculture

Apr 21, 2014

I came up with the idea of writing about Moroccan farmers while I was looking at Vincent van Gogh's "Farmers Planting Potatoes." The misery of the scene is apparent in the choice of colors and blending of forms. It seems that the misery of small-scale farmers has not diminished with time. In Morocco, 71% of farming is carried out by small-scale farmers on less than five hectares [12.4 acres] of land. Furthermore, an additional 25% of farming land is cultivated by farmers owning plots less than 10 hectares in size. Thus, 96% of farming in Morocco is carried out on small farms. And these farmers suffer from many problems. 

In October of each year, it costs farmers 600 Moroccan dirhams [$74] to till a single hectare three times. The cost of planting 180 kilograms [397 pounds] of seeds costs 600 dirhams, and farmers must pay another 700 dirhams for 41 kilograms [90 pounds] of fertilizer. In February, they must add another 41 kilograms of salted fertilizer, at a cost of 350 dirhams. In March, they pay another 150 dirham for pesticides. When the stalks appear, they must spray another chemical costing 400 dirhams to protect the stalks so that they do not die out. Harvesting also costs 350 dirham per hectare. Thus, in total, the farmer is paying $390 [per hectare]. 

In a good harvest season, the farmer will harvest 820 kilograms, while in an average season he will only get 410 kilograms (each kilogram is worth about 73 cents). Thus, farmers nearly go bankrupt carrying out their work. The majority of farmers are planting the same crop, thus when the crop is ready the price collapses. Small-scale farmers do not receive any funding to help them advance, and they are aware that the crisis of capitalism is like diabetes, it cannot be treated fully but one must deal with it … thus, they are eager to plow their lands every year. 

Climate fluctuations

Production is linked to climate fluctuations. In rainy years the fields thrive, and because the crops are plentiful it costs more to harvest and treat them. And when the harvest is plentiful, the price decreases. Thus, the farmer is subject to the mercy of supply and demand. As for years when there is a dry spell or it rains irregularly, the farmer is not even able to recoup the amount he spent on cultivating the land. Usually, in the case of the latter, he lets his cattle graze on the remaining crop. It is worth noting that in recent years rain patterns have become more chaotic. One week there will be a torrential downpour of 200 millimeters [8 inches] that sweeps away the fertile earth, while during the next two or three months the sky will not bestow a single drop of rain. These fluctuations in weather affect the crops. 

Farmers explain the volatility of nature as resulting from God's wrath. They view the droughts and the floods as a form of divine punishment in light of the increase in evil and "deviation." Note that I say increase, not emergence, of evil. Evil existed in the past, but it was rare and veiled. Now, however, it is prevalent and in the open. Thus, for example, the imam of a village mosque will implore people to refrain from embracing the "haram" [religiously forbidden], so that the sky will bestow water. 

Most of these small farms are used to produce food for the owners; thus, it's rare that farmers have surplus to bring to the market. To compensate for the lack of crops, farmers rely on livestock. Grass feed for the livestock is often brought from the neighboring large farms, or they graze on the side of the road for free. 

Small-scale farmers work on their lands throughout the day, without having specific working hours. This is not the only problem, but also the yield is meager compared to the number of hours they work. And due to the weakness of purchasing power, small-scale farmers feel that they are working for free. Most of the time, men refuse to do this, and to compensate for losses and reduce costs they rely on employing family members, particularly women. Females are the most likely to submit to being controlled, due to the fragility of their situation. Women frequently fear divorce, so they end up working while the husbands sit under a tree smoking and drinking tea. It is the woman who also milks the cows and churns the milk to sell butter. A farmer who marries a skilled woman will live an easy life. Yet despite this, he will still tell her in an ugly tone, "I've made sacrifices to marry you." When women refuse to comply and flee to the cities, they are accused of "taking the wrong path," and this brings shame for the men in the family. 

