"This legendary and emblematic site that gives the city of Marrakech its identity and specific mark is nowadays exposed to incessant degradation, due to the combined factors of drought, human activity pressures, the lack of maintenance and the aging of palm trees, and the absence of replanting," ~ HRH King Mohammed VI
Those words by King Mohammed VI were spoken back in March 2007. At the time the King was drawing attention to the dangers faced by the famous Marrakech palm groves. Their degradation, due to human and natural factors, was an obvious problem, and the King was calling for action to preserve them as they are part of the Moroccan cultural heritage.
In the speech, read by his sister, Princess Lala Hasna, chairwoman of Mohammed VI Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the Monarch called for an-all out mobilization to protect the palm groves.
The vast groves provide employment for large numbers of people and have, for centuries, been a source of dates, food and thanks to the oasis, water. Now, sadly, that is all changing.
Despite the 2007 plea from the King, the vast palm groves of Marrakesh are still in danger from urbanisation, massive tourist projects and even golf courses.
The latest figures suggest that the oasis, which stretched over 16,000 hectares, has decreased by30% of its surface area in the past 20 years, according to experts.
A recent article from Agence France-Presse quoted experts pointing to the tourist attractions constructed at the heart of the palm groves at the expense of the environment. These sites swallow up lots of water, upset the ecological balance and lead to the degradation of the palms.
"The tourist projects, for all the good sides of what they generate, take enormous resources. This has a negative effect on the ecological balance," Nour-Eddine Laftouhi, a hydro-geologist at the Marrakesh faculty of sciences, told AFP.
"Personally, I consider the irrational spread of golf courses to be a crime," ~ Nour-Eddine Laftouhi
Today Marrakesh has 10 golf courses, two of them in the palm groves, and construction companies are waiting for authorisation to create about 10 more, which would use a great deal of water. While nobody questions the existence of the old Royal Marrakech course, considered a gem, the newer ones are causing much concern with their need for irrigation and water features.
The tourist appeal of Marrakesh has led Club Med to push into the palm grove with its golf course and a centre hosting three swimming pools.
|The Royal Marrakech Golf Club was opened in 1923|
|La Palmeraie - with many water features|
The degradation of the palm groves arouses feelings of bitterness and nostalgia among original inhabitants of the palm groves, who are becoming fewer and fewer.
"The spring welled up right here, where I am standing. Before, there was a stream," said Boujemaa, a resident of a grove. "There used to be a spring over there and another beside it. Everywhere, this place was full of springs. But once they began to build the villas and hotels, the water disappeared. It's over."
THE 2007 PALM GROVES PROTECTION PROJECT
As The View from Fez reported in 2007, the local authorities in Marrakesh, prompted by the King, launched a large-scale program, with the goal of planting 430,000 palm trees within a six year period. The King called on all the agencies concerned to work together in order to protect the city's palm groves.
According to the monarch, protection of the palm grove environment was only possible through the joint efforts of replanting, improving techniques for management and maintenance, and awareness raising of the environment and sustainable development, in addition to the creation of an eco-museum to give the saving action an international scope as part of an international exchange network.
The King also stressed the importance of continuous monitoring and evaluation of the project in order to better assess results and shift priorities if necessary, highlighting the critical role played by the civil society and citizens, along with governmental organizations, in carrying out work necessary to safeguard and increase the number of palm trees.
With a sum estimated at 96 million Moroccan Dirhams (USD 11,5 million), the Palm Groves Protection Project, launched by the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Environment, extended over six years and provided for the building of a natural ecosystem covering an area of 12,000 hectares, planting 43,0000 additional palm trees and building a waste water purification station. The project also aimed at strengthening laws relating to the protection of the palm groves.
"Thanks to the water treatment plant, opened in 2010, and to the wells that are already operational, large quantities of water will become available," said Abdelilah Mdidech, the director of the programme to safeguard the oasis, steered by the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Environment.
Hundreds of workers plant new trees each day and take care of those that are getting old.
"We have already planted 415,292 young palms (...) and these young plants are doing well, with green leaves and fine crowns," Mdidech said, and added that he wanted to be "realistic but optimistic".
"I know that we lack the means, particularly in water supply, to recreate a verdant oasis. That's realistic. But thanks to this project, it can be saved. I am an optimist."