A small Moroccan town stands up to COP22 'greenwashing'

A small Moroccan town stands up to COP22 'greenwashing'
5 min read
22 November, 2016
Despite an ongoing five year sit-in against water scarcity and pollution, allegedly caused by a nearby silver mine, inhabitants of Imider, Morocco are still struggling to get their message across.
Women speaking at eco-feminist meeting at Imider [Nadir Bouhmouch]
"We are 300km south of the COP22."

After more than five years of an uninterrupted sit-in against scarce water resources and pollution allegedly caused by a nearby silver mine, the inhabitants of Imider are still struggling to get their message across.

As the COP22 took place in Marrakech, Morocco, the Imider activists released a video and organised an eco-feminist gathering as well as an alternative environmental film festival with other groups from diverse countries who face similar difficulties, from Tunisian activists from Gabes to Navajo tribespeople.

In an effort to garner media attention for their protest movement, they took part last Sunday 13th November in the international march for climate in Marrakech, with other organisations critical of the COP22 like ATTAC Maroc.

ATTAC Maroc withdrew last Summer from the Moroccan Coalition for Climate Justice, formed by local organisations and unions, because of what it said was its lack of independence from authorities, and called instead for attention to the impact of climate change on the daily lives of citizens.

Critics of the conference also expressed their concern over the repression and the silence surrounding social and environmental movements like the one in Imider.

Moha Tawja, a 27-year-old business management student, doesn’t expect any real change resulting from this conference. “COP22 represents a global space for predators of nature to legitimise their crimes. This is greenwashing whereas social movements, including ours in Imider, remain under repression,” he claims.

Tawja has taken part in the movement On the Road to 96, a movement born in August 2011 and named in reference to a similar protest violently repressed by authorities in 1996.

On August 23rd, 2011, the inhabitants of Imider, which groups seven villages, launched what is probably the longest protest movement in Morocco’s recent history. As they witnessed a considerable reduction of the water flow, they decided to close a valve to the silver mine. Since then, they have built huts and have been taking turns on the top of the Mount Alebban, to make sure it remains closed.

They live close to the biggest silver mine in Africa, exploited by SMI (Société métallurgique d’Imider). The company is a subsidiary of the mining group Managem, part of the SNI (Société Nationale d'Investissement, a holding firm controlled by the royal family) and is the leading metal mining group in the country, as well as a sponsor of the COP22.

Women at the eco-feminist gathering said that because of the change in their environment and the pollution, they witnessed a deterioration of women’s health

In an interview, a Managem representative said the sit in is a "great misunderstanding" in the hands of a minority of activists, whose demands are not "legitimate". The representative denied the villagers' allegations concerning the health dangers resulting from the mine, arguing the mine has been certified by an independent Swiss cabinet which reviews the mine's status each year.

Women's health affected

Imider activists are accusing SMI of taking their water resources but also of polluting the water table, the air and their soil. Amina Terrass, an activist who co-organised the eco-feminist workshop, says women are both physically and psychologically deeply suffering from the mine exploitation.

“During the workshop, they spoke about things they don’t usually speak about,” she says. Women at the eco-feminist gathering said that because of the change in their environment and the pollution, they witnessed a deterioration of women’s health, with several experiencing irregular menstrual bleedings, a rise in illnesses among recently born babies or even birth-related deaths. They also drew attention to the stress that they are going through with the sit-in resulting from the police presence around the camp.

No independent medical study has confirmed the women’s claims and other allegations made concerning new respiratory and skin diseases. Since the beginning of the protests, SMI has claimed that it was respectful of the environment and denied allegations that the mine was producing toxic waste.

While it has considerable natural resources, the region has been ignored by authorities and suffers from scarce infrastructure, lacking education facilities and medical care, the activists say.

Activists admit SMI has financed youth community projects (sports, culture), and irrigation systems in the region. They also have recruited a few dozen people from Imider, but in much fewer numbers than the movement demanded when it first initiated the protests and requested they get 75 percent of the jobs at the mine. Tawja dismissed SMI initiatives as “far from their real problems”.

The frequency of the protests has slowed down over the last two years and the inhabitants are less numerous on the protest camp on the top of Alebban. But they vow to remain there, even in smaller numbers. Every other week, they continue to march from their villages to Alebban and also regularly meet to discuss the problems concerning their community.

“People cannot attend for such a long period of time,” explains Tawja. In the beginning the majority took part in the sit-in but the arrests, the police blockade and the status quo have exhausted the energy of the participants. According to Tawja, authorities are preventing access to vehicles that are bringing people who live far from the sit-in.

Several activists have been jailed since 2011 – about 30, according to Tawja –, mostly on theft charges inhabitants say are trumped up, and four of them are still incarcerated, he says. Omar Ouchtoubane, who became an icon of the movement, spent four years in jail for allegedly stealing 18g of silver.

In spite of the repression and the failure of the negotiations with authorities as well as with the company, they refuse to stop their movement. Omar Moujane spent two years and a half in jail but it has not deterred him from being an outspoken voice for the movement. “I have values and basic principles and I defend them,” he says.

“In fact, we have obtained a great deal,” says Tawja. “We have put an end to the plundering of the sands in the Targuitt oued (river) since 2011. Before, there were 30 trucks leaving per day. We have won about three million tons of water after the closure of the valve. The water of the Khettaras [a centuries-old traditional underground network] has risen again and the agriculture has found a new life. We have won a new spirit of struggle and collective solidarity.”