Small-scale farmers do not benefit from the support of the state program called the Green Morocco Plan, which requires that a farmer has registered his land. The Green Morocco Plan is for large-scale farmers, and the state is aware of this, so they offer women sheep even if they do not own land. If you were to see my grandmother today you would feel anger, because throughout her life no one helped her. She spent 50 years of her life — from 1946 to 1996 — working as a farmer, and she witnessed terrible oppression. During summer breaks from school, I would help graze my grandmother's cows while reading a geography book. When I was in middle school and high school I would buy the textbooks for the next year as soon as I had passed my courses at the end of the school year. I spent my summer vacations in the countryside, studying my geography book in the shade of a tree while my grandmother and grandfather's cows grazed in the scorching sun. I would memorize various countries of the world, from those that border Tunisia all the way to South Africa, and from France to Russia and from Italy to Sweden. Now, as I ponder my life's path — given that I was the son of a farmer who became an employee with a bank card, lived in the city and traveled by plane — I feel that I have made a huge social leap. I have spared myself of what almost consumed my life: milking cows. 

A farmer's life

The milk overflows from the cow's udder and spills onto the milker's clothing. It can turn sour within hours, especially in the summer. I hated the farmer's life in summer and winter; the pay was little and the work was plentiful. However, I admit that I have maintained a farmer's thinking, especially when it comes to food and work. I hate eating preserved food, and I wake early every day and work long hours, regardless of how much I have written. The only mistake I have made in this regard is that I sold the land I inherited to buy equipment for filming. 

Inheritance plays a big role in the manufacture of small farms. Because of inheritance, ownership of land is split into small tracts. Each division of land results in the establishment of new buildings for housing. This means that farmland decreases as the number of family members increases. Thus, having a large number of children, which was originally a goal aimed at "social prestige," had become a mechanism for systematic impoverishment. And as farms are divided, family relations deteriorate due to inheritance cases in courts, and because women who marry men from other regions sell their share of land. As for the men, they would prefer death to selling land. 

Land and politics

Morocco extends 3,000 kilometers [1,864 miles] in length, from Gibraltar to the Tropic of Cancer in the Sahara Desert. The further you head south, the more the problems of farmers increase, as rain decreases and the land becomes less fertile. Natural features — such as the fertility of the land, the availability of water and proximity to roads and cities — dictates the distribution of houses in the villages. Thus, there is a significant demographic shift in the countryside. The mountainous regions have been emptied of their residents, while there has been an increase in population density in the regions of the coastal plains, which welcome farming investments. The latter regions include Souss in southern Agadir, where there are hundreds of thousands of fertile hectares of land and irrigated crops, thanks to several dams such as the Abdulmoumen Dam and the Youssef Ibn Yasin Dam. This is an area where production can be increased, and there are local (wealthy) and foreign investors. 

Finally, when it comes to the relationship between land and politics, it is worth noting that those who do not own land have no influence. The owners of large farms are the "masters" of the owners of small farms. It is easy to subject a poor farmer [to one's will] when they are temporary or full-time workers. Small-scale farmers will vote for the large-scale farmers, who maintain a patriarchal discourse. However, the entrance of foreign investors has had a significant influence on the prevailing relations and production. Foreign investors bring in developed technology and rely on mechanization and establishing new production relationships. They heavily employ female workers, and — unlike the locals — often obey the labor laws. Work is carried out under plastic covers when it is very hot, and when production increases they re-evaluate the product. Factories have been established around Agadir for canning vegetables and juice and preserving dairy products. 

Thus, the mode of production is changing. The foreign investors' work method is undermining that of the prominent locals. Contractual relationships are replacing patriarchal ones. This is also leading to a development in production and thus an increase in export. Usually, revenue is used to buy new plots of land, which are combined to create large farms that enter into the capitalist economic cycle. Over time, the number of small-scale farmers has shrunk and they go to the cities. And the cities do not welcome farmers with open arms. 

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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